Last month I had the pleasure of attending a ‘trilogue’ organized by the European Commission for policymakers, scientists and the private sector on the subject of fisheries. I realized very quickly that the discussion went well beyond a traditional view of fisheries and instead was focused on sustainable fishing – no longer a long-term ambition but a real-time response to the need to grow economies and prepare to feed the additional 2+ billion people coming to dinner in the next 20 years. It seems that sustainable fishing – definitely not quickly enough and certainly not everywhere yet – is an emerging new normal. Just how has this happened?
First came political will. The recognition of fish as a form of capital critical for development finally has sunk in. The World Bank study Sunken Billions identified the $50 billion of foregone revenue from mismanaged fisheries in 2004. An updated report now puts the foregone revenues at $83 billion annually (based on 2012 figures). This is a number that resonates with Ministries of Finance. After all, it equals more than half of annual development assistance flows ($126 billion in 2012). In addition to GDP implications, the sheer size of the job market in fisheries is astounding: 37 million fisherfolk involved in harvesting, and at least another 100 million jobs – a conservative number – in related jobs. So the jobs and GDP numbers are simply too big to ignore.
Then came hungry people. Fish are a popular food source. Yes, . But fish aren’t simply a staple for survival. Fish are a favorite for consumers who are conscious about what they eat, and will spend more on fish to eat healthier. Together, these are two of the many reasons why fish are the number one traded commodity globally. But while everyone loves fish, not all fishing practices are equal. Popular sentiment divides fishing into the good (artisanal and small-scale fishing), the bad (industrial fishing) and the ugly (aquaculture). Eating fish has become for the middle classes an arduous adventure in decision-making, and for the poor, a rapidly disappearing but ever more important staple.
So sustainable fishing is emerging as a pragmatic response to the political imperative of growing the blue economy to diversify land-based economies, and to the growing public appetite for more fish.
If these have been key factors in raising a cry for sustainable fisheries,
First came stricter access to key markets underpinned by tighter standards and the resulting incentives for industrial and export-oriented fishing to transition away from a race to the last fish. This isn’t business-as-usual yet, but international markets that demand attention to traceability, consumer transparency, and reliability of supply are helping pivot industrial fishing towards sustainability.
Then comes the potential for greater access to finance for small-scale and artisanal fisheries. These fisheries catch half of all fish that is sold in markets and make up almost 90% of the labor. Nonetheless, they are traditionally excluded from access to finance that would help them flatten the oscillation from boom catches to bust times, or allow them to transition to safer or more sustainable equipment to save lives, time and natural resources. New prospects for access to finance are predicated on a growing interest among public financiers – the World Bank included – in supporting small-scale fisheries as well as the entry of social-impact capital into the blue economy. Both types of financial capital are looking for triple bottom line wins (defined as economic, environmental and social sustainability), thus are investing to allow small-scale fisheries to transition towards sustainability, move up the value-chain, or even transition out of fishing altogether.
So as political will and public appetites opened the door, markets and money are fast building new muscle memory in the fishing sector. But a key ingredient is still missing. For these potential levers to be successful and to rapidly make the call for sustainable fisheries a reality, shareholders need more certainty to model returns on any investments in this transition. Small-scale fishermen need to know that they can continue to access fish stocks later if they reduce their fishing efforts now to allow the stock to rebound. Investors need to know that the rules of the game will not change tomorrow if they invest in market infrastructure today.
Key markers on the critical path to certainty are improved science, technology and data, and improved governance. Whether it’s in assessing stocks, developing traceability schemes or designing apps that allow fishermen to know market prices before they fish, science, technology and data are a critical underpinning of the move towards sustainable fisheries. So too is good governance; having a coherent policy framework that can be implemented and regulated by a credible institution is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of ever-closer certainty. And without certainty, there can be no sustainability.