WorldFish climate change leader Essam Yassin Mohammed seeks a systems approach for resilient aquatic foods

Matthew O'Leary -

Coastal storm aftermath- denuded palm trees. Sea level rise and increased frequency and severity of floods and storms will make some low-lying coastal areas uninhabitable. Photo by Helen Leitch.

Marine and freshwater resources provide a lifeline for millions of impoverished people around the world. Aquatic foods through fisheries, aquaculture and related value chains are central to the nutrition and livelihoods of up to 800 million people and provide a vital source of protein and nutrients for billions, particularly in developing countries.

Essam Yassin Mohammed, Climate Change Program Leader, WorldFish.

However, the increasing risk of climate shocks calls for a systematic approach to aquatic foods to improve resilience and productivity if they are to continue to provide food, nutrition and economic security to a global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050 said Essam Yassin Mohammed, the newly appointed WorldFish Climate Change Program Leader.

“Climate change is a key driver behind the rise in global hunger. It is one of the leading causes of severe food crises, negatively affecting all dimensions of food security including food availability, access, and utilization,” Mohammed said.

“Aquatic food systems are complex and non-linear involving multiple actors and varying networks and interactions. Therefore, response of the impacts of climate change to aquatic food systems and their implications for ecological, economic, and social systems can only be understood with an integrated systems approach,” he explained.

Mohammed takes up the newly created position leading the cross-cutting Climate Change Program across WorldFish’s research portfolio. He will further explore a systems approach to aquatic food systems bringing together climate change and development experts for the webinar “Towards Climate Resilient and Inclusive Aquatic Food: A Systems Approach” in September this year.

The climate change lead started his career working in fishery science for the Ministry of Fisheries in the small east African nation of Eritrea. He was fascinated by the way coastal communities utilized and managed their fisheries resources while noticing the social, economic and climatic challenges they were facing.

In a bid to explore this interaction between human and nature further, he pursued his doctoral studies in development economics. This interdisciplinary background provides him with a unique perspective when tackling the challenges faced by both humankind and nature, such as climate change. Since then he has gained over a decade of experience working as a development researcher in aquatic food systems throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Mohammed discussed the unique relationship between climate change, aquatic food systems and fisheries and aquaculture dependent communities in this interview:

Q: What challenges does climate change present to aquatic food systems?

A: The resources produced by aquatic food systems are affected by climate change through gradual warming, ocean acidification, and changes in the frequency, intensity and location of extreme events. Compared to terrestrial food production systems, aquatic food systems are unique and complex. Many fish populations migrate over long distances, passing through multiple jurisdictions. We are already seeing several fish populations migrating to optimal environments – often northward. This means it will be financially and technically prohibitive for small-scale fishers in particular to pursue the fish. The impacts of climate change are primarily felt by vulnerable communities with limited adaptive capacities.

The consequences of continued inaction could now be catastrophic. Unless impacts of climate change on aquatic food systems are not reversed, millions of livelihoods could be lost and numerous communities will have reduced access to a staple food that they rely on for their survival.

Q: What critical challenges does climate change present communities dependent on aquatic food systems face? 

A: Communities dependent on fisheries and aquatic food systems face critical challenges, beyond depletion in fish production they face an array of systemic constraints. Just to name a few:

  • They have limited technological knowhow and adaptive capacities which inhibit their abilities to adapt to the impacts of climate change;
  • Conventional markets often fail to recognize or value the contributions of small-scale aquatic food production systems to local livelihoods and economies, consequently fishing and aquaculture dependent communities lack access to markets and other services – further exacerbating their vulnerabilities to climate shocks and risks;
  • Existing fisheries institutions, policies and other management models are often not responsive to climate risks and shocks.

Compounded effects of these factors often lead to misalignment of incentives and investments, and therefore, chronic finance gap. And finally, interventions in building resilient aquatic food systems often overlook rigidly defined and uneven local power structures – leaving vulnerable fisheries dependent communities behind. This shows us that the challenges are extremely complex and therefore they need innovative solutions to address them.

Q: Why is resilient aquatic food systems critical to global food system transformation?

A: Fish is a primary source of animal protein for millions of people across the world. However, climate change poses a significant threat to this food source. A recent study found that if we do not act now and try to curtail our CO2 emissions, the catch potential of tropical fish stocks in some tropical coastal states is projected to decline by up to 40 percent by 2050. These are countries where millions of people living in poverty call home. Therefore, it is critically important that we transition towards a resilient aquatic food system. What does this mean in practice? We certainly need to identify innovative solutions to build resilience of fisheries and aquaculture dependent communities, small and big businesses and coastal infrastructures. This means enhancing their abilities to adapt and transform and withstand climatic shocks and stresses. Similarly, aquatic food systems need to be on a low emissions pathway.

Q: How can WorldFish work to make aquatic food systems more resilient to climate shocks? 

A: We will make a shift from a traditional ‘single issues’ approach to tackling the impacts of climate change on aquatic food systems towards a more holistic approach that takes into account multiple systemic challenges to achieve impact at scale. Our ambition is to ensure that:

  1. Suitable and accessible technological innovations — including climate information services — are widely available – enhancing adaptive capacities of fisheries and aquaculture dependent communities;
  2. Small-scale aquatic food producers and input providers have access to markets and other services including finance, insurance, and social protection schemes;
  3. Institutions, policies and fisheries management tools are reformed – capable of responding to the impacts of climate change;
  4. Incentives and investments are aligned and finance gap is filled using public – for example, fiscal reforms, and private, impact investments as well as blended financing options; and
  5. Enhanced understanding of local power structures informs the design of policy and investment interventions and leads to equitable outcomes – systemic and positive bias in favor of those furthest behind, such as marginalized groups, youth and women.

Q: How will WorldFish work with partners to realize this ambition?

A: WorldFish and partners will work together to realize this change by conducting scientific research to generate more evidence, build capacities of resource users and managers, and creating a platform for much-needed dialogue among stakeholders in the aquatic food systems.

I would like to take this opportunity to invite scientists, resources users and managers and development partners to work with us to build resilient and inclusive aquatic food systems for current and future generations.

Matthew O'Leary

Matthew O'Leary

Matthew O’Leary is WorldFish’s Strategic Communications and Outreach Specialist. He has a background in journalism and has gained experience managing strategic communications for CGIAR centers and platforms as well as government and private sector organizations.

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