This year, we mark World Oceans Day amid a global pandemic and social unrest.
With more than six million cases worldwide, the coronavirus has left no country untouched. Over 380,000 have lost their lives,[i] the equivalent of over 300 million jobs have been lost[ii] and global GDP is now projected by the UN to decline by .9%.[iii]
Our oceans and fishing have been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. New data from Global Fishing Watch (GFW), an organization which Oceana co-founded (and which I sit on the board of), found that global commercial fishing activity through April was down 6.5%. Large-scale fishing nations, like those in the European Union (EU), experienced a dramatic reduction in weekly fishing activity of 50% or more.
Both GFW and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which also released an initial assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on fisheries and aquaculture, found small-scale fishers have likely been some of the hardest hit in the fishing community. With fish markets closed around the world, small-scale and artisanal fishers have nowhere to sell their catch.
Among other findings, FAO found that 87% of those surveyed in the fishing community with roles in monitoring, control, and surveillance (MCS) report that the impact of COVID-19 is having, or expected to have, negative consequences on the fight against illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
This impact is apparent in the Philippines, where illegal fishing has long been an issue. Now, due to a further lack of enforcement and observer coverage because of the coronavirus, illegal fishing is on the rise. Oceana created a group called Karagatan Patrol, which provides a platform for citizens to report illegal fishing in municipal waters in coordination with law enforcement. In a single week in May, the platform reported a 154% increase of boats operating illegally in municipal waters.
Our oceans and those who depend on them also face the consequences of research, assessments, and observer coverage being delayed or abandoned because of the pandemic. In Alaska, NOAA has officially cancelled nearly all their fish surveys this season. This loss of data causes a ripple effect on estimates of fish abundance and stock assessments, and even quotas. Ultimately, fisheries management decisions made on incomplete data are less effective and can impact the ocean's abundance for years to come.
While some well-meaning ocean advocates have celebrated the break the oceans are getting because of the pandemic – hoping for a WWII-like rebuilding event – these statistics show that there is no silver lining. Instead we need to do the hard work of building sustainable long term abundance by continuing to win policy victories that put in place science-based fisheries management, and increase protections and transparency, in the 30 countries plus the EU that control over 90% of the world’s wild fish catch.
The good news that I can share with you is that, even during COVID-19, Oceana continues to win victories. Just recently, our team in the Philippines reached a milestone when the Bureau of Fisheries refused to green light a project in Manila Bay which would have destroyed important fish spawning habitat and risked the Bay’s greater ecosystem. And in the United States, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife issued proposed regulatory changes to prevent whales and sea turtles from becoming entangled in fishing gear. We will carry on, making sure there is better news for next year’s World Oceans Day and that we continue to make the progress needed to truly save the oceans and feed the world.