REACTION: The Coral Triangle and the desire for sustainable fisheries
What do we know?We know that the Coral Triangle is the world’s center of marine life and that it supports hundreds of millions of livelihoods, with its marine and coastal habitats producing seafood for millions of people in the region and around the world. The combined value of capture fisheries and aquaculture in the Coral Triangle was estimated at USD11.7 billion in 2007, contributing 1.2–6.8% of the national Gross Domestic Products of countries in this region.
We know that this productivity is the result of specific natural and ecological features and the economic activities of millions of people in this region. When the economic activities do not negatively impact key ecological processes, and when harvest rates stay within the range of the natural productivity, the various benefits provided by the ocean can continue to support the needs of this region.
Scientists tell us that this productivity comes, on the one hand, from the unique oceanographic and ecologic features of this region. For example, the upwelling created by water masses pushing in and out of this region from the Pacific Ocean to the east, the Indian Ocean to the south and the South China Sea to the west,supports primary production of baitfish and tunas and also brings nutrients from the deep to the shallow coastal areas where the large and diverse types of coastal and marine habitats support high productivity in reef fish and other types of seafood.
Statistics show us that, on the other hand, the output of this natural productivity comes from the hundreds of thousands of fishing and fish farming folk, selling their catch of the day—everyday –through thousands of small and medium-scale businesses. The EFACT report, launched by the Asian Development Bank, estimates that at least 2.7 million people are employed as farmers in this sector and another 4.9 million as fishers.
In Malaysia, 10% of the aquaculture work force is women, who are mostly engaged in the marketing and processing part of this sector. The supply of fish per capita of Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia has increased since 1961, with especially fast growth in Malaysia, and was above the average values for Asia in 2009. Importantly, more than 20% of the total animal protein consumed on average in these countries comes from seafood. Generally, fish comprise a higher percentage of protein intake for the poor compared with the rich, and thus the poor are more dependent upon fish for food.
A peak into the futureMore fish will be needed to feed a growing population in Asia and the Pacific, with a 50% increase of the population in the Pacific islands expected by 2030. In addition, Singapore is also expecting to grow its population to 6.9 million (30% growth) by 2030. As Singapore sources 90% of its seafood from abroad, mostly the Coral Triangle, imagine what this means. China, on the other hand, has in the past successfully produced 90% of its own fish for domestic consumption, with about 60% coming from low-impact farming of carp in the extensive but remote parts of the country. With a growing preference for other types of fish and looking at young people’s preference to move to cities and get service and technology jobs, one must wonder what this means for future demands on seafood from the Coral Triangle waters and the ability for Coral Triangle countries to provide food for their domestic societies.
An imbalanced balance sheetWe also know, that despite these obvious social and economic values, the coastal ecosystems of the Coral Triangle are among the most threatened in the world. Overfishing, destructive fishing, pollution and other impacts from ill-planned development, unsustainable tourism and climate change continue to take a heavy toll.
So the issue to consider is that currently, economic development does not appear to be managed within the ecological capacity of the ocean, and that some economic activities in fact reduce the quality of the ecosystems. This reduces their productivity and puts the food security and livelihoods of millions of people at risk. It was this realization that formed indeed the premis for the creation of the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF) five years ago in Manado.
The values of a healthy and productive ocean is clear. The risk of failing to safeguard the health of coastal and marine habitats is extremely large. But somehow, we fail to address the issue and make the business case for environmental sustainability.
How do we bring economic development in balance with the ecological capacity of the region? If we have some good examples to consider, what is it that is missing to scale up good examples, and make them mainstream, or in fact THE “business as usual”?
Making the wrong investmentsLet’s ask ourselves why we’re having the same conversation and organize meeting after meeting. To me, the answer is increasingly clear. We are failing to invest in the very natural capital that underpins the global economy. The funding that is available for conservation approaches appears large, but it is insignificant when compared with, for example, investment in infrastructure that enables access to- and exploitation of natural resources.
Seafood businesses and fishing operators, tourism companies, airlines, oil and gas companies all exploit the Coral Triangle’s abundant marine resources for their businesses. With rapidly expanding populations, economic growth and the pressures of international trade, these businesses are competing more and more for fewer resources.
There are growing legislative, social and market pressures on the corporate world to take greater responsibility for environmental performances at all stages of the supply chain, from the sourcing of raw product to final retail. By taking early action to source only responsibly-managed resources and by effectively marketing these endeavors, companies can achieve a business advantage in increasingly sophisticated and environmentally-aware global and domestic markets.
However, market incentives such as the certification of sustainable seafood are not necessarily successful in developing Asian countries where the majority of production is destined for the domestic market. Also, the relative advantage of being the first company to offer a sustainable product reduces as more companies join fisheries improvement programs. So what justifies the investment by companies in sustaining the ecologic foundation to their business if it does not result in a marketing benefit?
Thinking Long TermIn the past year or so, I have heard from around the globe that investors recognize the value of the ocean. They are ready to back projects that offer a return on investment. But they need assurance that the assets the ocean provides will be there for the long term. They like to be assured that their investment carries low risks of loss.
Right now, the prospectus we are giving them is not good. Smart money does not invest in a resource in decline. We are failing to seize the opportunity to unlock trillions of dollars in investment because we are eroding our natural capital—we are trading long-term prosperity for short-term gain.
But we can turn the tide. Many ocean resources are renewable, if well managed. Through ecosystem restoration and protection, we can create an asset worthy of investment—one that will continue to support jobs and food security for future generations.
So, we know we are leaving money on the table. What is worse, we are actually throwing billions down the drain, for example, through perverse subsidies. For one, these tax dollars are supporting massive overcapacity in the global fishing fleet. This money should be redirected to support effective and sustainable ocean management, thereby securing our long-term resource base. We are aware that this takes time, and that this may affect the very communities and companies that rely on the ocean in the short term. However, we see some great leadership in countries such as Indonesia and Mexico who are putting this issue on the table for discussion.
The CTI-CFF is a very significant regional collaboration that indeed has global significance, and so it is extremely important to keep working hard to achieve its goals. However, while the fisheries and nature conservation departments in these governments are working so hard, there are many competing priorities that challenge the importance of conservation measures. I do believe that calling for a strong commitment to ocean health through the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goal process can be a very significant step to help a global cross-sectoral recognition of the vital role oceans play in human wellbeing.
And what can the business sector do? The private sector needs to consider whether it is really in its best interest to await government action or whether it is about time to start co-investing in the ocean’s natural capital, thereby securing their business and supporting food and jobs for generations to come.