The annual Sustainable Development Transformation Forum (SDTF) normally gathers around a hundred people in Incheon City, Korea, at the end of October every year. The pandemic forced the UN Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD) to move the forum online for the second time in a row. On 2 March the focus was on Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14). 'Building back better' from the covid pandemic was a prime concern. The forum intended also making a contribution to the forthcoming second UN Ocean Conference, itself postponed twice, and now scheduled from 27 June to 1 July 2022 in Lisbon. Cornelia E Nauen of Mundus maris was invited as a panelist to one of the sessions on implementing SDG 14 'Life below Water'.

Cornelia's talk was titled 'SDG 14 - people on change journeys for implementation'. She positioned SDG 14 as part of the essential biosphere on which rested not only the societal goals, such as (1) no poverty, (2) zero hunger, (3) good health and wellbeing, (4) quality education, (5) gender equality and (16) peace, justice and strong institutions, but also the economic sphere with such goals as (8) decent work and (12) responsible consumption and production. All of the other 16 SGDs are, of course, conditioned by SDG (17) partnerships for the goals.

Shifting baseline syndrome, the fact that every generation of professionals take the state of the ocean at the beginning of their career as the reference point, prevents many people from realising how badly the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems have already been affected, principally by fisheries. This has become known as fishing down marine food webs as described by Pauly in a paper in the journal Ambio.

Historical reconstructions document indeed the steep decline of big predatory fish in the North Atlantic. Christensen and co-workers show that over the last century the decline was serious. This decline aggravated over the last 50 years attaining 2/3 of their biomass. A wider study by Pauly and co-workers covering the world’s ocean confirms the trend, which has been accelerating in the last 40 years. The effects of overfishing one marine ecosystems are reinforced by other stressors, such as ocean warming and pollution. 

What is driving industrial overfishing? Several factors are key, with subsidies playing a particularly perverse role. Dishing out tax payers money, a number of countries have built up massive overcapacities compared to available resources. In a global market, competition and often poor oversight of flag states create spaces for illicit practices, from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, to labour abuses and worse. Such capacity enhancing, harmful subsidies have been estimated at USD 22 billion per year in a recent study by Sumaila and co-workers. About 85% of these subsidies keep industrial long-distance fleets in operation which would be uneconomical without them.

Lamentably target 14.6 mandating World Trade Organization (WTO) to phase out harmful subsidies is among the four that lapsed in 2020. Mundus maris is a member of a large coalition of civil society organisations demanding that the negotiating parties deliver a treaty that delivers on their mandate. Tax payers in the subsidising countries, all marine ecosystems and millions of legitimate artisanal fisheries would be among the major beneficiaries.

Moreover, the increased catches of small pelagics by industrial vessels for fish meal factories that have sprung up e.g. in such West African countries as Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia and elsewhere are pitching export of animal feeds against local, affordable human food. That has ripple effects into Sahel countries without coasts which used to be regional markets of the traditionally processed small pelagics. Those value chains created income for many men and women in fishing, processing and trade.

The diplomatic efforts to implement SDG 14 must be complemented by people-centered empowerment of those who are suffering most from the consequences of ignoring the agreed objectives. She noted in this context: 'Let's narrow down from this bigger, broad-brush picture to an example that might help some alternatives to emerge. Based on a lot of earlier work on-site and spurned by assessments of the ‘Hidden Harvest’ of largely unrecorded artisanal fisheries, we were looking jointly with the fishers for a response. So, together with men and women from all value chains and regions of Senegal, researchers and administrators, we launched the SSF Academy in November 2018 to respond to a need for joint learning and finding solutions to aggravating problems.'

The Small-Scale Fisheries Academy is designed as a safe multi-actor platform for respectful dialogue, joint learning, co-creation of knowledge and innovation for the recovery, protection and sustainable use of marine and coastal resources and prosperous artisanal fisheries.

Every change starts with a vision. A vision of a better life - individually and collectively - provides a sense of direction. Going on a change journey, it is useful to identify an objective that can be reached within a year and then reflect on what can be intermediary targets. It is equally important to reflect critically on what obstacles might be in waiting and who and what circumstances are helpful for achieving the objective. These are illustrated in a short video about Nabia, a micro-fish vendor in Yoff, Senegal.

What are the take-home messages of this short contribution?

The slides of Cornelia's presentation can be seen here.

Encouragingly, after the depressing presentation of Harmen Spek of the Plastic Soup Foundation about much of the harm already done by high levels of plastic pollution of the ocean, the hopeful news came through that Heads of State and Government at the UN Conference in Nairobi had just agreed to start a two year process to negotiate an internationally binding treaty against exactly such pollution.

The complete Forum report is available here.