Letter to the Editor: Marine conservation and sustainable food production are on a collision course

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

Dear MEAM:

The last issue of MEAM included an interesting case of trade-offs between food production (in the form of food safety) and in-stream/watershed engineering for biodiversity conservation barriers in the Salinas Valley, California ("Integrated land-and-sea management: Examining three cases where marine practitioners are looking upstream", MEAM 6:6).

From the article, I infer the practitioners in that case have found some compromises that allow both needs (food production and biodiversity conservation) to come away with something positive. That is welcome news because it goes beyond the superficial platitudes that get wide circulation in the marine realm - i.e., how if we all just practice good conservation (typically with lots of big no-take zones) then all the fish stocks will recover and there will be fish for all.

Now, no one can dispute that overfishing or irresponsible fishing practices are harmful to medium-term food security, even if they allow (excessive) catches to be maintained in the short term. But achieving medium-term global food security is going to require more than a few local scale win-win choices for biodiversity and food production.

Fortunately at the global scale some of the planners and policy-makers know this. Take note of the FAO and World Bank 2008 study of the "sunken billions" that could be returned to global economies if fisheries were curtailed everywhere that stocks are depleted, then allowed to rebuild to their long-term most-productive states (www.worldbank.org/sunkenbillions). That's only a win-win when the foregone yield over the entire rebuilding period is considered optional food for the affected communities. In addition, think of the economic displacement caused by the harvest reductions needed for rebuilding, particularly in parts of the world where viable alternatives to fishing are not available. A soon-to-be-published follow-up study estimates that all those recovered billions in economic value might cover only two-thirds of the social assistance needed to take care of all the displaced employment.

Combine this with estimates that Serge Garcia and I did for a 2011 paper in the ICES Journal of Marine Science special issue on fisheries and climate change (http://icesjms.oxfordjournals.org/content/68/6.toc). Taking into account the UN world population projections to 2050, and the proportion of dietary protein currently provided by fish in the parts of the world that will experience the most population growth, our estimates suggest that protein from capture fisheries and aquaculture will have to increase by another 50% over 2010 levels just to break even with current food security levels. Then we accounted for forecasts by FAO and OECD of expected declines in wheat and rice production as climate change makes summers hotter and drier in many wheat-producing areas and makes storms more severe in rice-producing areas (with concomitant flooding). A *lot* more aquatic protein is going to be needed, as livestock is not an option in parts of the world where grain production will already be declining.

It is becoming clear that there is an inseparable tripod of issues facing marine resource management: poverty alleviation and food security in a changing climate - sustainable fisheries and aquaculture - and aquatic biodiversity conservation. There are no easy solutions out there where all perspectives will walk away thinking that they are the winners. People must start having some serious discussions about some very painful choices that will need to be made in the next decade or so. MEAM might have a role in trying to prompt such dialogue.

Jake Rice
Jake Rice is Chief Scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa, Canada. E-mail: Jake.Rice [at] dfo-mpo.gc.ca


Good opinion piece. Shame about the title... I would say that the text better supports the position that marine conservation and sustainable food production are on a converging course. That may sound like wordsmithing, but "collision" implies going in opposite (or nearly so) directions, whereas "converging" suggests that many of the issues surrounding food security have elements in common with securing natural health and productivity. Yes, trade-offs have to be made (nothing new there!), but if there is overarching agreement, for example, that overfishing is bad for both food security and the natural environment, then the discussion becomes a question on how to best end it. That is very different from the entrenched positions we have seen in the past. So, bring it on!

The “inseparable tripod” described by Jake Rice and supported by several global-scale studies calls for difficult, indeed painful, choices among sustainable production, food security and livelihoods, and biodiversity conservation.  Deliberations at the level of the UN, nation-states, even MEAM are needed, but we should not forget how essential it is to expand participation in these discussions to fisherfolk and others at the front line, and to seek a larger and more diverse set of approaches to the problem. Just one example comes to mind:  how can local fishers accept the need for cutbacks in catches of overfished or threatened species, as a tradeoff for future improvements in harvests, when they lack secure rights to future harvests?  The only “standard” answer to this question now in marine economics is privatization of fishing rights, through Individual transferable quotas, but that solution can truly jeopardize the futures of poorer and smaller-scale fishers, the ones for whom livelihoods and food security are truly at stake.  What alternatives can they, and we, come up with?  Some sort of community-based tenure might be an answer.  But the general point is the need for truly creative and participatory deliberations on this most serious set of questions.

In a recent letter to the editor of MEAM, Jake Rice argues that food production and marine biodiversity conservation are “on a collision course” exacerbated by climate change and other major drivers of change, and that “achieving medium-term global food security is going to require more than a few local scale win-win choices for biodiversity and food production”.

In his analysis J. Rice stressed some important points that are worth re-iterating. First the over-simplistic narrative according to which food security is ultimately a resource conservation issue. As we all know marine resource sustainability is a necessary but far from being sufficient condition to ensure food security. Other critical aspects related to distribution and governance are also essential, a point that big philanthropic conservation organizations too often choose to ignore. It is indeed (politically) easier to fight for the protection of fish resources than to address the reasons why the rent generated by the exploitation of these resources does not benefit the local population who initially depended on these resources for their livelihood and food security.

Second, he recalls that fisheries’ governance reforms have so far been generally justified from an economic and ecological perspective, but failed to account for the social dimension which is –again- often conveniently eluded in these documents by sentences of the like “it will be important to analyse potential impacts of policy change and to identify mitigating measures as necessary” –see discussion in IDS Policy Brief 40. Yet as we showed in a recent study (Béné et al. 2010), the social costs of implementing these global reforms would by far exceed the economic benefits that one could (in theory) expect to generate from implementing unconditionally these reforms.

We can therefore not agree more with J. Rice’s analysis. What perhaps is missing in his assessment is the link to aquaculture. Talking about current and future food security in relation to marine resources needs to incorporate the contribution of aquaculture. Products derived from aquaculture will contribute to an increasing share of global fishery supply for human consumption. By 2018, farmed fish is expected to exceed captured fish for human consumption for the first time, and its share is projected at 52 percent in 2021.  

Obviously we are not saying that aquaculture is the panacea and that its contribution to food security simply adds up to the fisheries contribution. In reality the water is much muddier (if I may allow myself this analogy...) when it comes to the interaction between aquaculture and fisheries, but here again we need to refrain ourselves from adopting too quick and too over-simplistic views. In effect we are still very much in the dark in terms of what the future has in store for us, essentially due to a lack of reliable data.

So if J. Rice’s ultimate objective with his “collision course” narrative is to draw more attention to these growing issues, in an attempt to engage a wider constituency and gain policy traction on the issues, then we certainly support his initiative. He might in that regard be happy to hear about the growing interest that the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is showing for fish in relation to food security and nutrition. The CFS has recently appointed a High Level Panel of Expert to explore more comprehensively the “contribution of sustainable fisheries and aquaculture to food security and nutrition”. The report -to be released next year in June- should hopefully provide us with a clearer picture on these issues.

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