The ecosystem approach to fisheries management


Aquatic ecosystems, including rivers, lakes and inland seas, flood plains, coastal lagoons and estuaries, coastal shelves and open oceans cover a very large part of the earth's surface and, among other amenities, goods and services, sustain the production of fisheries and aquaculture. They yield about 120 million tonnes of fish and fishery products per year - the largest source of wild protein - and provide a livelihood to as many as 140 million people. Fisheries and aquaculture exploit a large diversity or organisms ranging from algae, ascidians and sea-cucumbers to molluscs, crustaceans, fish and marine mammals.

Most aquatic ecosystems are unavoidably affected by fishery activities that involve a selective removal of part of the natural productivity for human subsistence, economic returns and development. However, undesirable fishing practices in some cases, such as overfishing and use of destructive methods, are unduly affecting these precious ecosystems, calling for urgent corrective action.

Except in the high seas, these ecosystems are also usually used for other purposes such as conservation (e.g. wetlands), forestry (e.g. mangroves), agriculture (e.g. floodplains), offshore mining and oil and gas extraction, and human settlements (e.g. coastal areas). Unfortunately, aquatic ecosystems are also, most often, the ultimate recipients of the pollution produced by human settlements and industrial activities, inland, on the coastal area as well as at sea. Even the most remote areas (e.g. deep ocean and polar seas) are now affected, seriously putting in question the sustainability of present practices and the present ecosystems resources to future generations.

All key international agreements adopted over the last two decades, including the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, stress the need for the adoption of ecosystem approaches to fisheries (EAF). In response to these, in 2001, 57 countries issued the Reykjavik Declaration on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem which included a declaration of their intention to work on incorporating ecosystem considerations into fisheries management. The 2002 Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development called for, amongst other things, the application of the Reykjavik Declaration by 2010 as one of the steps essential for ensuring the sustainable development of the oceans. Despite these good intentions and some progress in implementation in many parts of the world, in most if not all countries much progress in ecosystem research and institutional development is still needed before the implications of the approach are fully understood and credible management strategies are adopted and effectively implemented. In addition to governmental initiatives, environmental NGOs have been particularly active in raising awareness of governments and society and have proposed a number of basic principles for ecosystem conservation.

Principles of ecosystem approaches to fisheries

The overarching principles of EAF are an extension of the conventional principles for sustainable fisheries development to cover the ecosystem as a whole. They aim to ensure that, despite variability, uncertainty and likely natural changes in the ecosystem, the capacity of the aquatic ecosystems to produce fish food, revenues, employment and, more generally, other essential services and livelihood, is maintained indefinitely for the benefit of the present and future generations. The FAO Technical Guidelines on the ecosystem approach to fisheries (FAO 2003) define EAF as follows:

"An ecosystem approach to fisheries strives to balance diverse societal objectives, by taking into account the knowledge and uncertainties about biotic, abiotic and human components of ecosystems and their interactions and applying an integrated approach to fisheries within ecologically meaningful boundaries."

A primary implication is the need to cater both for human as well as ecosystem well-being. This implies conservation of ecosystem structures, processes and interactions through sustainable use. Inevitably this will require considering a range of frequently conflicting objectives where the needed consensus may not be readily attained without equitable distribution of benefits. In general, the tools and techniques of EAF will remain the same as those used in traditional fisheries management, but they will need to be applied in a manner that addresses the wider interactions between fisheries and the whole ecosystem. For example, catch and effort quotas, or gear design and restrictions, will be based not just on sustainable use of the target resources, but on their impacts on and implications for the whole ecosystem.

Elements needed for successful ecosystem management

Based on experience gained during 50 years of fisheries management, on the set of principles and points of operational guidance for ecosystem management recommended by the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the 5th Conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the 2001 Reykjavik Declaration, the FAO Technical Guidelines on EAF and on other instruments dealing with the subject, the following elements emerge as the foundations and components of an ecosystem management approach to fisheries and aquaculture:

  • Recognize that management objectives are a matter of societal choice.
  • Decentralize decision and action to the lowest appropriate level, while recognising that there must also be mechanisms to ensure that management decisions and actions are consistent and coordinated at the higher levels required by EAF.
  • Identify the fishery or fisheries to be addressed in each case and the geographic area to be addressed. This will include matching fisheries management system boundaries with ecosystem boundaries.
  • Introduce measures to ensure transparency, public awareness and consensus building.
  • Establish effective conflict resolution and enforcement mechanisms.
  • Ensure coordination, consultation and cooperation, including joint decision-making, between fisheries operating in the same ecosystem and other sectors that interact with it.
  • Liaise with agencies and authorities responsible for non-fishery activities within the ecosystem to encourage and facilitate reduction of negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems from non-fishery activities.
  • Recognize and identify the various direct and indirect uses and users of the ecosystem and involve all stakeholders in knowledge-sharing, decision-making and management.
  • Translate the high-level policy goals for EAF into transparent and comprehensive operational objectives.
  • Establish indicators and reference points for the agreed operational objectives in order to provide a framework for monitoring management performance.
  • Introduce ecological accounting into fisheries management.
  • Undertake action at the appropriate spatial and temporal scale, including setting management objectives for the short- and long term.
  • Consider transboundary impacts of fisheries on adjacent or other ecosystems.
  • Governance for EAF should ensure both human and ecosystem well-being and equitable allocation of benefits, as a condition for compliance.
  • Understand and manage ecosystems in an economic context, including
    (a) reduce those market distortions that adversely affect biological diversity,
    (b) align incentives to promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, and
    (c) internalize costs and benefits in the given ecosystem to the extent feasible.
  • Establish appropriate, explicit and enforceable rights to ecosystems resources. Under EAF it needs to be recognised that access rights systems will frequently need to encompass other uses in addition to harvesting of target resources.
  • Conserve ecosystem biodiversity, structure and functioning.
  • Avoid irreversible ecosystem impacts from fisheries and reduce reversible, undesirable impacts to the minimum practically possible (e.g. bycatch and discards).
  • Ensure an appropriate balance between conservation and responsible use.
  • Recognize that ecosystem variability and changes are inevitable.
  • Conservation and management decisions for fisheries should be based on the best scientific information available, also taking into account traditional knowledge of the resources and their habitat, as well as relevant environmental, economic and social factors;
  • Recognize that while it is necessary to take immediate action to address particularly urgent problems, it is also important to advance the scientific basis for incorporating ecosystem considerations, building on existing and future available scientific knowledge. This could include improving knowledge on the structure, components and functioning of the marine ecosystem under consideration, the role of habitat and the biological, physical and oceanographic factors affecting ecosystem stability and resilience; improve the monitoring of by-catch and discards in all fisheries to obtain better knowledge of the amount of fish actually taken; support research and technological development of fishing gear and practices to improve gear selectivity and reduce adverse impacts of fishing practices on habitat and biological diversity; and assess adverse human impacts of non-fisheries activities on the marine environment as well as the consequences of these impacts for sustainable use.
  • Under EAF, the application of a precautionary approach is particularly important because it is expected that uncertainty will be considerably greater than under traditional management focused on target resources only.

Relevant international agreements and frameworks

  • 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance
  • 1972 Stockholm Declaration of the UN Conference on the Human Development
  • 1973 Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES)
  • 1979 Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals
  • 1980 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)
  • 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
  • 1991 Global Environment Facility (GEF)
  • 1992 Declaration of the UN Conference on Environment and Development
  • 1992 Helsinki Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses
  • UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC)
  • 1992 UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD)
  • 1995 UN Agreement on Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks
  • 1995 Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries
  • Convention on Biological Diversity
  • Jakarta Mandate on Marine and Coastal Biological Diversity
  • UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC)
  • UNEP Regional Seas Conventions
  • 2001 Reykjavik Declaration on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem
  • 2002 Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

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