UNEP at Work                
Fishing for solutions

Stephen J. Hall

Director-General, The Worldfish Center

Fish has been the single most important source of the world’s animal protein for most of the past thirty years. But though per capita consumption has almost doubled worldwide over that period, it has remained low in much of Africa and parts of Asia.

Paradoxically, however, the people of these regions — where undernutrition is most prevalent — depend more on fish as their major animal source food than those in Europe, Japan, Australia and North America, even though they actually get less of it. Six sub-Saharan African countries, for example, rely on fish for more than half of their animal protein, but the region still suffers the world’s lowest per capita fish consumption.

The prevalence of fish in the diet of people with the lowest overall animal source food consumption and highest levels of undernutrition highlights the importance of sustaining and improving access to it for the world’s poor. Helping more of them get more of this preferred, nutritious food could profoundly improve health and nutrition in the short to medium term.

Achieving this means sustaining the world’s wild capture fisheries. This is because the countries that most depend on fish for food rely primarily on catches from the wild: although aquaculture continues to grow, there is no immediate prospect that it can replace these supplies. And since aquatic ecosystems are widely distributed throughout remote rural areas in many parts of the world, the fisheries they support often serve vital functions in supplying livelihoods and safety nets against famine that governments have so far been unable to provide. It is, of course, not enough for there to be sufficient food and services, they must also be available and accessible to the people who need them: wild fisheries often achieve this in developing countries without any help from us.

Yet, despite the importance of fisheries, we have, at best, had mixed success in making the most of our resources by managing them to ensure a sustained — and, where possible, enhanced supply. This is true for the inland fisheries, marine ones under national jurisdiction in Exclusive Economic Zones, on the high seas and for straddling migratory stocks. A recent study co-authored by 21 researchers and published in Science magazine examined in detail ecosystems that accounted for a quarter of world fisheries area and catch — and concluded that while “management actions have achieved measurable reductions in exploitation rates in some regions, a significant fraction of stocks will remain collapsed unless there are further reductions”. The Food and Agriculture Organisation assessments concur with this conclusion.

Much over-exploitation arises from the often free and open (or too cheap and insufficiently well-regulated) access to the resource. Some fisheries, such as those in the high seas, are genuine global commons: many others share similar characteristics, but reside under national jurisdiction. Sadly — although the vast body of literature that followed Garret Harding’s description of “The Tragedy of the Commons” indicates that we understand the problem — we are still not very good at doing anything about it.

So, given our failures to date, what do we need to do now and how should we do it?

Five priority objectives that apply both on the high seas and in many fisheries under national jurisdiction supply the aswer to the first question.These are:

  1. Recognising and addressing structural weaknesses in access regimes (i.e. the design of fishing rights);

  2. Minimising the ‘rent drains’ resulting from fuel, and other inappropriate, subsidies;

  3. Minimising the prevalence of illegal and pirate fishing;

  4. Ensuring inclusion of marginalized and poorer people in global value chains;

  5. Incorporating environmental externalities into the cost of fisheries;

The much deeper question, of course, is how to achieve these objectives. Here I offer no simple prescriptions and think we should be sceptical of those that do. Instead, I believe we need to think again about how best to have the conversations among all the relevant actors so as to arrive at durable, adaptable solutions for global, regional and national fisheries. And, given the general failure of current institutions to resolve these issues, we may need to think about new ones that might help.

One option worth discussing, for example, is establishing a Global Action Network (GAN) — a global governance arrangement that focuses on a specific public good through an inter-organizational network — for fisheries. Serving as impartial bridging agents among diverse organizations, and driving for systemic change, GANS are increasingly seen as effective vehicles for addressing gaps in global governance concerning ethics, communication, and implementation. Familiar examples include the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition and the Global Water Partnership.

Given such apparent promise, should we not think about assembling an inclusive non-hierarchical peer network of institutions to help address local to global fisheries issues — and learn lessons in the process? Such an approach would not remove the need to strengthen and clarify roles and performance expectations for such intergovernmental institutions as the UN Agencies and Regional Fish-eries Management Organisations: though needing reform, these have an important and continuing role in establishing normative standards. Nor should we forget the importance of strengthening global market mechanisms through such institutions as the World Trade Organisation, which appears to be making good progress on fisheries subsidies. But though our current institutions are necessary, they show no signs of being sufficient for the problems at hand. So — despite the considerable challenges to establishing an effective Global Action Network — it is surely worth considering exploring this option for helping meet the challenge of sustaining the world’s fisheries so that they continue to underpin supplies and help meet our food security needs.

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