Rebuilding Global Fisheries, Safeguarding Biodiversity Requires Urgent Action

Upcoming United Nations meeting is opportunity for governments to recommit to sustainable fisheries governance

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Rebuilding Global Fisheries, Safeguarding Biodiversity Requires Urgent Action
A large school of hundreds of silver-colored, small anchovies swim in light blue ocean water, surrounded by green rocks.
A school of anchovies, commonly caught forage fish, swim under the ocean surface near Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand.
Sirachai Arunrugstichai Getty Images

Last month, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its latest report on the state of the world’s fisheries and aquaculture, and it is a disappointing indictment of how governments are managing our shared ocean resources. Despite some success stories, including the recoveries of some previously overfished tuna species, the number of fish populations within biologically sustainable limits has decreased from 90% in 1974 to 62% in 2021, and overfishing remains the greatest threat to ocean health. This unfortunate decline is also likely an underestimate. The FAO uses a less precautionary definition of “biologically sustainable” than what is generally used in international management, and so it is probable that the percentage of overfished stocks is even larger than reported. The impacts of climate change further exacerbate these declines through changes in the abundance and distribution of important fish stocks, which continue to be threatened by illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

But at next week’s meeting of the FAO’s Committee on Fisheries (COFI) in Rome, member governments will have a chance to focus on international agreements for effective fisheries governance and recommit to improving the health of the entire ocean ecosystem.

As fisheries decline, governments must learn lessons from the past

The world’s demand for fish protein has never been higher, leading not only to the further decline of some stocks but to the increased reliance on others, such as largely unregulated squid fisheries, which have grown over the years.

Given the continued problem of overfishing, COFI members should look to their successes for guidance. For example, many of the main commercial tuna species are doing better than the global average, reversing years of overfishing and depletion—demonstrating that purposeful conservation and sustainable management efforts pay off over time. Additionally, efforts to strengthen legal and institutional frameworks to combat illegal fishing have helped, and cooperation in the monitoring, control and surveillance of vessels and their activity can reduce illicit trade.

Steps towards a sustainable future

COFI members must take several actions to improve the world’s fisheries: recommit to an ecosystem approach to fisheries, or ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM); better plan for the effects of climate change on fisheries; strengthen efforts to prevent IUU fishing; and enhance fisheries’ contributions to delivery of multilateral agreements. Specifically, members should agree to:

  • Integrate EBFM into fisheries management: Of the 10 species with highest catch volume in 2022, five are small, wild fish such as Peruvian anchoveta that are collectively known as “forage fish,” food for a wide range of ocean predators. These catches are largely used in the farming of species such as salmon in an aquaculture industry that is expanding globally and that now produces larger tonnage than wild fisheries. But forage fish are also vital to the health of seabirds, whales and seals, which can experience massive declines when their food sources drop dramatically, and to other commercially important species such as tunas and swordfish. EBFM requires decision makers to measure success based on the health of an ecosystem, not just that of one species. In the case of forage fish, that means leaving enough fish in the water for predators. A move to EBFM would not only significantly shift fisheries management for the better, it would help governments reach their targets for protecting biodiversity.
  • Ensure climate change is incorporated into management plans and biodiversity protection efforts: Placing more emphasis on the role of climate change in how fisheries and ocean biodiversity are managed is critical. This can be achieved in several ways, including through the continued development of harvest strategies, which are science-based interventions in fisheries management that move oversight from short-term decision-making towards long-term objectives, such as keeping fish populations healthy even as they shift due to warming temperatures. Not only do harvest strategies use science to determine the optimal catch levels based on managers’ goals, but these strategies can also incorporate EBFM and climate modeling to ensure that fisheries are robust to a range of environmental and ecological conditions. Although making progress, COFI members should also examine fisheries governance to assess its ability to deal with potentially major changes in the location, abundance and accessibility of currently fished stocks.
  • Fight illegal fishing through information-sharing, enhancing global cooperation and compliance: The implementation of international instruments, particularly through the sharing of information about fishing vessels and their activities, has been integral to efforts to prevent IUU fishing. For example, the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), the only legally binding treaty targeting IUU fishing, has helped minimize the risk of IUU-caught fishing reaching the market, and a recently launched robust Global Information Exchange System helps members to communicate about port activities and concerns of suspicious activity. More governments should continue to implement the agreement and use the related tools. And as more countries adhere to the PSMA, COFI members should follow up on the need for more sustainable funding from the FAO to meet the incremental need for resources and guarantee the long-term viability of the PSMA to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing.

    Similarly, COFI members should encourage the FAO to follow up on its study on the implementation and enforcement of the FAO Compliance Agreement, an important agreement that helps to regulate fisheries on the high seas, as highlighted as a priority at the previous COFI meeting in 2022 and more recently in January at the first meeting of the Sub-Committee on Fisheries Management. Members should also fully use the FAO’s Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Refrigerated Transport Vessels and Supply Vessels to upload information about fishing vessels, including details on who ultimately profits and controls those vessels, in order to ensure that vessel flag States—the countries where a ship is registered or licensed—are in compliance with international laws.

    Coastal States should also enhance regional cooperation to make progress on the management of important unregulated fisheries and consider international guidelines for the governance of high-seas fisheries, such as those for squid species not managed by regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs).
  • Enhance fisheries’ contributions to delivery of multilateral agreements: Several international agreements that many COFI members are party to also require the active support and participation of fisheries managers. For example, the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Framework has specific targets related to how fisheries management tools can play a role in halting and reversing biodiversity loss and enhance the health of the whole ecosystem. The FAO should help member governments not only apply these tools, but report on their progress. Likewise, the treaty to protect the high seas should be implemented as rapidly as possible to ensure that the biodiversity in the high seas is protected from harmful activities.

    The timely implementation of the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies and the conclusion of negotiations on limiting subsidies to overfishing and overcapacity would help tackle one of the key drivers of overfishing by curtailing the harmful payments made to commercial fishing operators to keep some businesses profitable. COFI members should also fully support the development of an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution given that abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear ranks among the most damaging of all the sources of ocean plastic pollution in the marine environment.

These issues represent the many disparate ways that fisheries management and ocean governance can be improved by COFI this month. Given the FAO’s own bleak report on fisheries health, governments must take action quickly. Nations have come a long way with the regulatory frameworks for members to control their waters, fleets, ports and markets, and with more holistic approaches to fisheries management such as EBFM; the world now needs enhanced collaboration to put these commitments into practice and close the remaining gaps. As demand for seafood continues to increase and the impacts of climate change mount, the world can’t afford to lose more fish.

Dawn Borg Costanzi is a senior manager and Elaine Young is an officer working on Pew’s international fisheries program.

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