Reviving the Mediterranean Sea and Fisheries: dream or reality?

© Claudia Amico

The Our Ocean 2017 Conference, which opens today, will address some of the most pressing ocean issues globally, and for Europe and the Mediterranean specifically.

Taking place over two days in Malta, the Conference rightly highlights sustainable fisheries as one of its key areas of action.

The Mediterranean Sea is a fitting backdrop to the conference because it shows how urgent a priority moving towards a sustainable model of fisheries must be.

Sustainable fisheries ensure healthy and productive fish populations and provide good employment opportunities and livelihoods to local communities; they are essential for human wellbeing.

The Mediterranean fishing industry generates about three billion euros per year and directly employs about 360,000 people, of which 60% are artisanal fishers.

But this industry’s future is becoming increasingly threatened by the disappearance of its main natural resource: currently, 85% of assessed Mediterranean fish stocks are overfished, while some species of high commercial value are in an alarming state due to overexploitation.

At the global level, the situation is also of great concern, with 31% of the world’s assessed fish stocks classified as overfished.

As someone who works closely with fishers, I have no doubts that we are facing a global fisheries crisis, and no easy solutions are at hand. Decades of top-down fisheries management failed to account for the full value of marine ecosystems and to create a sense of ownership and self-investment amongst fishers.

This year, the European Commission took promising action by calling upon Mediterranean states to take urgent action to ensure a future for Mediterranean fisheries.

As a result, several countries have signed the “MedFish4Ever’ Declaration, committing to a 10-year plan to save fish stocks and protect the region’s ecological and economic wealth.

Speaking of wealth, WWF’s new report calculates that the Mediterranean Sea’s natural assets are valued at more than 5.6 trillion USD.

Overall, ocean-related economic activities in the Mediterranean are worth over 450 billion USD per year, making it the fifth largest economy in the region, representing 20% of global ‘gross marine product’ in an area that is only 1% of the global ocean area.

But the ocean economy of this unique region is at risk of sinking due to mismanagement and overexploitation in many arenas.

The good news is that not all is lost.

Fishing has been in the blood and culture of the Mediterranean people for centuries, including mine as I grew up in Sicily, where the tradition of fishing has been handed down from one generation to the next year for longer than anyone can remember.

In past years, we have witnessed this tradition, and the economy of fishing, slowly dying off.

However, over the last couple of years, fishers have begun to take action to revert the damage caused to Mediterranean fisheries.

Fishing communities are recognizing that their future is in their hands and that only by reconciling fishing with the restoration of the marine environment will they be able to recover stocks, increase catches, and ultimately improve their livelihoods.

WWF has been working with a number of these communities in Italy, Greece, France, Tunisia, Croatia, Albania and in many other countries to help bring fishers into the decision-making process and to provide them with the opportunity to craft solutions.

This has already brought positive change.

The sense of urgency for changing the current development model of the Mediterranean, including fisheries management, has finally reached the top of the political agenda, both at the regional and global levels. This is unprecedented.

At the Our Ocean conference, I expect to see this sense of urgency turned into action to revive the Mediterranean Sea’s economy and set the region on a sustainable path that will benefit its natural environment and the millions of people depending on it.

The efforts in fisheries must also be undertaken in parallel with major reforms in other ocean sectors, particular in tourism, which also rely heavily on a healthy Mediterranean.

Among the several commitments announced this week, WWF will be speaking about an important investment to shift the Mediterranean small-scale fisheries sector towards sustainability and livelihood security: stay tuned at @WWFEU and #OurOcean!

Giuseppe di Carlo is the Director of WWF’s Mediterranean Marine Initiative.