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To Reach Conservation Goals, Fishery Managers Must Avoid Creative Accounting

In a trend that risks watering down global conservation efforts, some governments and fishery management organizations are considering proposals to declare large areas of the ocean “conserved” even as they allow large-scale activities such as fishing to continue.

In a trend that risks watering down global conservation efforts, some governments and fishery management organizations are considering proposals to declare large areas of the ocean “conserved” even as they allow large-scale activities such as fishing to continue. These policymakers are contemplating using a designation, created in 2010 by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), called “other effective area-based conservation measures,” or OECMs. Policymakers’ success in conserving critical ecosystems could hinge on how they use this tool.

CBD parties created the OECM designation to recognize areas that do not have conservation as their primary purpose but may nevertheless deliver significant, long-term benefits for biodiversity—such as sacred sites, sensitive military locations, and long-term fishery closures. When designated as intended, OECMs are an important way to recognize conservation values derived from a variety of management and governance models, including those of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

And many countries are feeling pressure to rapidly increase their conservation efforts, in large part to meet the goal of protecting or conserving at least 30% of Earth’s land and waters by 2030—a target known as “30 by 30.” That target was a marquee feature of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) that CBD parties adopted in December and is based on scientific findings about the level of conservation needed to reverse biodiversity loss and ensure that natural systems can continue to support life on Earth.

OECMs also broaden who and what can contribute to the 30 by 30 target, allowing fisheries managers to play a constructive part in this conservation goal by contributing to the target if they have measures in place that meet all of the criteria to be considered OECMs. But the benefits of allowing fisheries managers to contribute to the 30 by 30 target come with risks.

To qualify as an OECM, an area must be managed in ways that achieve positive, long-term biodiversity outcomes. This requires addressing all significant ecosystem threats in a given area and considering human impacts across all sectors—fishing, shipping, and seabed mining, to name a few. Detailed guidance on how to address the threats and consider the human impacts, including advice on criteria, decision tools, and specific scenarios, is available from the CBD secretariat and other bodies.

Importantly, the guidance is clear that any sustainable use occurring in areas counted towards the 30 by 30 target must be fully consistent with conservation goals. Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidance on OECMs precludes “industrial fishing,” and CBD guidance permits only “limited types of non-industrial, traditional cultural activities,” these concepts and their application in a large-scale fisheries context have not yet been comprehensively defined.

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