The ecosystem approach to fisheries management
Satellite imaging can be used as a management tool in better understanding ecosystems
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:
Relevant international agreements and frameworks