Conditions for sustainable development


The notion of sustainable development came into its own at the landmark United Nationals (UN) Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. There, the concepts of resource development and utilization emerged as ones that are and must be closely linked to the issues of conservation.

This idea was developed further in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in that UNCLOS addressed not only the issue of protecting marine ecosystems from damaging activities and harm, but also the matter of exploitation which would contribute to sustainable development - development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.1

During this period, other definitions of sustainable development were also emerging. For example, in 1988 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Council defined sustainable development as: the management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations. Such development conserves land, water, plant genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technologically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable.2

Efforts such as these, plus the May 1992 Declaration of Cancun made at the International Conference on Responsible Fishing, helped to set the stage for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and for further enunciation of the concept of the sustainable development of fisheries and other marine resources.

Despite these efforts, essentially all fishing areas of the world have fisheries that are not being sustainably utilized and are having to cope with the major problems of (i) overfishing and (ii) poor economic performance -  in short, the sypmtoms of overcapacity. As is to be expected with overcapacity and overfishing, there are also increasingly significant signs of social stress and conflict both over the access to fisheries resources and over the allocation of these limited resources among different users.

Considering that there are forecasts for increases in demand for fish and fishery products in the next decades and that there are limits on the productivity of wild fisheries, ensuring the sustainable development of fisheries resources and maintaining the contribution of fisheries to food security is of serious concern in both the short- and medium-term.

Elements of the challenge

The current basic challenge - and the key source of problems - is to address the inadequacy of the behavioural incentives that are created by many management systems. Operating under the principle of free and open access creates conflicting and disparate incentives among users, other stakeholders, and managers and simply does not ensure the sustainability of these resources. Yet, a large number of fisheries are managed in this way instead of being managed using incentive-aligning strategies.

To make matters worse, the process of instituting more explicit access rights that create and align stakeholders' incentives requires making policy decisions that have potentially enormous political and financial costs. Hence, many governments encounter great difficulties when even considering implementing the changes that are required.

Furthermore, politically unpalatable transitions to more effective fisheries management are made even more difficult by inadequate institutional frameworks (in terms of outdated laws and regulations, poor information flows, and limited stakeholder participation); weak decision-making mechanisms; and a general lack of integration of sectoral development policies.

In addition to this fundamental challenge, societal awareness and demands about fisheries-related issues are increasing public scrutiny and involvement in the debate about all sorts of efforts to effect management measures to secure sustainable utilization.

Societal awareness - about the environmental impacts of fishing gears and technologies (e.g. driftnets, trawling, and destructive methods), environmental modification (e.g. aquaculture-related damage to mangroves), and the impact of global environmental degradation on fisheries - is raising concerns about the ways in which seafood is produced or procured, its quality, and the health effects of consuming it.

Societal demands for increasingly higher standards of resource stewardship from users and managers, alike, are requiring greater transparency and accountability and an active desire to participate and shape utilization decisions. Unfortunately, this is happening even while the capacity of many fishery bodies is still insufficient for effecting management or for fully implementing the new international instruments, particularly at regional levels. Many fisheries bodies are still simply advisory, have weak decision-making rules, and lack sufficient resources.

In addition the diverse demands of fisheries management are being exacerbated by the continuously changing and broadening societal expectations such as trying to link enormous issues such as ecosystem concerns to more localized matters of managing particular fisheries. Furthermore, this is occurring despite our incomplete understanding of ecosystems and the high levels of uncertainty associated with our knowledge of aquatic ecosystems, their natural variations, and their resilience to fishing.

Possible solutions

To help improve the overall nature of fisheries and aquaculture policy, it is important for countries to look to the comprehensive policy foundations provided by the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the International Plan of Action for the Management of Fishing Capacity (IPOA-Capacity), the guidelines for its implementation, and the overarching notion of adopting a precautionary approach to the use of fisheries resources.

All relevant countries, particularly the most important fishing and coastal nations, should ratify the new international policy instruments adopted during the 1990s to further strengthen the global institutional frameworks for fisheries. It is also important for countries to effectively increase their commitment to supporting these policies by strengthening national and regional frameworks, strengthening regional fishery commissions, and increasing their collaboration with regional environmental commissions.

Strategies that create incentives for supporting governance - such as increased transparency, due process, the use of participatory management strategies (e.g. co-management, community-based management strategies) to ensure greater stakeholder participation and devolution of responsibility - need to be designed and implemented. Similarly, management-support tools that include the use of indicators of sustainable development should be used to facilitate corrective responses.

It is also important to recognize the limits to which fisheries can be sustainably utilized. Despite their importance for employment, food security, and poverty alleviation in poor rural coastal areas and, particularly in low-income food-deficit countries (LIFDCs), fisheries can no longer be seen as providing either the ultimate and limitless safety net for the unemployed or the solution to such problems. Similarly, although women and economically disadvantaged groups are important target groups for development, their involvement in the fisheries sector must take account of the limited fisheries resources and the ecological sustainability of the marine environment.

Ultimately, the basic solution to the problems of fisheries governance will require setting up rights-based management systems that clarify, more fully define who gets what, and align the behavioural incentives of stakeholders. Thus, these management systems will need to be designed so that, even as they limit catches, they create positive incentives both to not over-invest in capacity and to capture the benefits of technological innovations (e.g. use of improved gears, post harvest and processing practices and value-adding strategies for utilizing allowable harvests more efficiently).

In situations where individuals compete among themselves, systems of individual quantitative and transferable quotas that reinforce their rights and responsibilities need to be put in place. Similarly, in situations where communities are the predominant social unit, systems of community-based transferable quotas will need to be designed to allocate utilization rights and responsibilities to communities. Finally, management systems will have to explicitly address the issue of payment for the privilege to use the world's fisheries resources for private gain.

Action taken

There have been a number of positive achievements in the fisheries sector. Since the early 1950s, fisheries development policies and trade have led to an increasing amount of fish supplied as food on a per capita basis despite concomitant increases in population. During the last two to three decades, fisheries have become a major source of income and foreign exchange for many coastal developing countries. Aquaculture has contributed to increasing the supply of fish and helping lower prices.

Societal awareness of fisheries resources and of the impacts of fishing activities on the environment continues to increase. The precautionary approach to fisheries management is now part of many management strategies. New legislation has been put in place including improving the sustainability of marine aquaculture, particularly close to mangroves. Systems of indicators intended to support the concept of ecologically sustainable development have been designed and are being tested.

The fisheries policy framework has significantly improved with the entry into force of the UNCLOS, the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement, the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement and the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct. Additionally, a number of new fisheries commissions have been established, thereby putting practically all the world resources, including in the high seas, under some sort of management framework. Members to FAO are showing a greater awareness of fisheries issues and a commitment to act to resolve them both with International Plans of Action (IPOAs) on capacity, sharks, bycatch of birds, illegal fishing that have been endorsed by the FAO Committee on Fisheries and with requests for radical improvements to national fisheries policies and legislation.


The scrutiny being given to fisheries by the international media will keep a high level the pressure on management authorities and stakeholders to work to ensure that fisheries are utilized on a more sustainable basis. The rapid increase in awareness about the role of access rights, the growth of experience and competence in implementing incentive-aligning, rights-based fisheries management strategies, and the likely further development of ecolabelling are positive factors in the quest for a more sustainable contribution of fisheries to human sustainable development.

However, the opportunities resulting from globalization and increasing trade also create increased risks to sustainable development wherever the capacity of fisheries management to capture the power of these evolving market forces is generally insufficient, especially, in the developing world. Faster progress towards the sustainable development of fisheries should therefore be expected to come from the developed world, where transition costs might be bearable and capacity sufficient. However, surprises may come out of the developing world where, sometimes, the capacity to change may be higher.

1 This definition of sustainable development from the 1989 Report of the General Assembly is found in the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (A/42/427, Annex, Chap 2, para 1)
2 FAO Council, 94th Session, 1988