An ocean recovery

June 8 2020

As the world rebuilds after the coronavirus pandemic and begins to adjust to the easing of lockdown restrictions, we have an opportunity to create a better future for the oceans, says MSC Chief Executive Rupert Howes.

As we’ve spent time at home in lockdown with our families, many of us have had the chance to reflect on what’s important in life and to reappraise and re-prioritise what really matters as we emerge into a Covid-present world. For many, that includes the growing realisation that we must – no choices here – scale our collective endeavour, as nation states, businesses and individuals to ensure the health, productivity and resilience of our planet upon which all life depends. 

The ongoing coronavirus crisis presents an opportunity for humanity to reboot and to shift our economies onto a far more sustainable and equitable footing. The growing demand to 'build back better' will require an unprecedented global effort. A once in a century opportunity - ours to squander or to realise.  

We will have to be bold and re-evaluate how our economies and societies are structured. We have no choice - this will require addressing the existential threat of global climate change with the same level of energy and vigour that we have seen deployed to deal with the Covid crisis and also, importantly, recognise the interconnection and dependence between climate and ocean health. We cannot fix one without the other and that means nations, companies and all of us as individuals and consumers becoming net carbon neutral by 2050.

The seafood industry and coronavirus

In the midst of the pandemic, the fishing industry, like all sectors of the economy, is having to adjust, and quickly. Whether small scale or large scale industrial fishing, domestic or international, no sector is immune and while the situation varies around the world, many seafood businesses are currently focused on survival with fleets unable to fish, boats tied up and supply chains severely disrupted. While the demand for canned and frozen seafood has exploded, some market segments, such as food service, have collapsed. 

It seems likely that we will be entering into a more distant, digital and poorer world. Governments are set to have greater roles in the way our economies are run, but from positions of unprecedented indebtedness. Competing demands will be clamouring for pieces of a smaller and diminished cake as governments try to tackle the consequences of borrowing levels not seen since World War Two and orders of magnitude of quantitative easing higher than those in response to the 2008 financial crash.   

This economic downturn will have a disproportionate impact in the Global South, affecting the ability of many countries to devote much needed resources to improve fisheries management. There’s also a danger that, as Covid-19 dominates the agenda and governments run up vast levels of debt, other challenges like the UN Sustainable Development Goals will not receive the attention they need.

However, I remain optimistic that we can emerge from this crisis stronger. As we adapt to a new reality, the global fishing industry is already using all its innovation and ingenuity to continue to deliver seafood to consumers safely and affordably. 

We've seen the sector pivot from export markets to local ones in a matter of weeks, take to digital and social media platforms to engage new consumers and go to extraordinary lengths to support the most vulnerable people in their communities.


Food provenance and sustainability

We've seen renewed focus on health and wellbeing and can expect to see increased interest in traceability and provenance of food. It’s something we’re already noticing in China, where there’s been a surge of interest in the MSC Program over recent weeks as retailers seek to meet the growing demands of their customers for assurance on the sustainability and traceability of their seafood choices. 

Every two years, the MSC carries out a comprehensive survey of the attitudes of seafood consumers globally. The latest results show that consumers continue to rank ocean issues as a top environmental concern and increasingly rate sustainability and provenance as important factors when buying seafood. 

Of course, price will also be a major factor in the wake of the biggest economic crisis in living memory, but this doesn’t have to mean compromising on sustainability. Some of the world’s biggest fishing operations, like the Alaska pollock fishery, have demonstrated high levels of sustainability while also supplying nutritious protein at competitive prices in value added products such as fish fingers. 

But the private sector can go beyond this. I believe that companies that hold firm to keeping sustainability at the heart of their business strategy will be the winners. Some of the biggest seafood companies in the world have committed to lead the global transformation towards sustainable seafood production, to eradicate slave and bonded labour in seafood supply chains and committed to engaging with governments to create the right policy environment to deliver the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.


Government leadership needed

At the same time we need leadership from governments. We have a route map agreed by 193 nations to fulfil the SDGs by 2030; now is the best chance for humanity to move onto a more sustainable and equitable trajectory - to double up and deliver. 

Governments must also create an environment where sustainable fishers can thrive. They have the opportunity to set science-based management regimes and harvest control strategies, end harmful fishing subsidies and clamp down on illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. Even though trade and travel across the world could be disrupted for a long time, we need more international cooperation, not less. 

The UNFAO has found that where fisheries are sustainably managed, stocks are consistently above target levels or are rebuilding. The tide can be turned for threatened marine resources, rebuilding depleted stocks and restoring degraded habitats – but only if there is political will for prioritising sustainable fisheries management and meaningful involvement of local communities in the management of ecosystems.


The MSC's part in ocean health

As for the MSC, we will continue to play our part. We have set ambitious targets to engage 20% of global landings this year and an aspirational target to engage a third of global landings in the MSC Program. This will make a significant contribution, through the leadership of our partners, to the delivery of SDG 14.  

We need every tool in the toolbox deployed now if we are to seize and not squander this opportunity – leadership in public policy reform, the delivery of sustainability commitments by the corporate sector, advocacy and education and market based programmes like the MSC’s that enable and empower consumers to reward fishers who are doing the right thing. That in turn incentivises more fisheries to come into the programme, often making significant improvements in order to achieve and retain certification. 

We need wealthier countries to dig deep and provide resources for poorer countries to ensure that no one is left behind. We are, after all, in this together. 

Despite the tragedy and enormity of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, there is also a global opportunity. Humanity is at one of those rare moments in history where we have been forced to rethink how we incentivise our economies and societies. We can build back better – within the global fishing industry, within our oceans and as a global society. 

This crisis is a wake-up call for humanity. Let’s not ignore it. 


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