On the 20th Anniversary of the first Rio Earth Summit it is time to reflect on our progress in putting fisheries and aquaculture on sustainable footings and the lessons we have learnt so far
In 1987 the Brundtland Commission articulated perhaps the central global challenge of our age – how do we achieve development outcomes that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs?
The Brundtland Commission’s conclusions led to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, aimed at aligning efforts towards the three inter-linked goals of sustainable development: economic growth, environmental protection, and social equity. As governments meet next week at Rio +20, it is a good time to reflect on how far we have come.
For fisheries and aquaculture and the people who depend on them, the picture is mixed: we have examples of success, but also undeniable failures. We need to ask why the successes happened and why the failures persist.
One good example of success is innovation in fish farming. Consistently among the fastest-growing food production sectors in the world over the last 30 years, at the global scale fish farming has allowed us to keep pace with growing demand for fish. Not surprisingly, given such rapid growth, this has often been at an environmental cost. Large scale destruction of coastal mangroves in the 1980’s and 90’s to make way for prawn farms, excessive pollution of coastal and fresh waters, massive over-use of antibiotics — all of these have compromised the sustainability of aquaculture . Of course, many concerns remain, but progress in reducing environmental harm deserves recognition.
Take anti-biotic use as an example. The Norwegian salmon industry used about 50kg of antibiotics for each tonne of fish produced in 1987, at a time when total production was about 40,000 tonnes. By 2005, when production had risen to about 450,000 tonnes, anti-biotic use had fallen to less than 1g per tonne .
We see similar innovation in the feed sector. A recent report for EWOS, a major feed company, for example, shows how feed sales have increased by 66% since 2002, while the company’s combined use of fishmeal and fish oil has remained constant at about 400,000 tonnes .
The lesson in these examples is that investment in technical innovation makes a difference—a new vaccine reduced anti-biotic demand, and new formulations reduced the proportion of fish meal and fish oil in feeds. Governments convening at Rio need to commit to the investments in research and innovation that will support aquaculture growth in sustainable ways. Combining such innovation with sound environmental policies and planning is the surest route to sustainability.
But while innovation is essential, so is ensuring widespread adoption of the best technologies. If we compare current environmental performance of similar production systems in different countries, we find wide differences . As well as investing in further improvements, therefore, we need to lower the financial barriers to adoption for small-scale producers in particular, and raise the incentives for all to use the best practices, including through application of social and environmental certification standards . We also need to recognize that many unsustainable aquaculture practices persist, and that we need to remain vigilant to new sustainability challenges that will undoubtedly emerge.
Turning from aquaculture, what about wild fisheries? Here again, and contrary to much of the popular narrative, there are promising signs; the United States seems to be doing an increasingly good job managing their fisheries sustainably, for example, as does Norway, Iceland, and New Zealand. Even the Canadian northwest Atlantic cod stock, subject to one of the most prolonged and high-profile collapses, is now showing signs of recovery after two decades . In the developing world too, there are places where the policy and legal framework supporting community-based management of fisheries is improving significantly.
But despite this encouragement, the bigger picture is much less rosy. Over-exploitation continues to plague at least a third of the world’s fisheries, and probably more. And crucially, small-scale fisheries, which provide about 75% of the world’s wild-caught fish for direct human consumption, remain grossly under-valued and often ignored by policy makers, despite their importance for poor and food-insecure people .
What are the lessons here? It has become increasingly clear that there is no single technical answer for solving fisheries problems. Instead, answers must be crafted to fit the specific political, economic and social context of each fishery. What matters most, then, is the process by which we arrive at solutions. In an excellent recent analysis of developments in Cambodia’s inland fisheries, Blake Ratner and colleagues summarize some of the lessons we are learning about reform processes. “Effective governance reform,” they write, “requires measures to ensure :
- inclusive representation of affected groups, particularly the poor and vulnerable, in policy formulation and development planning at all levels;
- robust mechanisms of accountability to ensure that individuals and groups granted decision-making authority are held responsible for the public consequences of their choices and do not abuse their authority; and
- institutional capacity to enable public, private, and civil society actors to fulfill their roles effectively; to adapt to changing circumstances; and to negotiate implementation challenges as they emerge.”
Applying these principles to guide investments in governance reform would have a profound impact, not just in Cambodia, but for all fisheries.
So in this milestone year, as we focus attention again on the challenges of sustainable development at a time of accelerating risks to global food security, I have two messages for governments concerning fisheries and aquaculture.
First, invest in research and innovation to support a growing aquaculture sector to meet the world’s future needs for fish. Second, focus on nurturing sound processes for governance reform to ensure that wild fisheries are managed both equitably and sustainably, expanding their contributions to food and nutrition security and economic well-being—especially for the poorest.
One concrete way to do this is to support the efforts of The Global Partnership for Oceans, a growing alliance of governments, international organizations, civil society groups, and private sector interests who are focusing on how best to ensure environmentally sustainable aquaculture growth and protect and restore wild fisheries. If governments at Rio get behind such efforts while also ensuring that equity, food security, and poverty reduction are kept front and center, it will be an important step in the right direction. Black KD (2000) The Environmental Impacts of Aquaculture (CABI, Oxford).
 Asche F (2008) Farming the sea. Marine resource economics 23:527–547.
 EWOS (2012). Fish Forever. EWOS Spotlight, Vol 5.
 Hall SJ, Delaporte A, Phillips MJ, Beveridge M, O’Keefe M (2011) Blue Frontiers: Managing the Environmental Costs of Aquaculture. (The WorldFish Center, Penang, Malaysia.).
 Frank KT, Petrie B, Fisher JAD, Leggett WC (2011) Transient dynamics of an altered large marine ecosystem. Nature 477:86–89.
 Mills DJ, Westlund L, de Graafc G, Kura Y, Willman R, Kelleher K (2011) in Managing Small Scale Fisheries: Frameworks and Approaches, eds Pomeroy R, Andrew NL (CABI, Oxford), pp 1–15.
 Ratner, B.D. (2011) Common-pool resources, livelihoods, and resilience: Critical challenges for governance in Cambodia. IFPRI Discussion Paper Series. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.