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Why Prince Charles's Marine Programme Can Impact on the Future of World Fish Stocks

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Many of the world's fish stocks are in a state of crisis - right? And there is nothing that can be done about it? Well no. And that is the message that comes through today, following two years of research, conversation and thinking from the Prince of Wales's International Sustainability Unit (ISU) and the launch of a new programme to conserve fish stocks.

In a speech today, the Prince of Wales said that while there is cause for grave concern, there is at the same time grounds for optimism. Many fish stocks have the potential to recover to the point where they could provide more food, generate more wealth and support jobs long into the future. "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.

He went on to highlight how this is not some faint hope based on conjecture and wishful thinking, but one founded on evidence and many examples of good practice highlighted in two new reports. "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", he added.

The Prince set up the ISU following the success of the Rainforests Project, which ran from 2007 to 2010. The shift from trees to seas very much reflects the long held passion of the Prince of Wales in promoting a more sustainable accommodation between what on the one hand nature can supply, and what on the other humans demand.

When it came to forests, the emphasis was on livelihoods, carbon, water and wildlife. With fish, it is about food, jobs and marine conservation. In both cases the work is about strategies that will enable us to enjoy the benefits of nature indefinitely into the future.

I was a special advisor to the Prince's Rainforests Project and have the same role with the ISU, where I have been particularly involved with the emerging work on marine fisheries. One thing that has struck me during the course of our research and outreach on marine issues is that despite the fraught politics and controversy visible in the public debate about the future of fishing, it is amazing how much is agreed upon.

For example, it seems that most of those involved with fishing accept that fish stocks need to be managed as part of a wider marine system. Fish don't exist in isolation, and if we wish to carry on catching them then it will be important to look after where they live, which is of course the marine environment. While this conclusion is not rocket science, we often do not behave in accordance with this simple truth. The abuse we dish out to the seas that sustain the fish has in recent decades only grown - including through destructive fishing methods.

There are many tools available to help maintain marine ecosystems while at the same time sustaining catches, including different kinds of fishing gear and establishing marine protected areas. In the many cases of positive progress highlighted by the ISU the idea of managing the marine ecosystem more sustainably has been taken on board (literally) and turned it into changed practices.

Another point of agreement has emerged around the need for better enforcement of fishing rules and regulations. This is not least because about a quarter of the fish landed worldwide is estimated to have been taken in contravention of official rules. Enforcement of conservation controls and measures to sustain fish stocks are thus vital, and again there are plenty of tools for doing this, ranging from individual vessel identification devices through to observers being present on boats.

It was also found that a lot of the people who go fishing, experts and different organisations agree on the need to get the economics right, so that people go to sea can earn a good living while at the same time having incentives to conserve stocks. This idea too was found to have not only strong conceptual foundations but is also backed by practical examples of how it can work.

Among other things, the ISU's report published today looks at different kinds of property and access rights which can encourage fishing communities to husband their resources, and which are in some places helping to end 'the tragedy of the commons'-kind of situations which have dogged so many previous efforts to conserve fish stocks.

And when it comes to the economics, the ISU also discovered how different outcomes might be pursued through redirecting something like US$16 billion dollars-worth of subsidies that at the moment are actually making matters worse. For example, through encouraging more vessels to be built when fish stocks are already depleted.

If this money was reoriented to pay for top quality fisheries research or crack-downs on illegal fishing, then perhaps we could go some way toward realising the lost economic value of fisheries, which according to a World Bank report is about US$50 billion per year! Changing how US$16 billion is spent in order to add US$50 billion of value is surely something even the most hardened ecological cynic could embrace?

So with good practice already in evidence, and a huge opportunity waiting to be seized, what comes next? For the ISU it is really now a matter of helping to spread good ideas and to find ways in which solutions might be better enabled, including in finding the ways for finance to be mobilised.

Nature can be endlessly productive and forgiving of our demands - if we treat her right. Today's reports from the ISU show that healthy fish stocks sustained by properly functioning natural systems are within our grasp. If we had any sense we'd grab that opportunity with both hands. Today's events will hopefully bring the moment we do that just a little closer.

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