An ocean of opportunity

Many of the world's oceans are being plundered at an unsustainable rate. The United Nations Ocean Conference hopes to bring some science to the table.

A recreational fisherman in Red Hook, a neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York.   Marc Cappelletti/Flickr  (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A recreational fisherman in Red Hook, a neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York. Marc Cappelletti/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This piece is published in partnership with the Australian Society for Fish Biology, a scientific organisation that promotes research, education and management of fish and fisheries in the region.

For many in New York City, the month of June signifies the beginning of summer, and, with it, countless hot days spent looking for shade under the skyscrapers. But this week, unbeknownst to native New Yorkers, the Big Apple is playing host to a large group of delegates — including representatives from dozens of nations, UN agencies, scientific and non-governmental organisations, and financial institutions — to discuss the future of our oceans.

The United Nations Ocean Conference, co-hosted by Fiji and Sweden, will concentrate on Sustainable Development Goal 14 (“Life Below Water”), namely to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.

The Ocean Conference wants to be the ‘game changer’ for ocean health, focussing on solutions and engagement through open dialogue and voluntary commitments. One of the key issues up for discussion will be a multilateral fisheries agreement — a set of guidelines recommended that nations follow for sustainable fishery management — which the UN Conference on Trade and Development hopes to finalise at the World Trade Organization's Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires later this year.

It’s no secret that many of our fisheries are at unsustainable biological levels; the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in 2013 that around 31% of fish stocks worldwide were no longer sustainable. A sustainable fishery is one with healthy fish stocks, minimal ecosystem impacts and successful management. As commercial fisheries become overexploited, deep sea fisheries are becoming more economically important. And an expansion in aquaculture technology and population has led to increased consumption, putting more pressure on both commercialised species (farming) and wild populations.

And this demand is not going away. Demand for fish products remains quite strong, with much of it coming from Asia. In fact, global trade for fish and fish products has grown significantly; exports have risen from US$8 billion in 1976 to US$148 billion in 2014.

The global fishing industry is worth billions of dollars worldwide.   Jon D. Anderson/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The global fishing industry is worth billions of dollars worldwide. Jon D. Anderson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


For my master’s research at Victoria University of Wellington, I helped analyse 30 years’ worth of fishery data from New Zealand. While fishermen braved long hours, cold winds, sopping wet clothes, and jagged fish spines to haul in their catch, I sat behind a computer screen and made waves of my own, through code. This code quantified just how much seafood these vessels were catching, both the targeted fish species and the 'extra.' This 'extra' is called bycatch, and is often the price the ocean pays for our insatiable appetite for fish.

Wherever there is fishing, there is bycatch. My research studied chondrichthyans (sharks and their relatives, the skates, rays, and chimaeras) like the elephant fish (Callorhynchus milii), dark ghost shark (Hydrolagus novaezealandiae) and pale ghost shark (Hydrolagus bemisi), which are often caught as bycatch. From 1990 to 2014, a total of 34,967 tows were carried out by fishing vessels in New Zealand; roughly 10,000 tows contained at least one chimaera (the average number per trip was a few hundred). Since these numbers do not include unidentifiable animals, smashed beneath the weight of the catch as they are brought to the surface, we can assume that the true bycatch number is much, much higher.

Chondrichthyans, such as this cownose ray, are often caught as fishing bycatch.   Virginia Sea Grant/Flickr  (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Chondrichthyans, such as this cownose ray, are often caught as fishing bycatch. Virginia Sea Grant/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)


The Ocean Conference hopes that, with voluntary commitments and help from those in attendance, scientific data will play a stronger role in the future management of fisheries worldwide. The idea for a multilateral fisheries agreement has international support, and the overarching goal is to regulate harvesting and end overfishing by 2020. In particular, the UN is focussing on illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. The FAO estimates that IUU fishing amounts to 26 million tonnes (worth about $23 billion) per year, which is around one-sixth of all fish caught.

The FAO’s Port State Measures Agreement is the first binding global treaty aimed at reducing IUU fishing. It currently has 46 participating nations, which require vessels to show all operating licenses, activity logs, and carry out inspections of their catch. As ocean governance evolves, the UN has been one of many at the forefront of steering active fisheries to sustainability.

Throughout history, oceans and seas have done more than just provide sustenance; they are arguably the most important ecosystem for environmental stability, and drive essential global systems. Oceans regulate climate and weather, help transfer heat worldwide, and are essential in the global carbon cycle. This conference can be the catalyst that shines a light on the issues facing our oceans, and their potential solutions. Some of the world’s most vulnerable species live in the deep sea, and the threats from overfishing, pollution, mining, and more are steadily adding pressure to a delicate ecosystem.

For our open water and deep sea areas, sustainability can be achieved, but only through true international collaboration to protect these vulnerable habitats. I believe this to be a nexus for worldwide cooperation and establishing effective systems of government-protected areas to ensure a sustainable future, not only for fisheries but biodiversity as a whole.

New York City is often touted as the city that never sleeps — and, from personal experience, that saying is true. People often move there to do “great, big things.” Hopefully one of those things will be concrete action to achieve the objectives of Goal 14 to help life under the sea.

Edited by Andrew Katsis