We face a global crisis. Food from the ocean feeds three billion people and supports the livelihoods of 12% of the world’s population, but 30% of the world’s fisheries are overfished and a further 60% are fished to the limits of sustainability. In the face of the global pandemic, we are worried. Worried about the impact restrictions on the movement of people and seafood is having on the blue economy, unsure how it can recover and, crucially, concerned that recovery will be affected by fundamental conflicts around food security and poverty.

The small-scale fishing communities with whom FFI works throughout the world are inherently vulnerable to outside impacts, and a global pandemic brings critical challenges, disrupting every aspect of life including food systems. We find ourselves in an extraordinary situation where global supply chains closed overnight and fishers found themselves with no market for their products. As export markets closed abruptly and the tourist industry crumbled, fishers were left holding seafood products whose value had crashed, and in some cases the costs of fishing were no longer outweighed by the market value of the catch.

Remote island communities are particularly at risk without revenue streams from fishing or tourism. In response to these basic needs, FFI has provided direct relief support to island communities in Honduras, Myanmar and Indonesia who were struggling to put food on the table. The current focus on social impacts is understandable and urgent, but we should look to the future with hope as there may be biological benefits from global shifts in fishing effort. One thing is clear: the need for financial sustainability of marine conservation programmes and marine protected area management to shift away from the usual reliance on ecotourism and focus on more innovative financial tools such as blue carbon and blue bonds, which should be more resilient to future economic shocks.

Air Pinang traditional fishing waters, or lhok, on Simeulue Island, Aceh, Indonesia. Credit: Rob Harris/FFI
Traditional fishing boat at Simeulue Island, Aceh, Indonesia. Credit: Rob Harris/FFI

Shifting consumer demands are driving local trends and, in places where it is feasible, we are seeing the acceleration of opportunities for alternative ways of selling catch, including online offerings such as fish boxes. In Scotland, FFI is actively promoting the development of local markets and working to ensure fisheries products are being sold at a price that could be maintained, and competitive, when markets resume, so that there are some longer-term, transformative opportunities around the current loss of the European markets.

The challenge for us now is to see fisheries reopen in a managed and sustainable way. The worry is that as soon as export markets are reopened and supply chains re-established, fishing pressure becomes immense as fishers who have struggled to make ends meet during lockdown restrictions race to generate income. There is a critical need and opportunity to work intensively with fishers around the world to manage the post-lockdown recovery in ways that do not jeopardise marine resources and that are a step towards improved, higher-value, sustainable fisheries rather than a scramble in the opposite direction.

We are seeing positive stories from communities with high levels of financial resilience where savings and loans schemes are already established and communities have diverse income sources. Promoting diversification at the local level may provide fishers with greater resilience to mitigate future shocks, and we need to ensure the fisheries industry is integrated effectively into national economic reactivation programmes. As national economies attempt to recover from lockdowns, there is a concern that governments may be more willing to support development projects that help to kick-start the economy and provide employment, rather than fully considering the environmental impacts.

FFI works with fishers around the world to sustainably manage marine resources. Credit: © JABRUSON
FFI works with fishers around the world to sustainably manage marine resources. Credit: © JABRUSON

2020 was billed as the ocean super year, with a number of marine-focused sustainable development goals maturing. The pandemic has led to the postponement of crucial meetings and conferences that were designed to put much needed pressure on governments to make progress towards these global goals. Sadly, it is clear that several key targets will be missed, including those focused around sustainable fishing and marine protection – this despite calls by the UK government (among others) to support the 30by30 initiative, which aims to secure formal protection for at least 30% of our ocean by 2030. That target is looking increasingly ambitious considering that just 17% of national marine waters are currently protected globally. But this ambition was needed before the pandemic, and now – given the additional challenges generated by the global response to Covid-19 – it is more vital than ever.

These are testing times in which to celebrate World Oceans Day, and rough seas may be on all our horizons as we grapple with the so-called “new normal”. However, it is important to remain optimistic as we take the time during lockdown to appreciate our #bluenature and recognise the sheer power and bountifulness of the ocean. If something can provide us with energy and food, and protect us from ourselves through its ability to regulate the global temperature, surely it is incumbent on all of us to provide the breathing space it needs to flourish and sustain itself by ensuring that we protect it effectively?