UN Oceans Conference: Healthy Oceans = Healthy Communities

From Reuters Foundation

Dr. Mohamed Shainee

Seafood consumers are more discriminating than ever before. Not only do they increasingly demand fish that are harvested sustainably, they also look for “fair trade” products that also support local and traditional fishing communities. But these labels still only represent a tiny fraction of the global seafood market—not nearly enough to turn the tide for threatened fish or fishing communities.

Consider tuna, one of the world’s most popular wild caught fish and the species with which I am most familiar. A recent study estimates that as much as 27 percent of the global tuna harvest comes from overfished populations and much of it is netted by industrial-scale vessels that hail from a dozen or so fishing nations, the so-called “distant water fleet.”

Many small island nations are highly dependent on tuna and overfishing — especially when ocean temperatures are soaring due to climate change —could push some stocks to the brink. We will be raising these concerns, among others, at this week’s United Nations Ocean Conference.

The Maldives’ tuna fishery well illustrates the dilemma. After tourism, tuna fishing is our most important industry. One in five of our citizens are fishers and most of us eat tuna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The fishery is exclusively pole-and-line, the same kind of gear we have used for centuries and the harvest is a sight to behold: open boats with a dozen or so crew heaving tuna, one-by-one, over their shoulders and onto ice. The highly selective equipment eliminates bycatch of dolphins, sharks, turtles and whales that often cannot avoid nets.

Not only is it one of the cleanest fisheries in the world, it is also closed to foreign vessels so we are also able to keep more of the economic benefits in our communities. But because tuna migrate over vast distances even the best-managed fisheries are vulnerable to overexploitation.

Last year, for example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) suspended our coveted sustainable certification for the yellowfin component of the fishery after its population dropped. The decline is likely due to heavy fishing pressure in the western Indian Ocean, an area over which we have no control. Warming ocean temperatures are also changing tuna movements. In response, we are working with the Seychelles and Mauritius, other small islands from our region, to rebuild the stock by limiting the use of industrial fishing gear.

A similar story is playing out in other regions. In the Pacific, where a single patrol boat might be responsible for enforcing fishing rules over millions of square miles of ocean, it is estimated that illegal tuna fishing deprives island nations of $616 million a year in lost revenue and local artisanal boats their fair share of the catch.

Pacific islands have admirably responded to challenges in their tuna fishery by working collectively on strict licensing measures and monitoring. It comes at a short-term cost, but after they placed restrictions on their fishery, revenues jumped four-fold between 2010 and 2014.

All fisheries managers should be looking for opportunities to increase the value of their resources rather than the volume of the catch. For tuna, that means we need better science, particularly to understand how ocean warming and acidification impact stocks. New technology also makes it possible to ensure that the fish that make it to market were caught sustainably and legally.

Retailers are beginning to respond to these opportunities by selling traceable products that are sustainably managed and socially equitable. Earlier this year, Maldives skipjack tuna became the first catch to be MSC and Fair Trade certified.

But ultimately the fate of the world’s tuna may rest with consumers. It is a demand driven market and if preferences shift to abundant varieties that also support local economies, then I’m optimistic our tuna and the fishing communities that have harvested it for generations will be around awhile longer yet.  

Mohamed Shainee is Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture for the Maldives. The Maldives is currently chair of the Alliance of Small Island States.