Are the SDGs suited to protect small-scale fisheries?
Photo: © F. Marí

SDG 14 – a hope for the seas?

Sustainable Development Goal Nr. 14 – “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources” – has enhanced the status of international marine politics. But can today’s marine policy problems really be solved with the aid of SDG 14? This question was addressed by an expert conference in Berlin, Germany.

Given the mounting problems in the food and natural resources sector, global interest in exploiting marine resources has significantly increased. In addition, pollution and overfertilisation are posing a growing threat to the marine ecosystem. With its demand “to conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources”, SDG 14 takes these developments into account.
However, is this Goal really suited to solve today’s marine policy problems, and if so, what are the strategic measures needed? These questions were at the centre of an expert conference held by the non-governmental organisations Forum on Environment and Development, Brot für die Welt and Fair Oceans in Berlin, Germany, in mid-November 2015.

Plastic – the death trap

Nadja Ziebarth, Director of the Marine Conservation Office of Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND), questioned whether the SDGs could help check marine pollution. Ziebarth first of all clarified what was at stake. The oceans currently contain an estimated 142 million tonnes of waste, an amount that grows by roughly 10 million tonnes each year. Seventy per cent of this waste is deposited on the seabed, while 15 per cent swims in the water column and the remainder is washed onto the land. In other words, once waste has landed in the sea, it seldom comes out again.

Three quarters of marine waste consists of plastic. For a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals, this turns into a death trap each year – because they see the bits of plastic as plankton or jellyfish, eat them up and then suffocate (or starve on a full stomach), or they are caught up in sixpack rings and the like, which then strangle them. And there are no improvements on the horizon for the time being, as Ziebarth demonstrated with the example of Germany. Alone 35 per cent of all plastic is used in packaging, and the growing trend towards online trading and takeaway food is set to increase this share. Unfortunately, there are good prospects for a considerable amount of this waste ending up in the sea. So what has to be done?

There is much talk of “fishing for litter” initiatives. The idea is that fishers take part in cleaning up the seas and are provided with the appropriate equipment and money. They are supposed to be offered an incentive not to throw the waste that has been caught up in their nets back into the sea and to keep an eye on and collect waste floating about and then bring it back on land. Attempts are also being made to remove the garbage carpets in the sea. However, BUND rejects active fishing for litter since the ships employed for this purpose pollute the environment with their CO2 emissions. And then there is the danger of fishes and other marine organisms being killed in the nets used to collect the waste.

BUND argues that the prime objective therefore has to be to avoid waste. What could help here is harmonising legislation, for example the introduction of a cross-border bottle deposit in certain regions. Determining the ecological footprint of plastic products in a similar manner to that of CO2 emissions could help raise awareness. Piles of waste could also be reduced with product designs requiring less packaging material. “Industry has to bear more responsibility,” Ziebarth demanded. In this context, Francisco Marí, Senior Policy Officer
World Food Affairs, Agritrade and
Maritime Policy
at Brot für die Welt, warned against switching to the use of bioplastics because of the waste problem. “The introduction of biodiesel showed us just how dangerous this can be in terms of food security,” Marí said.

Good or bad for small fishers?

One of the activities pursued by the non-governmental organisation Brot für die Welt is lobbying to promote artisanal fisheries and the self-organisation of small fishers. Franciso Marí once again pointed to the considerable importance that the sector has in terms of food security and poverty alleviation. The livelihoods of around 800 million people are based on fisheries and the upstream and downstream activities involved, and 90 per cent of the total of 55 million fishers or fish breeders world-wide live in developing countries.

Are the SDGs suited to protect small-scale fisheries?  Here, Marí demonstrated that positive goals as such can also be counterproductive, and referred to Target 14.6., which demands: “by 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies”. In addition, the target provides for “recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies negotiation”. This sounds like a good suggestion.

The only problem is that the World Trade Organization classifies fish not as food, but as an industrial commodity. Thus trade in fish is not covered by the agricultural agreements which would in turn enable the sector to receive subsidies of up to 10 per cent. But according to Marí, small fishers need support. For example, he refers to the importance of subsidies for diesel fuel because fishers have to sail further and further out to sea to land a worthwhile catch.

Marí also viewed Target 14.7. (“by 2030, increase the economic benefits to small island developing States and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture and tourism”) with scepticism. The proposed indicator – the GDP share of fisheries – did not tie growth to sustainability, he argued. “Aquaculture and tourism are dubious growth motors for LDCs,” Marí said, pointing to infrastructure projects on coasts, which in turn can oust small-scale fisheries.

What about conservation areas?

Uwe Johannsen of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Hamburg/Germany looked at what the SDGs have to offer in terms of an increased designation of marine conservation areas. To this end, he compared the sub-target of SDG 14 with a view to the so-called Aichi Goals, which were formulated in 2010, when the Nagoya Protocol on the implementation of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity were formulated. One of the provisions they contain is to halve the loss of natural habitats by 2020, stop the overfishing of the oceans and designate 17 per cent of the land surface and 10 per cent of the seas as conservation areas. SDG 14.5 also provides for the conservation of at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020.

However, Johannsen explains, the corresponding Aichi target is far more complex, since it also considers factors such as the value of areas, management and the development of networks, whereas the indicator for SDG 14.5 merely contains a certain percentage of area. Or there is SDG 14.2, which aims to “sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems”. Here too, only a yet to be defined percentage of coastal and marine development is to serve as an indicator. “This doesn’t mean anything,” Johannsen criticises. The SDGs make no mention whatsoever of aspects such as the conservation of coral reefs, the extinction of endangered species, ecosystem services or resilience.

Furthermore, Kai Kaschinksi, Chairman of the Far Oceans organisation, warned of the threat that, while the marine conservation areas are to be extended, the expansion of fisheries could simultaneously worsen the situation in the unprotected areas. “We need good indicators if we don’t want to fall behind the target of the Convention on Biological Diversity with the SGDs,” Kaschinski concluded.


Silvia Richter
, editor, Rural 21