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The need for an ecosystem approach to fisheries

In both large- and small-scale fisheries, fishing activities frequently affect other components of the ecosystem in which the harvesting is occurring, for example, by-catch of other non-targeted species, physical damage to habitats or through food chain effects. In the context of sustainable development, responsible fisheries management needs to consider these broader impacts of fisheries on the ecosystem as a whole, including biodiversity, and should strive for sustainable use of the whole system, not just the target species. On the other hand, changes in the ecosystem including its species composition and habitat change affect fishing activities and their sustainability.

Growing awareness of this need has led to the development of an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries, defined by FAO as an approach that "strives to balance diverse societal objectives, by taking account of 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" (from  Fisheries management. 2. The ecosystem approach to fisheries).

The ecosystem approach to fisheries was formally agreed to by a number of FAO Members in the  Reykjavik Declaration on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem  from the  Report of the Reykjavik Conference on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem. Reykjavik, Iceland, 1–4 October 2001. Its intentions were reinforced by the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002. The WSSD Plan of Implementation included a decision to "Encourage the application by 2010 of the ecosystem approach, noting the Reykjavik Declaration on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem and decision 5/6 of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity" (para. 29d). The 25th Session of COFI in 2003 supported "... the role of FAO in facilitating the process of adoption of the ecosystem approach as agreed during the WSSD" (para 93 of the COFI Report). In the 27th Session of COFI in 2007 there was broad agreement by Member countries that EAF was the appropriate and necessary framework for fisheries management.

There is a need to begin to implement EAF in capture fisheries with immediate effect, but it is also recognized that additional research would help considerably in improving the effectiveness of the approach. Amongst a wide range of important questions to be addressed, the following are recognized in the EAF Guidelines (FAO, 2003) as being particularly important for assessing ecosystems and the impact of fisheries on ecosystems:

  • Obtain better information on how ecosystems function, especially in terms of inter-species interactions, and how these lead to higher ecosystem properties.

  • Conduct research on the impact of changes in the ecosystem including its species composition and habitat change which could affect fishing activities and their sustainability.

  • Conduct research into the impact of fishing on non-target species through by-catch and discarding and what it is doing to food-web interactions, habitats and biodiversity. Habitats relevant to critical ecosystem processes (such as nursery grounds) will need to be identified.

  • Develop appropriate multispecies bio-economic models, as well as extended ecological models that include the economic and social dimensions (private and societal returns, income distribution, employment, incidence of poverty and impact on food security).
The "Capacity Building for an Ecosystem Approach" project is focusing on these research tasks in particular. While some consideration is given to social and economic issues, and their very high priority is fully recognized, the project is focusing on biological and ecological interactions, taking due account of marine mammals where appropriate.
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