It is a year of big opportunities for the oceans, an issue that is finally gaining ground on the global political agenda. A number of important events are taking place that will highlight, for once, the problems of 7/10 of the planet's surface, including the World Oceans Summit in Singapore in February and UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in June. There are opportunities to get new perspectives and innovative thinking into the cause and to build tangible solutions, especially in Rio where the solvable environmental problems of high seas governance and over-fishing will at least be discussed.
If this weren't enough, and let's face it, it might not be, the cause of more rational use of the oceans is gaining some important supporters who do have the potential to change the game. Last week, a new champion emerged in the form of HRH The Prince of Wales, with the launch of his International Sustainability Unit's (ISU's) Marine Programme and with it, a refreshingly bright look at the future. In a speech at Fishmonger's Hall in London, the Prince reminded us that the ultimate source of our economic capital is entirely based on our natural capital. Using banking analogies throughout his speech, he spoke of the need to generate more value from fish, calling for fish stocks to be managed in a more intelligent way so that both catches and profits can be increased on a global scale.
The ISU presented its vision for the future of marine fisheries, based on three central pillars; smart economics, an ecosystem-based approach and robust management. Emphasising the importance of good data and strong relationships between science and fishing communities, the Prince of Wales emphasised that the aspirations of the ISU were achievable. "The story today need no longer be one of doom and gloom and inevitable decline, but one that harbours the possibility of generating more value from a strongly performing natural asset", he said.
By reforming fisheries we have the power to transform what is currently a negative industry with perverse subsidies into a healthy, vibrant and flourishing sector of an estimated US $50 billion a year; good for trade, increased profits, improved ecosystem function and greater food security. In fact, the 2010 UNEP Green Economy report argues that the annual global catch could be increased by up to 10 million tons a year if only fisheries were managed sustainably. The findings published in the ISU's two new impressive reports highlight many examples of good practice that can help us achieve it. "From Norway to Namibia and from Japan to Peru, there are inspiring examples of good practice which are beginning to translate into bigger catches of fish, higher earnings and more secure jobs", the Prince added.
It won't be easy, on that point everyone agrees, but interestingly enough, despite much distress amongst the fishing industry and the NGO sector about the current state of overfishing, there are actually many points of agreement on the problems and solutions for it. This is perhaps one of the most important findings in the ISU's report Towards Global Sustainable Fisheries as it indicates broad consensus on a number of major issues, for example, the study finds that most of those involved with fishing accept that fish stocks need to be managed as part of a wider marine system and that better enforcement is needed. These may be obvious points but they are important building blocks for dialogue and eventually, a way forward.
With some courage and, realistically, some very difficult transitions, the returns on a move to sustainable fisheries will be positive. With it will come food security, increased profitability and enhanced biodiversity. Some of these outcomes can be attained through the redirection of an estimated US$16 billion dollars worth of subsidies that are at the moment undermining sustainability, such as those directed towards the building of more vessels at a time of serious over-capacity in the sector. Instead, this money could be reorientated to help tackle illegal fishing or for alternative livelihood schemes, supporting those who are worst affected during the transition period. We are not talking about finding US$16 billion, but redirecting it; the funds are available and the global tax payer is already providing them, but now it just becomes a question of spending the money more wisely, subsidising activity we want to encourage. If saving the global commons can come with a return of US$50 billion a year, this is a great investment, for fisheries and for our future.
With the world's attention slowly but surely turning to the oceans and with advocates like the Prince of Wales who offer solid, pragmatic and realistic cases for change, perhaps this bright future is nearer than we think.
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