How can fishing sustain us in a changing climate?

By Dr Rohan Currey, Chief Science & Standards Officer at the Marine Stewardship Council | October 21, 2021

How to feed a growing world population, on track to reach 10 billion people by 2050, while also reducing carbon emissions and environmental degradation, is one of the biggest challenges of our generation.

While the answers are complex, a ground-breaking new report, the Blue Food Assessment, points to one, previously underrecognized solution – the huge potential of our ocean to produce blue foods, including fish, shellfish and seaweeds, which are both lower in carbon emissions and require fewer resources than land-based animal proteins.

As well as providing a primary source of protein for more than 3 billion people, seafood production is one of the ocean’s biggest industries, with wild capture fishing providing employment for almost 39 million people and contributing to an international seafood trade worth more than US$164 billion.

The ocean also plays a vital role in carbon storage. 83% of the global carbon cycle is circulated through the ocean with coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and salt marshes providing significant long-term carbon sinks in the form of blue carbon. Between 500,000 and 10 million marine species contribute to the biodiversity of our planet.

Sustainable fishing is key

It follows that sustainable fishing, which offers the win-win of safeguarding marine ecosystems, while also producing healthy low carbon protein, has a central role to play in securing a healthy and prosperous future for our planet.  Research shows that if all wild capture fisheries operated sustainably, 16 million tonnes more in catch could be generated every year, producing enough protein for an additional 72 million people.

Yet our ocean is under increasing pressure. More than 34% of the world’s fishing stocks are overfished, compared with 10% in 1974. Around 66% of the world’s marine environment has been significantly altered by human actions. Urgent action is needed if we are to protect our ocean and capitalise on its potential to feed our growing population while mitigating carbon emissions.

Significant strides have been made over the past 20 years. Fisheries responsible for around 29% of global marine catch are now engaged with or working towards the Marine Stewardship Council’s programme for sustainable fishing. These fisheries are committed to protecting marine ecosystems and safeguarding seafood supplies for the future.

MSC’s blue label.

By ensuring abundant fish stocks, sustainable fishing also has the welcome potential to further reduce carbon emissions by increasing catch rates which reduces fuel consumption.

Sustainable fisheries are more resilient fisheries

While not immune to the impacts of climate change, sustainable fisheries are also better prepared to be able to respond to the extremes that climate change will bring.

Seafood production is extremely vulnerable to multiple climate change-driven hazards: temperature changes are shifting the distribution of marine species; shellfish production is hampered by ocean acidification; and marine heatwaves have the potential to decimate habitats and the productivity of species on which the marine ecosystem and our biosphere depend..

Many of the key components of sustainable fisheries management also set fisheries up to be more adaptable to change:

  • Following scientific advice, including considering current stock health alongside potential impacts of changes in climate, when setting fishing regulations will ensure more adaptable healthier and more resilient fish stocks.
  • Higher levels of monitoring of target fish and bycatch populations and their distribution, as well as environmental indicators, mean that fisheries are able to detect and respond to changes, keeping their catches sustainable. 
  • Responsive management systems, including harvest strategies which allow fisheries to reduce catches to pre-agreed levels if stocks start to decline, mean that sustainable fisheries are far more likely to be resilient to the impacts of climate change.

International cooperation is essential

Governments urgently need to work together to safeguard our fish stocks and those who rely on them. Effective fisheries management requires international cooperation – fish don’t follow national boundaries. Climate change heightens this urgency as shifting ocean temperatures push fish stocks into new territories.

There are positive signals that governments recognise the need for cooperation. Earlier this year, for example, an international agreement to prevent unregulated commercial fishing in high seas of the central Arctic Ocean as sea ice retreats came into effect. Similarly, in Antactica, 25 member goverments agreed to establish the World’s largest Marine Protected Area in the Ross Sea, protecting important habitats while enabling MSC certified sustainable fisheries to continue to opperate in adjacent waters.

However, many governments are struggling to find consensus. In the North East Atlantic  failure by international governments to collectively agree fishing quotas in line with scientific advice is putting vital herring, mackerel and blue whiting stocks at risk.

Visir crew offloading cod, ling and haddock after returning from four days at sea. Grindavik, Iceland. Image: James Morgan/MSC.

Climate change will push us to do more

While implementing the best practice measures we have today will put fisheries on a good path for climate resilience, we are likely to need to go further. Climate change is a step beyond the natural climate fluctuations we’ve seen in the past. Many fisheries will need to adapt faster and to a greater extent than previously considered and not all have the tools and resources to do so.

To remain sustainable in the context of climate change, fisheries managers, scientists and governments will need to think beyond the current socio-economic structures in place in the form of national regulations and traditional technologies. This will be hugely challenging, both from a practical and cultural perspective. For example, setting catch quotas that reflect stock distribution changes, removing political barriers to negotiation, might be the best way to safeguard fish stocks, but requires a rethinking of nationalist mentalities towards fishing. It also necessitates aligning incentives to reward practices that ensure long-term sustainable outcomes rather than those that satisfy short-term self-interest.

Summing up: an urgent global effort for our oceans  

The next ten years will be instrumental in securing the potential of our oceans to sustain us. Fisheries managers, NGOs, scientists, governments, retailers and consumers all have a vital role to play in supporting and recognising the efforts of fishers who commit to more sustainable, low-carbon practices.

Sustainable seafood certification programmes, such as that run by the Marine Stewardship Council, also have an important role to play by creating a mechanism around which everyone can convene to support this change. In more developed markets, a simple choice for consumers – to buy certified sustainable seafood with the blue ecolabel – can drive huge efforts on the part of others to conduct research, commit to science, develop new technologies and change ways of working.

By sharing these sustainable fishing best practices, and helping to fund progress in less developed countries, we can also facilitate global change. The path ahead is not easy, but it is achievable. We must all work together to make it happen as we race towards 2030. The future of our blue planet depends on it.

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