Global Ocean Health: The Need for Concerted Efforts

Published on 29th February 2016

The problem of over-exploitation of our oceans has so many dimensions to it. The environmental aspect is one; seven out of ten fish stocks around the world are fully or over-exploited, and too few fish in the ocean means that they cannot fulfil the functions that the marine ecosystems rely on.

Jellyfish invade our coasts when no fish control their numbers. And algal blooming that colours the oceans yellow or green like a pea soup is exacerbated by the same phenomena. This is of course terrifying those of us that have seen these effects with our own eyes.

But then we have other types of terrifying effects – the social consequences. The links between overfishing in Sweden and the vanishing of livelihoods for artisanal fishermen in West Africa might not be completely obvious to everybody, but they are there. Fish is one of the top commodities traded internationally, and most of it is transported from the global south to the global north. Europe imports over 60 per cent of all fish that it consumes. Some of it comes from aquaculture, but that doesn't mean it doesn't affect the oceans. Even farmed salmon has to be fed by some marine protein, which means some of the feed is fished, for instance, in West Africa.

But then some of the fish that is consumed in Europe comes from European boats that have been fishing in waters outside Europe. Not only Europeans do this – the Russians, the Chinese, the Koreans, the Americans, the Japanese and others have extensive fishing outside of their own waters, sometimes fishing in international waters, sometimes buying access to third countries' waters.

When I was at the European Parliament I worked very hard for a reform of the EU Common fisheries policy and its external dimensions. And in 2013 we actually managed to conclude this reform, which many along with me consider a big success. One of the major advances in the reform dealt with transparency. The EU was already publishing its fisheries agreements with third countries, so that the terms and the payments were already publically available. But two additional important principles are now mandatory for the EU:

The first is that the EU now is decoupling payment for aid, or sectoral support, from access costs. In other words, previously it was often not transparent how much the EU was paying for actual access, since part of the money should go to supporting the local fishing sector, monitoring and control, or research, etc. Decoupling makes accountability for the payments much easier and comparison between various actors possible.

Second, another major shift was that for the first time, we now have the obligation to make sure the EU only buys access to surplus fish – fish resources that are not needed by the country or its fishermen.

This is of course already an obligation to everyone under the UN Law of the Sea, that a country can only sell access to surplus fish – but now for the first time this important principle is enshrined in EU legislation. This obligation of course poses a great responsibility on everyone involved: how can the EU be sure the third country has a surplus of fish to sell, if there are a number of other foreign fleets operating under confidentiality clauses, and in addition to that, a lack of sufficient fisheries control of a country's exclusive economic zone – including fishing by its own nationals – and because of all these unknowns, a lack of reliable scientific data?

A first step in the new direction of the EU policy was taken when the EU did not ask to include octopus in the fisheries protocol with Mauritania, because this resource was fully exploited by the Mauritanian fishermen – also an important step for Mauritania to support and develop its own domestic fishing sector.

I want to be frank here: this was not an easy battle. Why? Because as long as there are other foreign fleets out there not publishing what they pay, not publishing what they catch, not respecting the principle of only access to surplus – of course some of the European fishermen argue that it makes no sense for them to be "punished" for behaving well, when everyone else is involved in shady business practices, and fishing on the sly.

We need to set common standards on transparency, creating a level playing field for all actors. Of course we should not prevent anyone from taking their ambitions even further, since we all know the oceans need a lot of attention and better management to recover from so many decades of overfishing, including extensive illegal and unreported fishing which is now estimated at about 20 per cent of all catches. I think the FiTI is on the right track with the three core categories of reporting that have been identified.

First, on tenure arrangements: Who has the right to fish, how is it to be conducted and where is it to take place? Transparency regarding vessel owners and operators – since these often are different– is important, as well as including information on beneficial ownership, and of course the IMO numbers of the vessels. Knowing who is out there in a transparent way also allows for other fishermen to check that their colleagues actually have a right to be where they are, fishing for whatever they are fishing for.

Second, on FiTI reporting on payments. I think it is important that other actors follow the EU's example and decouple access payment from development aid, or sectoral support, that often accompanies actual access payments. To include transparent reporting on fines and penalties is of course highly relevant in any country; it is a guarantee of the rule of law.

The third category is transparency on catches. I would very much recommend not only including catches in the countries EEZ, but also landings in the country, which would include data on catches landed locally but derived from fishing in another EEZ, or the high seas.

But it is also important to stress the FiTI does not replace other agreements and important commitments that countries have undertaken, and in many cases have yet to implement. The FAO Code of Conduct of responsible fisheries for instance, the Port State Measures Agreement, the EU IUU regulation, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests, the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries, the Compliance Agreement and other commitments under UNCLOS or the new global agenda, the 2030 Agenda.

Rather, it should be seen as a tool, an instrument to fulfil certain parts of these commitments. The FiTI is also a useful exercise in identifying difficulties and gaps, not least for developing countries in terms of their capacity and resources. I am very happy to also see the small-scale sector included in this initiative – not only because a substantial part of all catches are made by the small-scale sector, but it means, not least, that lack of data and reporting for this important sector will be identified, and resources will have to be directed towards this end. This is excellent and not at all impossible. With new technology and political will it can be done, and it should, not only for the sake of the well-being of our oceans, but also for the long term sustainability of the small-scale fishermen themselves.

One of the priorities of the Swedish Government is to always make visible the issue of gender equality, and it must also be emphasized here how crucial sustainable fisheries are for millions of people around the world, not least women. In Africa, I have met widows of small-scale fishermen who have taken far too big risks far out on the ocean, to try to make a living when the coastal zones have been emptied by foreign fleets. I have met women who struggle to make their living as fish smokers or fish traders when there is less and less fish, their children playing in the smoke all day long. With more transparency and accountability their future can be much brighter, and their potential in different parts of the fisheries sector can be developed, when supply is stable.

Transparency alone will not make a huge difference if it is not accompanied in many cases by improved governance. There are no short cuts to good fisheries management. First of all you, need good legislation, based both on science and social justice – who should have the right to fish? You need reasonable, dissuasive sanctions if fishermen do not comply, and you need control and enforcement, data collection, improved science, you need cooperation between coastal states, market states, port states and flag states – you need all of this – but above all you need the political will to address the problems. Lack of transparency provides opportunities for corruption – let's say that clearly. Here, initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Initiative, Transparency International and Publish What You Pay have taken important steps and shown how transparency can make it more difficult for money to disappear, and also how good practices can also be encouraged by consumers in market states such as Europe. I also see great potential in the FiTI, and I am convinced consumers appreciate information on everything from bycatches to discards and the working conditions on board the fishing vessels. Too many shocking reports have been published on slave-like conditions of fishermen on large vessels around the world. This could also be an area the FiTI could investigate.

I have been writing and talking about the ocean for more than a decade now. As Minister for International Development Cooperation I see even more closely the link between environmental sustainability and the fight against poverty and hunger. We are not only fishing unsustainably – we are living unsustainably. And, as always, it is hitting the poorest and the most vulnerable the hardest.

But on a more positive note, I think we must all be aware that the world has entered a new phase. In September last year at the UN, all the world's leaders adopted a global agenda, an agenda for the next 15 years – the 2030 Agenda with 17 new sustainable development goals. Many of the goals are in the area of environment kind, but always with a clear connection to people.

As with Goal 14 on oceans– it is not only about healthy fish stocks and coral reefs, it is about people. It is about how people can work together and cooperate across borders and boundaries to put governance and structures in place for the benefit of all, acknowledging that what some people might profit from in the short term is depriving other people of earnings and livelihoods in the longer term. It is about fair distribution of available resources, for this generation and the ones to come.

That is why Sweden has partnered with Fiji and other small island developing states to host the world's first UN conference in support of implementing Goal 14 on the oceans.

The FiTI is one very important initiative that I hope many countries will join, as a way of making the implementation of Goal 14 and the sub-targets on sustainable fisheries, protecting small-scale fisheries and eradicating IUU, become true.

Everyone who cares about fisheries must also care about the other problems our oceans are facing. These include the immense spread of microplastics, acidification, warming, sea-level rise, marine pollution. We all need to work together to address the root-causes of all these problems. And the gains are huge if we succeed:

The FAO estimates that ending overfishing at global level will mean global fish catches can increase by 20 per cent – providing millions of people with food and livelihoods – which the world needs if we are going to support an increasing population of another 2 billion people by 2050.

By Isabella Lövin

Isabella Lövin is Minister for Development Assistance in the Swedish government since October 2014.

This article has been read 11,874 times