Focus on large commercial fishing operations misses big part of the picture
FRISCO — Ignoring small-scale fisheries risks irreversible harm to ocean ecosystems, scientists warned this week, calling for on governments to adopt new models for regulating small coastal fishing operations that account for about 90 percent of the world’s fishers — about 100 million strong.
Most of those fishermen depend on the ocean for their livelihoods and many catch fish and other marine animals at unsustainable levels. Governments, conservationists, and researchers around the world must address the enormous threat posed by these unregulated and destructive fisheries, marine scientists wrote in Science.
“Governments and conservationists have tended to focus on the impact of industrial-scale fishing, which is indeed a big problem,” said Prof. Amanda Vincent, of Project Seahorse at the University of British Columbia. “At the same time, we must pay attention to small, local fisheries. They are ubiquitous in the world’s coastal waters and, unlike large fisheries, generally operate without oversight or record-keeping. Their impact may be small but cumulatively, it’s massive,” Vincent said.
Sustaining functioning ocean ecosystems will require a more expansive network of marine protected areas, co-ordinated governance, and co-management of fisheries with local communities.
Destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling make matters worse. Trawl nets grab any and all forms of marine life, laying waste to the ocean floor. The total area bottom trawled is nearly 150 times the area of forest that is clearcut annually around the world.
As targeted fish species shrink, both industrial and small-scale fishers move on to other species, depleting them, too, until finally they are catching anything that might provide food or generate cash. Government subsidies, in the absence of regulation, often serve to encourage this overfishing and habitat destruction — and must be abolished, the scientists said.
“We must act now with the most promising tools at hand. No-take marine reserves are one critical approach,” said Dr. Jean M. Harris, with the Scientific Services division of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. “Research shows they can be set up quickly to provide vital refuge for species to recover,” Harris said.
Smarter governance is equally important, she added.
“What we know from the failure of management schemes globally is that regulation at the national level is not enough. Every layer of government, including regions and communities, must help small-scale fishers get control of the fisheries on which they depend.”
Vincent and Harris say that another promising approach to improve the health of the oceans is fisheries co-management, where industry and local communities are given a direct stake alongside government in the management of marine animal populations and habitats. This has proven successful in the case of Canada’s groundfish fishery and in South Africa’s mussel fisheries.