Reports of nature recovering due to the current lockdown bring both respite for global fish populations and an increase in unsustainable fishing practices. 

Sustainable Development Goal 14 aims to counteract these effects by conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. The SDG targets for 2020 include:

  • Sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to achieve healthy and productive oceans;
  • Regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and destructive fishing practices to restore fish stocks;
  • Prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing similar subsidies.

Surface observations may indicate positive progress toward SDG14, due to reduced fishing owing to the lockdown, with exports expected to drop by about 33% this year (UNCTAD, 2020). If fishing ceases for a year, 40% of fish stocks could recover, with some like Herring doubling. Similar recoveries were recorded during WWII but were short lived as technologies developed during the war contributed to intensified fishing (Smithsonian Magazine, 2020). Furthermore, tourism and marine transport industries have slowed, with port calls of passenger ships falling by 29% in May (UNCTAD, 2020).

However, containment measures due to COVID-19 may negatively impact efforts towards sustainable oceans (FAO, 2002). Mass migration from urban to rural areas or island homes due to job loss has increased small-scale fishing for subsistence. Unlike large fleets that stay off shore for longer, small fishers engage in daily fishing closer to shore with more efficient but damaging methods (such as night-time spearing and nets). This further pressures already fragile marine ecosystems (WEF, 2020).

Three billion people’s livelihoods depend on ocean resources. Seafood and fish products generate more than $150 billion per annum and over 80% of goods are transported over water. This demand has threatened the ocean ecosystem, as 34% of global fish stocks are below biologically sustainable levels due to overfishing (UNCTAD, 2020). Furthermore, overfishing of high-demand fish like Pacific blue-fin tuna have caused fish stocks to plummet by 90% (Smithsonian Magazine, 2020). Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, climate change, and government subsidies further contribute to these unsustainable practices, making small-scale fishers more vulnerable due to depleting fish populations (WEF, 2020).

Three billion people’s livelihoods depend on ocean resources.’

Extended lockdowns could reduce tuna demand (despite heavy demand initially from panic stocking) (Devpolicy, 2020). In addition, halted observer programmes reporting on tuna fishing catches and methods has reduced the ability to monitor tuna fishing. This may lead to an increase in IUU fishing, which accounts for up to 26 million metric tons of fish caught globally. In addition, IUUs are involved in labour exploitation, a large cause for concern if left unaddressed (Seafoodsource, 2020).

Global lockdowns have also affected marine research and active conservation efforts (Mongabay, 2020). In addition, pirates, poachers, and smugglers continue to operate in waters with reduced security owing to the lockdown. To add to this, the increased use of plastic during the pandemic is polluting the oceans (Oceanconcervancy, 2020).

With the new-found relief for fish populations due to the lockdown, mitigating the effects of the above will be crucial for achieving the SDG 14 indicators for 2020.

By Iman Hameed

A contributor and member of the Public Health Pathways team.

1 July 2020

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