Defining ‘Destructive fishing’: how a lack of consensus inhibits effective global policy to tackle this scourge to the ocean

by Jack Murphy, Fisheries Project Officer, Fauna & Flora International

The societal and economic importance of global fisheries is hard to over-state, with catch of almost 100 million tonnes of fish per year, wild capture fisheries provide an important source of protein to billions. Fishing is a vast industry with huge direct and indirect consequences for people and the environment.

Jack Murphy

At Fauna & Flora International (FFI), we recognise the socio-economic importance of fishing but believe that practices should be within the limits that an ecosystem can withstand. This means trying to ensure that fishing maintains its role as a vital source of food, cultural identity and income, but does not undermine ocean health. 

The ocean faces a myriad of threats but most of the focus on fisheries and indeed, marine ecosystems in general, is centred around the exploitation of fish populations. However, this is only part of the story. What’s less spoken about are the destructive methods and practices often used to capture them. Only when fisheries decision-makers truly recognise that the seabed, the water column, and the species that live in them underpin our “blue economy” – including a significant portion of global food production – will our ocean thrive.

Pristine reef environment, Raja Ampat Indonesia. © Zafer Kizilkaya

Sustainable fisheries management is key to ensuring that benefits to people persist while respecting marine ecosystems. This is reflected in guidelines, best practice and policy frameworks, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While these include clear definitions and measurable indicators to drive progress in tackling key issues such as ‘overfishing’ and ‘illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing,’ both of which threaten ocean health and future fisheries, there is no such clarity over ‘destructive fishing,’ despite a specific aim to tackle it. 

In 2021, FFI began working with a consortium of partners in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative – BirdLife International, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the University of Cambridge’s Zoology Department – on a project to better define destructive fishing. The team analysed documents with reference to destructive fishing from a representative sample of academic literature, policy documents and media articles to understand historical use from 1976 to 2020 and published its initial findings in Fish and Fisheries. Our research demonstrated a lack of consensus of what is considered ‘destructive fishing’ and sectoral differences across document type in how the term is used.

Of the documents referencing the term it was only described in detail in 15%. Habitat damage, blast and poison fishing were the most commonly associated characteristics, while bottom trawling and other unspecified net-based fishing methods were also regularly linked to destructive fishing. However, the framing of these practices in relation to ‘destructive fishing’ differed based on document type. Academic literature tended to specifically highlight the negative impacts, while media articles focused on the types of fishing associated with destructive practices.

Destruction of bomb fishing on a coral reef,
Sulawesi Indonesia. © Zafer Kizilkaya
MYR-0131: A group of trawl vessels, Myanmar.
© Michelangelo Pignani / Fauna & Flora International
Juvenile hammerhead sharks at a fish market, Myanmar.
© Robert Howard / Fauna & Flora International

Discussion of the type of impact also differed based on sector, with media articles regularly focused on social impacts, while academic literature frequently reported economic harm, and policy documents focused more on environmental impacts, highlighting a lack of consensus on what is included within the term. 

Furthermore, there are regional variations in the use of the term. For example, in Oceania 22% of articles refer to purse seine gear while no other continent had more than 4% of articles mentioning the gear, and in North American policy documents 38% mentioned set gillnets, while no other region had more than 4% of policy documents mentioning this gear type. 

The study therefore provides evidence of variable use of the term ‘destructive fishing’ across sectors and geographical regions, making effective policy implementation difficult and highlighting the need for collaborative cross-sector discussions to build consensus around a definition. Such an agreement would enable effective application in key policy frameworks and create the clarity needed for impactful action.

To build towards this agreement, to support sustainable fisheries management and have a positive impact for biodiversity, we initiated a consultative and inclusive expert review process, previously circulated by RISE UP, and encouraged engagement from organisations and representatives working across policy, academia, industry and civil society. The process aims to explore the consensus around the term as a basis for securing stronger, more holistic and more biodiversity-driven fishery policy and corporate practice at state and international level. Following a recent workshop to round off this research in October we expect a publication summarising the progress made, providing a robust evidence base to support a clearer definition in the coming months. This will also be supported by the development of an indicator framework, providing guidance on how destructive fishing could be measured. 

Moving forwards, FFI is seeking to enhance global efforts to promote ecosystem-based fisheries management and catalyse on the ground improvements in the most biodiversity-impacting fisheries.  This will include exploring the use of a definition at the global policy level, including FAO and IUCN as well as development of a fundraising stage for next steps. 

This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.

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Date Published: 17th November 2022