Common Oceans - A partnership for sustainability and biodiversity in the ABNJ

Four major achievements in helping protect our oceans

Celebrating encouraging results from the Common Oceans ABNJ Program

30 January 2020

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Protecting our oceans is no easy task.  Despite knowing how essential oceans are for our ecosystems, for biodiversity, for food, for income and even for our existence, oceans are vast and managing them is complex, especially as large parts of them are a shared resource.

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The Program is supporting the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems and species such as deep sea
corals. © Fisheries and Oceans Canada/Ellen Kenchington

Did you know that 40 percent of the earth is covered by what we call the Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ)? These waters, also known as common oceans, are not governed by one single nation. Instead, all nations are jointly responsible for keeping them healthy and managed in a sustainable way. As you can imagine, working together with so many different stakeholders can be difficult. This is where the Common Oceans ABNJ Program comes in.

Since it began in 2014 to its end in December 2019, the Common Oceans ABNJ Program has brought together global players around the world, improving fisheries management and biodiversity conservation in common oceans. Funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and led by FAO, the program has encouraged cooperation between countries and raised awareness on ocean issues, offered training programmes and implemented initiatives to make fisheries more sustainable. Here are just four of the ways that the Common Oceans Program has helped make our oceans cleaner and more sustainable:

1. Reducing overfishing of tuna

Tuna is a staple in many diets across the world and, every year, approximately 7 million tonnes of various tuna species land at ports worldwide. It’s such a big business that the annual value is almost USD 10 billion. The strong demand, combined with overcapacity of fishing fleets, means there is excessive pressure to catch this fish.

The Common Oceans Program was instrumental in developing more sustainable and transparent procedures to set tuna catch limits in line with scientists’ advice. The program is also facilitating better collaboration between Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), as they are responsible for managing tuna stocks. Through these efforts, eight out of 13 major commercial tuna stocks no longer experience overfishing.

2. Protecting marine life

Every year, thousands of marine species such as sharks, seabirds, sea turtles and other marine mammals are accidentally caught in commercial fishing gear. The Common Oceans Program has improved gillnet fishing techniques and lowered bycatch, simply by placing the nets two metres deeper. This simple, low-cost solution has reduced the mortality of marine mammals caught by gillnet fisheries in the Indian Ocean by 98 percent!

Furthermore, the Program collected new data on the number of untargeted marine mammals killed in Pakistani fisheries due to gillnet fishing and confirmed that highly unselective fishing gear killed thousands of marine mammals every year. The project launched a training programme for fishers to boost awareness on threatened species and best practices for their safe release. The training in multiple languages has ensured that crew on gillnet fishing vessels in Pakistan now know how to safely release threatened species back into the sea, as well as keep records of the quantities, sizes and survival rates of animals caught alongside fish.

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Improved fishing techniques has lowered the bycatch of untargeted species
caught by Pakistani gillnet fisheries in the Indian Ocean. © WWF/Rab Nawaz
Innovative technologies, such as Electronic Monitoring Systems as seen above,
have been tested to tackle IUU fishing. ©FAO/Kyle LaFerriere


3. Safeguarding Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems

Fishing can also have unintended consequences on fragile ecosystems that are home to important groups of species, communities or habitats.  Part of the FAO-GEF programme involved mobilising and empowering RFMOs to protect deep-sea marine life by supporting new assessment protocols. In designated areas, before any fishing activities can begin, impact assessments on the marine biodiversity and ecosystems must be conducted. Fishing can only occur once the results of the impact assessment are known.

Thanks to these protocols and strengthened cooperation, 18 new sites have been established to protect vulnerable marine life - such as valuable corals and sponges - from negative fishing impacts.

4. Tackling Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing

Thanks to the Common Oceans Program, there are now better tools available to fight illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) fishing - one of the greatest threats to fish, ecosystems and livelihoods. It undermines efforts to manage fisheries sustainably and takes resources away from legitimate fishers, which may lead to the collapse of small local businesses. One new tool spearheaded by this program includes an Electronic Monitoring System (EMS), which monitors fishing activity and records fishing operations using high-definition cameras, satellite geolocation and vessel monitoring systems.  Land-based observers review and analyse the footage, identifying any possible infractions and providing estimates of marine life that may have been captured by accident. The initiative’s success has since attracted investment from the private sector to roll out the EMS on a bigger scale, showing its worth as one of the most useful tools for detecting and stopping IUU fishing.

Over the past five years, the Common Oceans ABNJ Program has made great leaps towards the preservation of our oceans. It has boosted collaboration between countries all over the word, encouraging them to work together towards a common goal. It has collected data and conducted much-needed research on the effects of fishing operations. It has also directly helped reduce the number of marine mammals caught accidentally. Programmes like these are crucial if we are to protect our oceans for future generations, helping to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 14.

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