Going Fishing in a Changing Climate
by Alana Mann
Fisheries play a vital role in the food security of rural, urban and coastal populations throughout Asia, and are its cornerstone in the Pacific Islands. The impacts of climate change on communities relying on capture fisheries and aquaculture – including rising temperatures, sea levels and ocean acidification – are diverse and difficult to anticipate. But as climate change becomes a bigger factor in Australia’s engagement with the region it is important to include the voices of small-scale fishers in research, policy-making and fisheries governance to ensure their rights are recognised and that their access to resources is assured.
The contribution of fisheries to food security
Fisheries are increasingly exploited for the protein needs and shifting tastes of a global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. The sector is considered crucial in meeting the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) goal of “a world without hunger and malnutrition" and it is pulling its weight.
Consumption of seafood per capita skyrocketed from less than three kilograms in the 1950s to approximately 20 kilograms in 2015, and makes up a higher proportion of international trade than all terrestrially produced meats combined – a remarkable 35 per cent compared to 27 per cent. Global fish production reached 171 million tonnes in 2016, 88 per cent of which was consumed by humans, the rest going to animal feed and fertilizer. Total production was valued at US$362 billion, including US$232 billion from aquaculture.
As agricultural systems come under increasing pressure, more people are looking to rivers, lakes and oceans to provide a higher share of their dietary protein. In 2015, fish supplied 17 per cent of animal protein consumed and provided 3.2 billion people with almost 20 per cent of their total requirement. World fish consumption is projected to increase by 21 per cent by 2025 and Asia will account for 73 per cent of this increase.
At what cost, however? The FAO reports up to 60 per cent of fish stocks are “maximally sustainably” fished and only seven per cent of fish stocks are under-fished. Nearly 10 years ago former UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter stated that “without rapid action to claw back waters from unsustainable practices, fisheries will no longer be able to play a critical role in securing the right to food of millions”. Climate change is compounding this threat.
The impacts of climate change on fisheries
Global warming is disrupting immense ocean currents and exposing coral reefs to bleaching and ocean acidification. If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, annual bleaching events may be occurring by 2044. These prevent reef recovery, altering the productivity, structure, and composition of ecosystems on which fish depend for food and shelter. The impact of climate change on fish physiology, behaviour, growth, development, reproductive capacity, mortality, and distribution, also enables competitive and pathogenic species, such as the Pacific oyster and Crown of Thorns starfish, to thrive.
In a changing climate inland fisheries and aquaculture will experience losses of production and infrastructure through extreme weather events like floods, the emergence of novel pathogens, and harmful algal blooms. Storm surge is a major risk to health and food supply in urban areas where critical infrastructure is situated on the coast. A 30cm rise in sea level is sufficient to consume Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Maldives in the Pacific, Kivalina in the Arctic, and urbanised coastlines around the world from Miami to Mumbai. By 2100, seas are expected to rise almost one metre.
Island states are particularly vulnerable given they are more reliant on fisheries for economic development, government revenue, and food security than other countries. The 22 Pacific Island countries and territories, for example, cover an area of more than 27 million square kilometres and have a combined population of 9.9 million people, anticipated to reach 15 million people by 2035. Seven of them receive up to 40 per cent of tax revenue from tuna fishing licenses sold to distant water fishing nations and another five of them derive up to 25 per cent of their GDP from industrial fisheries and fish processing. Fish consumption is often two to four times the global average and supplies 50-90 per cent of dietary animal protein in rural areas. Across the region, 50 per cent of households in surveyed coastal communities earned their first or second incomes from fishing or selling fish.
In the Pacific El Niño Southern Oscillation rainfall, sea surface temperatures, and ocean acidification are on the increase, preceding an anticipated rise in sea-level of 90-140 cm by 2100. Ocean currents and eddies, especially those near the equator, are expected to change, impacting the primary food source, skipjack tuna, which is expected to migrate eastward and to higher latitudes as increasing ocean temperature makes the western equatorial Pacific unsuitable for spawning. The decline of coral reefs, seagrasses, and mangroves is expected to be severe. The decrease in coastal fisheries production associated with these changes is expected to be between 10-30 per cent. These pressures are driving the world’s fastest growing food sector, aquaculture, not only in the Pacific but throughout Asia.
The Blue Revolution
Aquaculture has been growing in scale to support capture fisheries since the 1980s when the World Bank and Asian Development Bank invested $US200 million a year in projects such as shrimp ponds that replaced mangrove forests in the Philippines, Thailand and Ecuador. Carp and tilapia farms sprawled over the flood plains of the Ganges, the Irrawaddy and the Mekong Rivers contributing to a doubling of aquaculture output between 1975 and 1985. Half a hectare of Vietnamese Pangasius, or tra, will generate about 250 million kg of of fish, as opposed to about five thousand kilograms of cod. Tra’s propensity for rapid reproduction and its high stocking capacity has made it the fourth most common aquaculture product in the world. Like tilapia, which originated in the Nile but is now farmed widely in Latin America, tra thrive on a diet of corn and soy, bringing aquaculture in competition with terrestrial agriculture for commercial crops.
Other negative consequences of aquaculture include the spreading of invasive species, and their attendant diseases and parasites, across fragile ecosystems such as river deltas. Of great concern to human health is the heavy reliance of fish farms on antibiotics to combat the infectious diseases that thrive in all types of confined animal feeding operations. The combined impact of these drugs in aquaculture and land-bound contaminated waterways is the emergence and spread of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria which are responsible for over 35,000 deaths in the US, 33,000 in Europe, 58,000 in India annually. These numbers are higher in Southeast Asia and are bound to increase with warmer temperatures.
Aquaculture is subject to the same dynamics of vertical integration and concentration as the meat and dairy industries, with six of the world’s top twelve seafood corporations expanding investment into feed mills, processing, and harvesting small pelagic fish for fishmeal and fishoil. Agribusiness giant Cargill’s investment in Norwegian salmon is strategically plotted to expand its position in feed supply, which is the single largest cost in aquaculture production. The benefits of the industry are unequally distributed. Consumers who can afford to purchase fish have an abundance of choice and high quality. Rural people displaced by aquaculture industries are left with fewer options.
Challenges in fisheries governance
Despite their significant contribution to poverty alleviation and well-being, fish and other aquatic products are often invisible in official production and consumption data. However the FAO estimates that more than half a billion people worldwide depend on fisheries. Small scale fishers face a number of overlapping exclusions including industrialisation and privatisation; large-scale mechanised fishing operations; increasing demand for seafood; and ocean-grabbing.
On the seas, property rights are incomplete. Efforts to protect fisheries and mitigate the impacts of climate change, including no fishing zones, have joined large scale commercial fishing fleets as the biggest challenges to small-scale fisheries. Increasingly problematic are ‘blue carbon’ initiatives, whereby governments and corporations buy credits by investing in the protection of coastal areas in order to offset their carbon emissions. These adaptation measures can undermine the ability of small scale fishers to provide food to local people.
They are contested by an emerging fisheries justice movement engaged in a collective struggle for equal rights and democratisation of control of natural resources and fishing territories. The food sovereignty movement views conservation measures such as profit-driven eco-tourism and Marine Protected Areas as "ocean grabbing under the cloak of sustainability." They say that the "true guardians of the fisheries resources" – First Nations people and small-scale fishers – should be given back control of their waterways.
The Asia-Pacific offers numerous examples of how local fishing communities can bring about change by challenging government policies for neglecting the rights of small-scale fishers. In the most successful cases fishers collaborate directly with capacity-building partners to determine appropriate governance and technical solutions. For example, since 2011 the international non-profit research body World Fish has worked locally with 14 villages in Cambodia to empower them to co-manage fisheries in the Stung Treng Ramsar stretch of the Upper Mekong River, a wetland of international importance. This approach includes community patrolling, the creation of five conservation zones and a new knowledge-sharing network. It has led to reports of increasing fish stocks in the area, more equitable access to fishing for local stakeholders, and a greater sense of shared responsibility between all stakeholders.
In the Solomon Islands, World Fish has worked directly with at least 30 different villages to facilitate discussions on shared fishery goals, to exchange contemporary and local knowledge on solutions, and to collectively design fisheries management measures. It has also worked with the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources to design a fishing strategy and related legislation that formalises the role of communities in the management of coastal fisheries.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) demonstrate a growing awareness that climate change and environmental justice cannot be separated from other indicators of human social, economic, and physical well-being. Relieving pressure on exhausted global fisheries is a growing challenge as seafood not only becomes an increasingly important source of animal protein but is increasingly exploited as animal feed and as an ingredient for fertiliser thus contributing to emissions. For island nations in the Pacific, engagement in the global trade regime has resulted in soaring rates of obesity and some of the highest rates of non-communicable disease globally. Traditional, healthy Islander diets of fish and vegetables have been replaced with ultra-processed foods, sugary beverages and the offcuts of the global meat trade.
In November 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $2 billion infrastructure financing plan as part of Australia’s Pacific Step-up to counter rising Chinese influence in the region. By August, he was in Tuvalu at the Pacific Island Forum, opposing sections of the Tuvalu Agreement on emissions reductions, coal use, and climate funding. Tuvalu’s former Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga acknowledged Australia’s financial support for the Step-up but insisted on the need to reduce emissions above all else: “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing. Cutting down your emissions, including not opening your coal mines, that is the thing we want to see”.
For a genuine Pacific Step-up Australia should be focussing on the impacts of a global food system that inflicts violence through global warming, rising seas, and brutal nutrition transitions. This starts with fostering genuine engagement of small scale fishers in policy-making, and taking climate change seriously.
Alana Mann is Associate Professor, Media and Communications, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), University of Sydney, Australia, and a key researcher in the University's Sydney Environment Institute. She is a Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project FoodLab Sydney (2018-2020) with partners including the City of Sydney and FoodLab Detroit. She is the author of Voice and Participation in Global Food Politics (2019) & Global Activism in Food Politics: Power Shift (2014). Her forthcoming book, Food in a Changing Climate, challenges us to think beyond our plates to make our food systems more equitable and resilient.
Disruptive Asia is a thought-leadership project by Asia Society Australia launched in 2017. It presents – through long-form essays – new perspectives and policy recommendations on how Asia’s rise is impacting Australia’s foreign policy, economy and society and how Australia should respond. Disruptive Asia deliberately looks at both external aspects of Australia’s relationship with Asia (foreign policy, business connectivity, international education) and their domestic implications and manifestations (community relations, leadership diversity, education settings and capabilities).