For Ocean Protections to Work, Governments Need Clear Guidance

IUCN definition of 'industrial fishing' would help safeguard wildlife and habitat

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For Ocean Protections to Work, Governments Need Clear Guidance
Fishing net
By designating marine protected areas without clear definitions of terms such as ‘industrial fishing,’ governments risk compromising the effectiveness of those areas.
Corey Arnold

The need to protect the ocean has never been more urgent, and as a new decade dawns, governments around the world are recognizing this. Many are uniting around a resolution—first agreed to at the 2016 World Conservation Congress—to protect at least 30 percent of the ocean within marine protected areas (MPAs) or through other effective conservation measures (OECMs) by 2030.

The definitions of MPAs and OECMs, and what activities should be permitted within each, have evolved over the past several years, culminating, for now, in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) MPA guidelines and OECM guidance.

But one key definition—for the term “industrial fishing”—remains vague enough that some governments could allow large-scale fishing within protected areas, rendering them partially or fully ineffective. 

Although IUCN members agreed at the 2016 Word Conservation Congress that environmentally damaging activities, including industrial fishing, should not be permitted within MPAs and OECMs, it was not specified what industrial fishing meant.

Clarifying what is and what is not permitted inside a protected area is necessary to ensuring that it delivers its intended conservation benefits—to both the environment and local communities.

Over the past several years, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project has been working closely with local communities to designate protected areas, such as those around Easter Island and the Pitcairn Islands, that offer the high levels of protection needed to safeguard the ocean from human-caused harm.

The absence of a clear definition of industrial fishing in the context of protected areas has led to some countries to allow large international longline fleets and purse seine vessels to fish in MPAs, resulting in catch of thousands of tons of fish per year. As a result, many experts question whether certain MPAs deliver their stated conservation objectives and seek clarity on what types of fishing gears count as industrial fishing.

Tackling these issues can be complicated. MPAs and OECMs are not uniform, and the IUCN defines various categories of MPAs, ranging from those that do not permit any human activity to those that allow “long-term sustainable” fishing. However, the difference between permitted “long-term sustainable” fishing and unauthorized “industrial” fishing is subjective and will continue to pose problems for marine protection until a definition is standardized.

IUCN members can—and should—define industrial fishing at the next World Conservation Congress, in Marseilles, France, in June. To help achieve that, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, along with several other IUCN member organizations, submitted a motion to define the term. The motion states that large commercial trawlers, longliners and purse seine vessels should be classified as industrial and is based on definitions that are commonly used by governments and other international organizations. It will be considered by the full IUCN membership in June.

Only through properly defining what counts as industrial fishing can nations confidently determine which forms of fishing activity are compatible with protected areas. Through standard definitions, countries can more accurately report how much of their waters are truly protected whilst ensuring that their protected areas deliver meaningful conservation outcomes.

Johnny Briggs is a senior officer for the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.

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