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Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission

Why do we need to use an Ecosystem Approach to Fishery Management?

Capture fisheries play a major role in the livelihoods of millions of people in Asia

The total global production from capture fisheries and aquaculture reached 145 million tonnes in 2012 – 90 million from capture fisheries and 55 million from aquaculture. The value of fish traded internationally was estimated at US$60 billion in 2012. The capture fisheries of the Asia-Pacific contribute about 50 percent of the global fish supply and the region produced 90 percent of this global aquaculture production. 

Fisheries play an important role in global efforts to eliminate hunger and malnutrition through supplying fish and other aquatic products which are rich in protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. In 2010, fish accounted for 17 percent of the global population’s intake of animal protein and 6.5 percent of all protein consumed. Globally, fish provides about three billion people with almost 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein, and 4.3 billion people with about 15 percent of such protein. In developing countries, fish and fishery products often represent an affordable source of animal protein that may not only be cheaper than other animal protein sources, but also preferred and part of local and traditional recipes.

Fish contributes to, or exceeds, 50 percent of total animal protein intake in some small island developing states, as well as Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Worldwide, it has been estimated that 12.5 million people are employed in activities related to fishing, and the Asia-Pacific region has the highest proportion of these (around 80 percent of the total). The majority of fisheries and aquaculture farmers in the world are still small-scale artisanal fishers and aquaculture farmers. 

The livelihoods and nutritional security of millions of people in the Asia-Pacific region, most with few alternatives to supplement their incomes, are therefore highly dependent on fisheries and aquaculture.

There is a pressing need for sustainable management of capture fisheries 

Despite their enormous significance, fisheries in the Asia-Pacific region face a number of challenges. The coastal waters of the Asia-Pacific region are the most productive a biologically diverse in the world, but decades of overfishing have led to changes in many fisheries. This degraded state has come about mainly because governments and stakeholders have been slow to adopt sustainable development practices, and instead have focused on increasing production. This largely reflects the fact that many countries in the region are developing rapidly and there are extremely high human population densities in coastal areas. Many of these populations also have a particularly high dependence on fisheries for food security and livelihoods.

When left unmanaged, fisheries usually develop to a point where the fisheries resources become so degraded that the socio-economic returns are much less than those potentially available. These declining returns affect food security, poverty alleviation, employment and national revenue (and rent). This mis-directed policy and mis-management of marine fisheries and coastal resources has an impact on coastal communities and vulnerable groups in particular. The impacts are seen in boats lying idle along the coast and in ports; high unemployment; lower profits; longer fishing trips (with increased safety risks); and migration of fishers to find work either within their own countries or overseas; fishers being forced from their livelihoods by disease; rising costs; and encroachment of other users.

The majority of harvestable fishery resources that are found in these overfished fisheries are fast growing, short-lived species and the majority of these fishery stocks have high turnover rates and short recovery periods of biomass rehabilitation. Effort restrictions, habitat protection, and other management actions have the potential to yield fairly immediate positive results in terms of stock recovery. Longer lived species, which have been seriously overfished will take longer to recover, if ever, and will require specific additional actions. Experience in several parts of the world has shown that major ecological damage can be reversible and that the economic waste, already evident in many areas across the Asia-Pacific region, can be reclaimed.

Conventional fisheries management is being replaced by the Ecosystem Approach to Fishery Management

In the past, fisheries have been managed mainly from a sectoral perspective. The main objectives of management have been to maximize the benefits (often considered as economic benefits) while trying to ensure that the catch is commensurate with the natural productivity of the harvest stocks. This past practice is referred to here as “conventional fisheries management”. Its main characteristics are the focus on fishing activity that affects single or target stocks, but not the broader effects of fishing on both the ecosystem that supports the fishery but also the human stakeholders who may or may not be involved in the fishing activity, but who are dependent on other linked ecosystem services.

If we consider the wide scope of threats and issues facing fisheries and their supporting ecosystems, it is obvious that conventional fisheries management does not cover them all and a broader, more inclusive approach is needed. Once we recognize the benefits that ecosystems bring to human societies, we can understand the need for managing these same ecosystems more holistically (i.e. going beyond a focus on managing only the activities relating to target species of fish).

Taking a holistic approach requires a broader understanding of the ecosystem and stakeholders that are directly or indirectly linked to a particular fishery. It also requires that we balance the opinions and needs of these different groups, based on priorities and trade-offs.

This may seem complicated, but the Ecosystem Approach to Fishery Management is a holistic, planning approach which engages with stakeholders to enable this to be achieved.