Interview on the First World Summit on Fisheries Sustainability

05 May 2009

David Agnew, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Imperial College of London

What is the reason for holding a conference focused on sustainability?

Everyone – the fishing industry, environmental organisations, governments – is now concerned about the sustainability of fish stocks. Since the early 1990s there has been very little growth in the world catch of wild fish stocks; instead, we have seen increasing publicity about overfishing and environmental damage. In recent years most of problems in the marine environment have been blamed on fishing. Clearly fishermen do not wish to have their fisheries disappear through overfishing and have a very high interest in maintaining sustainability. But they are also sensitive to being labelled as "destroyers" of the ocean. In fact there are many fish stocks that are sustainably managed, and that produce very little environmental impact. Equally, there are many environmental impacts on oceans that are not caused by fishing, but which will have negative impacts on fishers – such as global warming, pollution, ocean acidification etc. There are many lessons to be learned from examples of sustainable fisheries management, and this conference aims to explore them.

What is the reason for it being held alongside the World Fishing Exhibition?

The World Fishing Exhibition is a very well-known exhibition, attracting a large number of fishery professionals – fishermen, fishing companies, retailers, government, scientists and environmental organisations. It is an ideal venue for creating a dialogue between these professionals to examine the factors that influence sustainability and develop ideas for best practice that can be applied in all fisheries.

When we talk about sustainability, we usually deal with biological and environmental concepts. Is it possible to talk about complete sustainability from biological, social and commercial point of views?

Very much so. It is quite difficult to arrange for maximum performance for all objectives – biological, social and commercial. But it is quite possible to develop management that provides social and commercial sustainability while ensuring biological sustainability. One way to look at this is to say that there are absolute minimum standards for biological sustainability. For the target species, we must never be in a situation where recruitment is significantly impaired. For the ecosystem, we should ensure that the system still functions – in the new jargon, it provides "ecosystem services". These ecosystem services are necessary for long-term sustainability of the ecosystem, to allow it for instance to continue to support the fish stocks upon which fishing depends and to support the other activities which society carries out at sea. Having assured ourselves of biological sustainability we can adjust our management to satisfy economic and social objectives.

So far, which have been the main obstacles for the achievement of sustainable fisheries?

One of the largest obstacles is, and has been since the 1990s, overcapacity within the fishing fleet. Overcapacity does not just refer to the number of vessels, but to their fishing efficiency – in particular their size, the technology they have to find and capture fish etc. As efficiency increases vessels should become more economically efficient, but without achieving a balance between opportunities and fishing power many fishing fleets in Europe are now making only very small profits or losses. This is not a sustainable policy. We need to find mechanisms to allow the fleet to reduce its capacity and realise a positive benefit from fishing, but we need to do this while protecting vulnerable communities which are dependent upon fishing. These are some of the issues that we need to discuss at meetings of all stakeholders, such as at Vigo.

What role must the administration, scientists and industry play in order to move forward to a sustainable fishing activity?

The key to moving forward is to engage, discuss, collaborate and formulate plans in a cooperative atmosphere. The Regional Advisory Councils have begun to make significant progress with this.

The implication of all stakeholders is fundamental for achieving a sustainable use of marine resources but, sometimes, the fishing industry finds it hard to understand some decisions based on science due to the existence of a certain level of uncertainty in the assessments. The industry also asks for a kind of "precautionary principle" from a socioeconomic point of view. Although each species is different, generally speaking, is this uncertainty relevant for the assessment and for working towards sustainability?

Unfortunately an understanding of uncertainty is key to managing stocks in a sustainable fashion. The more uncertain our understanding, the lower risk we should take with our resources. This is often very difficult for the industry to accept, but there are things we can do about it. Firstly, there must be more collaboration between industry and science, in an open framework, so that scientific data become more reliable. Secondly, management must ensure that there are incentives for the collection of more data, rather than penalties. One very difficult issue is, for instance, the impact of fishing on marine mammals. Without good data we cannot solve these problems, but fishermen are too often penalised for providing the data. There are a number of examples around the

world now which show how cooperation between industry, science and managers can be fostered so that industry does not feel that there is a disincentive to providing data that will help assessments.

When talking about sustainability in the marine ecosystems, fishing is always a main issue in all debates, but there are a lot of human activities that also have an impact in these ecosystems, both in the coast and in the high seas. Do you think that the

No, and increasingly no. Key new developments are the wider impact on marine ecosystems of our activities in power generation, mineral extraction, transport and climate change. Fishing will always have a very direct impact, but the long-term impacts of climate change and pollution are likely to be more profound in the long term, both for their impacts on the environment and on fisheries.

The fight against IUU fishing is a top priority in the international agenda. To what extent is this activity a threat to sustainability? In your opinion, what should be done in order to tackle IUU fishing?

There have been a very large number of initiatives on IUU fishing recently. Those most likely to work are trade measures, such as the EU regulation, and port state measures, such as that in operation in NEAFC. The fishing industry can also have an impact on IUU, primarily by ensuring that their legitimately caught product is traced through the market chain. If this is done IUU product will have no market.

WFE Vigo 2003 hosted an International Conference on deep sea fisheries. Do you think the sustainability of this activity is harder to achieve due to the special characteristics of deep sea species?

The problem with many deep sea stocks is that only a very small proportion of the stock – perhaps 2-3% - can be sustainably harvested each year. For shallow stocks this may be higher, in the region of 20-30% each year. Clearly there are major challenges in making any deep-sea fishery economically sustainable, since these very low catch rates are often accompanied by very high costs of fishing in deep waters.