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World Ocean Forum

COP15: a Decade for Biodiversity

by John Bohorquez, PhD

Credit: Renata Romeo / Ocean Image Bank

“Decades of unsustainable fishing have left many fish stocks in serious decline. A third have collapsed altogether. Plastic pollution is a grave issue for our oceans, but industrial overfishing is far more dangerous. If we continue to harvest the seas in this way, it’s not just fisheries that will collapse. The whole ocean system could follow.” — Sir David Attenborough, Our Planet — “High Seas”, 2019

It’s been three years since the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its global assessment that left the world in shock at the state of life on earth. The report found that biodiversity was undergoing an ‘unprecedented’ rate of decline, confirming fears among scientists that we are in the midst of earth’s sixth mass extinction that could annihilate the natural world. But unlike a meteor from space or natural climate events that caused previous mass extinctions, this one is being caused by humans. And if there’s a silver lining there, it’s that we also have the tools to stop it…if we act on it.

So, it’s good news to many that, after more than two years of delays from COVID-19, the most important political event for biodiversity in over ten years is about to happen. One that has been described as equally consequential for life on earth as the 2015 Paris Agreement was for climate change. From December 7th — 19th, policy makers, scientists, and other concerned groups from around the world will convene for the UN COP 15 Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, Canada, where the parties will work to agree on targets that will steer global biodiversity conservation policies over the next decade.

What types of commitments should come out of this meeting? The list of ocean threats is long, and seemingly more serious by the day. In a 2015 study of scientists’ perceptions of threats to marine environments, overfishing was the most frequently listed. Organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and World Economic Forum have also described overfishing as the top threat to the ocean.

A sschool of vermillion snapper. Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

What’s the big deal? For starters, we know over a third of fish stocks around the world are over exploited. But the threat to biodiversity from overfishing extends far beyond just the individual fish we pull out of the water.

Top predators like sharks, tuna, and billfish can be important for ecosystem stability. As highly migratory species, they can also help with ecosystem connectivity and nutrient transport.

Smaller species like forage fish are important food sources for larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. All along the way, fish recycle nutrients that support plankton growth, leading to carbon sequestration and sink to the bottom of the ocean when they die, all helping to mitigate climate change (The Pew Charitable Trusts).

With many species at risk of extinction, it’s not unfeasible to think overfishing really could lead to wider collapse of ocean ecosystems. And when we look at fisheries conservation this way, it’s clear that science-based policies like harvest strategies (aka management procedures) that have helped many such species of fish recover from historic declines are critical for biodiversity conservation at large and need to be part of the conversation at COP15. Even ecosystem-wide, area-based approaches such as marine protected areas — the focus of one of the most high-profile proposals at COP15 to protect 30% of the ocean — need to be accompanied by sustainable fisheries management in order to succeed.

A school of squid. Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

The scientific and policy community effectively communicated this twelve years ago, when overfishing was given its own dedicated goal under the Aichi Targets from 2010, the predecessor of COP15 that set global biodiversity goals through 2020:

Target 6

By 2020 all fish and invertebrate stocks and aquatic plants are managed and harvested sustainably, legally and applying ecosystem based approaches, so that overfishing is avoided, recovery plans and measures are in place for all depleted species, fisheries have no significant adverse impacts on threatened species and vulnerable ecosystems and the impacts of fisheries on stocks, species and ecosystems are within safe ecological limits.

Unfortunately, like every other Aichi Target, the world fell short of this goal. But we can’t give up on these targets, and similar ones for fisheries should be adopted once again for the next decade at COP15. Because while fisheries and marine biodiversity at large remain under threat, we have seen some improvements that indicate that some measures are working.

Just last month, a major study was published in Science Magazine that profiled the population status of different types of marine and terrestrial life. Oceanic tunas, billfishes, and some sharks were the only ones whose fortunes had turned upwards. In over seventy years of fisheries management, there have been notable improvements for some of the most over-exploited species in the last decade thanks to proper management and oversight, including harvest strategies. The Southern Bluefin Tuna is a particularly prominent example, with its population increasing by over 300% since 2011 when the harvest strategy for this stock was adopted.

Photo by kate @prongs94

And this might only be the beginning. As we work to make harvest strategies more mainstream, we are beginning to see more sophisticated models that, for example, allowed for the development of a multi-stock harvest strategy for Atlantic bluefin tuna that was adopted by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in November. Multi-species harvest strategies are on the horizon, as are ecosystem-based harvest strategies that are being advocated for in several countries, including the Mediterranean Sea. Harvest strategies can also be applied to bycatch to help manage other marine life, such as oceanic sharks that have seen worrisome declines.

Not only have harvest strategies helped many fisheries recover or solidify a sustainable future, but we are also only just scratching the surface of the ability for this tool to help build a sustainable future for the ocean. The next decade could see unprecedented scaling for this fisheries management approach, and its applicability to the biodiversity crisis must be taken into account in Montreal.

The UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) is taking place in Montreal, Canada December 7–19, 2022.

John Bohorquez, PhD is a Senior Program Associate with The Ocean Foundation’s International Fisheries Conservation Project. He is also an affiliate of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University and The Conservation Finance Alliance.

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