World Fisheries Day: It's Not Just About Fish

This week, the world celebrates a natural resource that provides food for billions and employment opportunities for over 50 million people worldwide -- fisheries.

World Fisheries Day -- established in 1998 and celebrated each year on November 21 -- highlights the importance of conserving the ocean and marine life. Sixteen years later, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry continue to make environmental sustainability a foreign policy priority, recognizing the linkages between fisheries, food security, economic welfare, and the health of people worldwide. On this World Fisheries Day, let’s elevate fisheries out of the ocean, and into the public eye.    

In Africa -- where more than 200 million people eat fish as a main source of protein -- sustainable fishing is a critical food security concern.  The economic potential is also great.  The fisheries sector employs more than 12 million Africans as fishers and processors, and fish is a leading export for Africa with an annual export value of nearly $3 billion.  Fisheries provide income to government budgets through fishing agreements and license fees from distant water fishing fleets, which also drive economic activity in regional ports.  Protecting marine environments is not just about fish -- it is about people.

Despite humankind’s fundamental reliance on this resource, the health and sustainability of the world’s fisheries face increasing challenges.  Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a major environmental problem and a form of wildlife trafficking.  Just as the poaching and trafficking of thousands of elephants in Africa this year is fueling insecurity, threatening healthy habitats, undermining governance institutions, and hindering economic opportunities for local communities, IUU fishing is degrading and overexploiting precious marine resources with dire consequences. West African fisheries, one of the most diverse and economically important in the world, lose over $1 billion a year to illegal fishing, environmental degradation, and other marine challenges.

The United States is standing side-by-side with our African partners in addressing fisheries issues.  Eleven African countries joined nearly 90 countries at the June Our Ocean Conference, hosted by Secretary Kerry.  Sustainable fisheries were one of three key themes, along with marine pollution and ocean acidification.  In September, Secretary Kerry joined Mozambican Foreign Minister Oldemiro Baloi and Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization Jose Graziano in hosting a follow-on meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly to discuss sustainable fishing and marine protected areas.  

President Obama recently announced the expansion of the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, making it the largest “no-take” marine protected area in the world.  

Similarly proactive efforts are underway in Africa.  We applaud Gabon’s announcement earlier this month to create a 46,000 square kilometer network of marine protected areas in its waters.  This bold step shows Gabon’s strong commitment to marine habitats, important species, and local livelihoods.

African countries were key voices in developing the Port State Measures Agreement, an international treaty that will make it harder for fishing vessels to land IUU catches at ports around the world.  The United States has signed this agreement, with ratification pending in our Senate.  Seychelles, Gabon, and Mozambique have already ratified the Agreement and are setting an example for their neighbors with decisive action to support sustainable fisheries and to ensure that countries profit from fish caught in their waters.

From providing food to generating income to keeping marine ecosystems healthy, fish are an indispensable natural resource.  On this World Fisheries Day, let’s pledge to work together to improve fisheries management, protect the ocean, and safeguard this marine bounty for generations to come. 

About the Author: Catherine A. Novelli serves as the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment at the U.S. Department of State.

Fishermen in Ghana Haul in a Net
November 20, 2014

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