How to Catch Fish and Save Fisheries

October 21st, 2012 | 1 Comment
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen

By Carl Safina and Brett Jenks

Baja Sky, by Carl Safina

This week, top environmental ministers from 168 countries descended upon Hyderabad, India. Their goal: agree on how to protect 10 percent of the world’s ocean, a target they set two years ago under the Convention on Biological Diversity.  You might be thinking, same old story —easy to agree on goals; hard to agree on how to meet them.

Why it matters: The U.S. Commerce Department just declared major fisheries in New England, Alaska and Mississippi a “disaster.”  A new study found that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral since 1985.   British and French fisherman clashed as boats from the UK sailed into French waters on the hunt for scallops.   But that bell tolls not just for the fishermen. Fish are the primary source of protein for an estimated one billion people around the world.

The journal Science recently published the first comprehensive analysis of more than 10,000 fisheries—roughly 80 percent of our global fish catch.  The conclusion: fish worldwide are swiftly declining. This global analysis paints a stark new picture of a global ocean fished to exhaustion in an increasingly hungry world.

Stark. But not bleak.

The analysis of global fisheries has some good news: Improved management of the last decade is already benefiting many large commercial fisheries.  The harder problem is with smaller-scale fisheries that local communities rely on for food and income. Small-scale fishers—who work within 10 miles of their coast—account for nearly half of the world’s global catch, and employ 33 million of the world’s 36 million fishers, while also creating jobs for 107 million people in fish processing and selling[pdf].   Mostly poor, they live mainly in areas lacking fisheries management, monitoring, and enforcement. No one is in a position to formally declare their fisheries “disasters.” They must just endure their situation. Or—take control of it.

A rising tide of local communities is doing just that.  Here’s the roadmap the Science study proposes: Give local fishers exclusive access to their fishing grounds, in the form of “territorial user rights to fishing” (TURF, in the jargon).  In exchange for the exclusivity privilege, local fishers must agree to establish, and protect, no-take zones. Results include: increased fish populations, richer marine habitats, and coastlines more resilient to climate changes. And: more food for people.

Unleashing local fishers’ self-interest to advance both conservation and economic development could create one of those rare win-win scenarios.

A growing body of research shows that fish populations inside a no take zone can more than quadruple. Fish numbers outside the reserve can double. And, exclusive access enables investment and better management, increasing the catch’s value.

It works.  We’ve visited several local fisheries in Mexico and the Philippines this year—with heads of leading research institutions, NGOs, and government agencies—and in each case, we witnessed increasing fish populations, increased catch value, and better-protected reefs.

TURF Reserves are not a silver bullet.  They might, however, be the silver buckshot.  With nearly 1 billion people reliant on the ocean for their primary source of protein— stakes are high.  If the most fish-dependent nations adopted widespread networks of TURF Reserve, they could potentially create enough fish recovery to sustainably feed hundreds of millions of people.

That’s a big if, however.  The solution is not to fix a small number of fisheries. We need thousands of TURF Reserves in dozens of countries just to get the ball rolling.  Ultimately, we need a commitment of governments, foundations, NGOs, and the private sector to forge a major investment in near shore fisheries in the developing tropics.  The coastal communities themselves must unfurl the ocean’s silver lining.
Protecting 10 percent of the world’s oceans is no small task. TURF Reserves offer one solution to start us down that path.  But they are neither complicated nor expensive.  As these environmental ministers pack their bags and head home to continue to work solutions for their coastlines and fisheries, the Science paper should be required reading.

Clearly this problem–and the opportunity–are big. Let’s get started.

Originally published in the New York Times and International Herald Tribune, October 19, 2012.

Carl Safina is founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University and Brett Jenks is the President and CEO of Rare, a Virginia-based global conservation organization actively working with local communities in Latin America, Indonesia, the Philippines and China on solutions that enable both people and planet to flourish.



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One Response to “How to Catch Fish and Save Fisheries”

  1. john comstock says:

    TURF reservers for 10% of world’s oceans seem a great idea, politically doable, and a good start. Has anyone considered placing some sort of net-snagging barriers near these so trawlers would lose their gear if they trespass?
    Any similar suggestions for reversing the damage of clear-cut logging on our salmon watersheds?

    thanks for the years of dedication, great writing (Carl Safina) and good science.
    John Comstock

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