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Oceans and Coast

Threats to Global Fisheries—And How We Can Protect Them

By Carmen Revenga

Every year millions of fishers ply their trade in the world’s oceans, bringing their catch to ports and markets around the world. For decades this wild catch seemed to be inexhaustible. Today we know that this is not the case. 

Many fish stocks have collapsed and others are on their way there, with serious consequences for people, economies and ecosystems that depend on bountiful oceans. That's why The Nature Conservancy is working with fishermen, governments, indigenous communities and people around the world to ensure that fish stocks are not depleted.

How We Reached the Limits of Fishing

Until recently, fishing was a small-scale enterprise, dominated by fishers operating in coastal and near-shore waters.

But shortly after WWII, expanding markets, new technologies and increased accuracy in finding fish all combined to boost harvests dramatically.

By the 1980s, the limits of the oceans’ bounty were already becoming clear — too many boats were traveling farther away to chase fewer and fewer fish. In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that more than 50 percent of the world's fish stocks were fully exploited, and 25 percent were overexploited or depleted. In the North Atlantic Ocean, most species of groundfish — including longtime regional favorites like Atlantic cod, haddock and flounder — fell into this last, besieged group.

The Solutions Are Within Our Grasp

Ensuring fish for future generations is a complex and difficult task, requiring a broad range of solutions. Yet the solutions are well-known in scientific and policy circles.

The most important component is to shift from traditional management that focuses on individual fish stocks to an ecosystem approach — management that calls for (a) limiting fishing’s impact on ecosystems as much as possible while (b) also contributing to the sustainable development of local communities.

There are many benefits to implementing an ecosystem approach, including that it widens the group of users who have a legitimate say in how fisheries should be managed. But creating management policies with an ecosystem approach will require using several combined strategies, many of which the Conservancy and its partners are implementing around the world. These strategies include:

  • Establishing networks of marine protected areas that serve as refuge for species and protect critical habitats — such as important fish spawning areas — so that fish stocks can recover.
     
  • Restoring important habitats — such as oyster reefs and clam beds — that provide not only shellfish harvests to people, but also improve water quality and form important habitats for fish and other marine creatures.
     
  • Partnering with fishers to improve our understanding of the interconnections between species and ecosystems — so that licensing, regulations, monitoring regimes, and fishing gear can be refined to minimize the damage to ecosystems.
     
  • Reducing the number of boats and fishing quotas for specific species in agreement with local communities and fishers.
     
  • Helping give local communities more say and control over their marine resources, providing the needed incentive to manage fish stocks for future generations.
     
  • Putting in place economic policies and instruments that give fishers incentives to reduce fleet sizes and damaging gear, and that reward responsible fishing practices.

Translating the concept of an ecosystem approach into concrete management policies is not easy. But the Conservancy's practical strategies and partnerships — combined with the growing acceptance of the ecosystem approach among policymakers and fishers over the last few years — can clearly contribute to more sustainable fishing worldwide.

Carmen Revenga is a senior scientist with the Conservancy's Global Marine Team.

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