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Fish for good in the developing world

A group of people watching several sole ships on the shores of Gambia.
A group of people watching several sole ships on the shores of Gambia.

Written by Rupert Howes, MSC chief executive. Image © NASCOM.

Our oceans make up 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, contain 80 percent of all biodiversity, drive global weather systems and have provided a wonderful and diverse bounty of seafood for millennia. Current harvests deliver nearly one-fifth of total human protein needs. Millions of livelihoods also depend upon this last great global industry harvesting a wild resource for food.

However, global fish stocks and our oceans are in trouble. Over the past five decades, production has increased fivefold as seafood consumption has outpaced global population growth. With the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN indicating that nearly 85 percent of assessed stocks are already either fully or over exploited or depleted, there is little room for further growth in production to meet growing demand, let alone the additional demands of an estimated two billion extra people by 2050.

Protecting the marine environment and maintaining livelihoods

Global seafood sales reached U.S. $217 billion in 2010, a figure that has been steadily climbing over the past three decades. The economic value of fishing activities is even more significant in the developing world. Some 357 million livelihoods depend on small-scale fisheries, while developing world export revenues have risen from U.S. $3.7 billion in 1980 to U.S. $27.7 billion in 2010 – more than other agricultural commodities such as rice, bananas, sugar, coffee and tobacco.

Since 1997, the Marine Stewardship Council has been developing solutions to balance this dynamic tension between protecting our marine environment and maintaining livelihoods.

There are now more than 300 fisheries either certified or in assessment in the MSC program landing 8.2 million tons of seafood annually, more than 8.8 percent of the global annual harvest. Large-scale fisheries tended to be the first to come forward into the voluntary third-party assessment process to demonstrate their sustainability to the market in the early years.

Improving access for small scale fisheries

But more recently, we have seen growing interest and engagement from small-scale, community-based fisheries in both the developed and developing world. We currently have 16 certified fisheries in the developing world, 10 in assessment and 52 engaged in pre-assessment or a Fishery Improvement Project.

However, if MSC is to deliver its vision of healthy and productive marine ecosystems, where seafood supplies are safeguarded for this and future generations, we must ensure developing-world fisheries have access and are able to enter into the assessment process. They account for half of all traded seafood.

Our science-based standard was an innovation of its time. But many small-scale fisheries did not have access to enough data to enter assessment. In the spirit of innovation, we developed a risk-based framework to improve access for data-deficient fisheries. In January 2014, we launched a benchmarking tool to help developing-world fisheries reach standards that would allow them to enter the assessment process.

The benchmarking tool measures the environmental performance of the fishery against the MSC’s standard for sustainability and increase transparency for buyers, funders and governments. Such efforts are rewarded not only with reductions in by-catch and seabed impacts and improvements in stock rebuilding and better research, but also financially.

Partnerships are critical for safeguarding seafood supplies

In 2009, the Ben Tre clam fishery in Vietnam became the first fishery in South-East Asia to become certified and use the globally recognized MSC ecolabel. Since then, the value of Ben Tre clams has risen by 30 percent while safeguarding a sustainable supply in an area with rich biodiversity.

The Gambia tonguesole fishery shows the value of collaboration with partnerships between USAID, the University of Rhode Island and WWF West Africa and the Gambian fishing industry.

WWF India has been working with the Ashtamudi Estuary short-neck clam fishery, which will be India’s first MSC certified fishery if it passes assessment in April.

Partnerships like these will be critical to safeguard a sustainable supply of seafood and the economic value it generates for ours and future generations, particularly in the developing world.

This blog post was originally posted as part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, in recognition of the latter’s Social Entrepreneurs of 2014.

More in the Huffington Post Social Entrepreneurs series.
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