By Baher Kamal
Following the current trend, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050, with more than five trillion (million million) of plastic, more than 260,000 tons. In addition, it is estimated that subsidies to harmful fishing, which contribute to overfishing, are around 35,000 million dollars, according to the United Nations.
"If you consider that the total exports of shellfish and fish amount to 146,000 million dollars, we are talking about that for every five dollars of marine products, one dollar is subsidized," said David Vivas, of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, within the framework of the United Nations Conference on Oceans, held from 5 to 9 this month.
Race to the abyss
It is not a lesser sum. People pay dearly for fish through a plate or through their taxes, Vivas said.
Economic motivation creates a "race to the bottom" as fleets compete with each other to catch more and more fish at a time when seafood is a scarce resource, the expert said. Subsidies "create incentives that deplete resources faster than if they weren't," he explained.
The facts are shocking: the international community catches fish to a degree that is not biologically sustainable, according to Unctad.
"70 percent of the Mediterranean Sea is exploited, and 90 percent of the Black Sea," he said.
About 56 percent of the fish comes from wild capture and the rest from psychiculture, according to UN data.
“Demand remains quite strong, mainly at the urging of the Asian region. For this reason, countries are not only going to New York to consider issuing a political signal, ”said Lucas Assunçao, from Unctad, referring to the Oceans Conference.
"They are very concerned about this sizeable market," he said.
In addition to fishing subsidies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) focuses on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, as well as market access.
"Not all countries participate equitably," said Assunçao, of the nearly $ 150 billion fish and seafood market. "The oceans are a common global good that does not benefit all countries with coasts equally," he said.
The value of illegally caught, unreported and unregulated fish is between $ 10 billion and $ 23 billion a year, according to FAO.
That, as well as the subsidies that encourage overfishing without making efforts to prevent illegal fishing, explains the fact that there are 4.6 million fishing vessels in the world.
The oceans pose challenges and solutions to the Sustainable Development Agenda, and more careful management is essential for the food security of today and tomorrow, as well as the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, the CEO of FAO, José Graziano da Silva.
3 billion people depend on fishing
“More than 3 billion people depend on fish for animal protein, while 300 million need marine fisheries, the vast majority related to small-scale fisheries, the backbone of the marine and coastal social ecosystems of many developing countries”, added.
"The lack of sustainability poses many risks and carries a high price," said Graziano da Silva. "Today, many fisheries in the world are characterized by excessive fishing effort, low productivity and inadequate profitability," he added.
That exacerbates the pressures that led to nearly a third of marine fish stocks being exploited in a biologically unsustainable way, three times more than 40 years ago. Fish production would increase by about 20 percent, or $ 32 billion a year, if partners collaborated to rebuild reserves, he added.
FAO plays an important role in meeting 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to end the scourge of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by 2020.
These methods catch 26 million tons of fish a year, one sixth of all that is fished in the sea and which amounts to 23,000 million dollars. It also indirectly undermines efforts to make sure marine resources are used sustainably.
How to combat illegal fishing
International efforts against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing made progress in 2016, with the entry into force of the Agreement on Port State Measures.
The treaty, mediated by FAO, now has 50 parties, including the European Union, Indonesia, the United States and, soon, Japan, as well as the small island states.
The agreement gives port officials new powers to verify that any visiting vessel abides by relevant fishing regulations, such as having the proper permits, respecting quotas, and avoiding species at risk.
The treaty also requires the parties to support effective implementation, ensuring that all have the technical capacity to fulfill their obligations. FAO has already committed more than $ 1.5 million to those efforts, what Graziano da Silva described as "seed money," while donors are awaiting contribution.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing "is a threat to marine life and impedes the development and prosperity of vulnerable countries and must be stopped completely," said Sven Erik Bucht, Sweden's Minister for Rural Affairs, who announced the contribution of $ 5.4 million to FAO to combat these harmful methods.
Together with Fiji, Sweden promoted and chaired the Oceans Conference.
The financial contribution will also help the agency's work on what to do with discarded fishing gear, which turns into ocean litter as it kills fish, and in the Global Register of Fish Searches, Refrigerated Transport and Supply, a platform that seeks to gather essential and transparent information to the people in charge of managing the activity.
FAO also spearheads the Catch Documentation Scheme, which allows fish to be tracked, from source to market, what consumers are increasingly asking for. And through its Blue Growth Initiative, the agency also focuses on promoting sustainable development among fishing and coastal communities in general.
What is overfishing about?
Overfishing occurs when more fish are caught than allowed so that the population continues to reproduce naturally, explains the World Wide Fund for Nature.
“Catching as many fish as possible may seem like a profitable practice, but overfishing has serious consequences. The result not only affects the balance of life in the oceans, but also the social and economic well-being of coastal communities, which depend on fishing for their survival, ”he added.
Billions of fish depend on fishing for protein, and fishing is the main livelihood for millions of people around the world, adds WWF.
“For centuries, our seas and oceans have been considered an abundant source of food. But the increasing fishing of the last 50 years, as well as unsustainable practices push many fish stocks to the point of collapse, "he added.
According to the WWF, more than 85 percent of the world's fisheries are on the brink of the biological limit, or have passed it, and need strict management to restore it.
Meanwhile, various UN agencies, such as FAO, Unctad and the United Nations Environment Program, announced their commitment to reduce harmful subsidies. The issue is "complicated and thorny", they acknowledge.
The commitment involves asking countries to submit information on the subsidies they offer and prohibiting those that contribute to overfishing, as well as those that offer treatment that may mean differential treatment for developing countries.
Translated by Verónica Firme