OPINION: To help the ocean globally, we need a local approach

Tuesday, 8 June 2021 10:00 GMT

A fisherman throws a basket filled with prawns for sorting at a fish market, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Mumbai, India, April 12, 2021. REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni

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Coastal ecosystems are under pressure - and as COVID-19 strains livelihoods they are more essential than ever

Antha Williams leads the environment program at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Spurgeon Miller is the Mayor of Guanaja Municipality, Honduras. Dr. Steve Box is the Managing Director of Rare’s Fish Forever coastal fisheries restoration program.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, an unprecedented number of people across the globe migrated from urban areas to rural areas. In developed countries, people left cities to work in less populated areas. But in developing countries, the mass employment collapse in sectors like construction and tourism led people to leave cities to take refuge in the economic safety net of their rural communities.

In coastal communities, villages swelled with returning family members, and small-scale fishing and small-holder farming became lifelines for millions of people. 

But the coastal waters supporting these fisheries were already under tremendous pressure. Climate change is wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems, intensifying storms and causing sea levels to rise. Coastal pollution is contaminating the water and smothering fragile habitats. And overfishing—the most pressing threat—is reducing fish populations and threatening entire ecosystems.

A distressed ocean directly impacts the two hundred million people worldwide whose livelihoods depend on coastal fisheries, which comprise the thin band of ocean 12km from shore, home to most of the ocean's biodiversity. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately one in five people globally depend on fish as a significant animal protein source.

Local governments and their leaders find themselves on the frontlines of a complex recovery challenge: Meeting an expanded population's immediate needs for food and income while trying to conserve resources and protect the environment from intensifying degradation.

Local leaders are critical to solving this problem. They are central decision-makers for accessing, using, managing and conserving local resources. While they can be complicit in making sacrifices to achieve urgent and short-sighted goals, they can also champion locally-led solutions that seek to balance short- and long-term needs. What's more, they recognize that protecting the environment and building a strong economy go hand in hand.

We need this balanced perspective. This World Oceans Day, we are launching the first global network of mayors and local government leaders committed to advancing and championing sustainable food production built from effective protection. This network, called the Coastal 500, aims to unite 500 mayors and local government leaders through a uniform pledge to ensure food security and well-being today while safeguarding their communities' future prosperity.

A participant pledge is principal to the Coastal 500. It creates a powerful and worldwide connection among local leaders, whether they be a mayor in the Philippines or Honduras or a local administrator in Mozambique, and drives collective action to support several goals:

  • Promoting responsible fishing behaviors
  • Advocating for the rights of local fishers to access local waters
  • Encouraging participation in fisheries management
  • Endorsing no-take marine reserves
  • Investing in community-based fisheries management
  • Sharing lessons and experiences with other local leaders around the world

We are off to a promising start. One hundred coastal mayors, representing 1.2 million coastal community members, have already pledged to explicitly link COVID recovery plans and available financing to protecting natural resources and ensuring effective community co-management of local fisheries. These first 100 pledges will create momentum that inspires the network's growth to 500 mayors, representing thousands of communities and millions of people.

With coordinated support, this network can easily share knowledge and lessons across governments and communities, collectively accelerating change despite unprecedented complexity—just as international networks like C40, Climate Mayors, and the Global Covenant of Mayors  ​have convened local champions to take bold climate action and amplify a global message of recovery and hope.

This movement also has an impact upstream. Local leaders are taking science-based programmatic action, securing policy commitments, and mobilizing financial allocations for coastal fisheries. As seen in the Philippines and Indonesia, some nations are incorporating community-led fisheries management into their national development plans to protect the ocean, achieve food security, promote economic growth, combat climate change, end poverty, and achieve gender equality.

But more must be done. Global investment in our ocean and coastal communities is woefully inadequate. According to the United Nations, achieving SDG 14 – the sustainable development goal for life under water – will require an estimated $175b per year. But at present, only $25.5b is spent annually.

On World Oceans Day, nations, development organizations, and philanthropy can take a pledge to address this—they can commit to supporting the local leaders who are working to change the world's coastal communities and ensure they are central to the Blue Recovery.