Gambian sole fishery vessels at sea. Photo by: Marine Stewardship Council

Overfishing, climate change, pollution, habitat loss, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, illegal and destructive fishing, islands vanishing under rising seas, great garbage patches of plastic; if you’ve read the news lately, the outlook for our oceans is pretty bleak. But the world leaders gathering to address these challenges at the Our Ocean Conference in Bali, Indonesia on Oct. 29-30 could be forgiven for adopting a slightly more hopeful tone, because it’s not all bad news for the ocean.

In the “global north,” concerted efforts to tackle overfishing by government, fisheries, retailers, scientists, and environmental NGOs are bearing fruit.

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The proportion of overexploited stocks in the Northeast Atlantic, for example, has dropped from over 70 percent in the early 2000s to around 40 percent today. In the United States, they’re at record lows. After long periods of absence, once threatened species, such as the North Sea cod or Patagonian toothfish are back on menus and dinner plates. There is much still to do, of course, but some cause for celebration.

However, while things are improving in developed countries, the picture in the “global south” is not quite so rosy. Here, on the frontline of our changing climate — in a region that is home to 97 percent of the world’s small-scale fishers — ever greater numbers of boats are chasing ever fewer fish. The reason for this? Demand for seafood is at an all-time high, and with improved management practices reducing catches in the north, developed countries have simply increased imports from the global south to compensate. Seventy-three percent of seafood is now caught in the developing world, and intensifying pressure on fisheries there.

A market-based approach to sustainable fishing

I believe that credible market-based programs, such as one offered by my organization the Marine Stewardship Council, have an important role to play in addressing these issues. Over the past two decades, we’ve worked with a diverse array of partners from industry, government, and civil society to ensure fisheries are certified against a science-based set of requirements for sustainable fishing.

Certified seafood carries the blue MSC label showing that it was caught by a responsible fishery in a sustainable way that ensures healthy oceans and safeguards seafood supplies for the future.

“For too long, we as a sector have not paid sufficient attention to the sustainability of fisheries in the ‘global south,’ but if we are serious about ending overfishing, this is a challenge we can no longer ignore.”

— Oluyemisi Oloruntuyi, head of the developing world and accessibility program, Marine Stewardship Council

More than 400 fisheries around the world are now engaged in the program, certified or under full assessment. Collectively these fisheries land 10 million tons of seafood, or 14 percent of the wild harvest taken from our oceans each year. Certification is creating real change on the water: improving management and reducing impacts in hundreds of fisheries. Some have introduced voluntary fishing ground closures, others have modified fishing gear to make it more selective, or worked to reduced bycatch and discards of seabirds, juvenile fish, and other unwanted species.

These improvements aren’t limited to the global north. We’ve been engaged with developing world fisheries since our inception and have built up a solid knowledge of the finance, capacity, data, and governance constraints these fisheries face to achieve a sustainable level of performance

Ending overfishing in the global south

But we need to do more. Hundreds of millions in developing countries depend on our ocean for their lives and livelihoods. Sustainable Development Goal 14.4 commits us to end overfishing by 2020, a mere 15 months away.

What has our experience engaging in the global south taught us about how might we achieve this? Four things stand out.

1. Increasing funding

With the delivery of the SDGs expected to cost $5-7 trillion a year up to 2030, we need to urgently and dramatically increase the funding available for “blue growth” projects. At the Bali conference, we’re launching a £1 million ($1.3 million) “Ocean Stewardship Fund” to help address this. The fund will support promising fisheries in the global south to improve their fishing practices and management, opening the door for potential MSC certification. It will build on the success of previous initiatives, which invested in fishery improvements from as far afield as Madagascar, Suriname, and the waters of the Coral Triangle — a stone’s throw from the conference center.

2. Building capacity

The vital role that capacity building plays in catalyzing fisheries sustainability in the global south has long been recognized. So alongside the new fund, we’re also launching a Pathway to Sustainability, a flexible suite of tools, training, and technical support that aims to improve access to the MSC program for developing world fisheries, accelerate the uptake of sustainable fishing practices, and safeguard seafood supplies globally.

3. Addressing data deficiency

All too often, global south fisheries lack the means to generate the data they need to understand and manage their fisheries effectively. To help ensure that our program is accessible to such fisheries, we’ve developed a set of precautionary indicators called the risk-based framework. The framework has already been used to great success in the MSC-certified Suriname seabob fishery and the artisanal rock lobster fishery of the Chilean Juan Fernández Islands.

4. Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in 20 years of engaging in global south fisheries, it’s that collaboration is key. In Indonesia, for example, our Fish for Good project has begun working with the government, fisheries, and other vital stakeholders to chart a path toward fisheries sustainability.

Initiated by the MSC and supported by the Dutch Postcode Lottery, the four-year project has so far mapped and evaluated more than 50 fisheries across Indonesia and established a regional advisory group to explore the gap between current performance and the level required for sustainability.

The next stage will see stakeholders work to create collaborative action plans for fishery improvements to address these gaps, paving the way for a more sustainable future. But ultimately, these initiatives will not be enough. If we want to meet SDG 14’s targets, we need to move and scale up much more quickly, and to do this, everyone will need to be aboard. Governments will need to act to ensure fisheries are managed appropriately. Industry will need to rise to the challenge of sustainable global sourcing. Seafood lovers will need to demand choices that do not contribute to ocean declines.

For too long, we as a sector have not paid sufficient attention to the sustainability of fisheries in the “global south,” but if we are serious about ending overfishing, this is a challenge we can no longer ignore. The sustainability divide between north and south is widening; in the latter, there is far more to do, and as yet little cause for celebration.

About the author

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    Oluyemisi Oloruntuyi

    Oluyemisi Oloruntuyi is head of the developing world and accessibility program at the Marine Stewardship Council. Oloruntuyi’s role involves leading the implementation of strategy to increase the participation of fisheries from the "global south." This involves the evaluation, development, and implementation of policies and tools to ensure that the MSC program is applicable and accessible to developing countries. She specifically oversees the MSC’s engagement in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.