Coastal fisheries around the globe are at risk of collapse. Increasing human pressures mean fish may disappear from waters where they once flourished. It’s an unfolding crisis that threatens our ocean ecosystems and the well-being of the vast number of people living in coastal communities.

This is a moment marked by urgent optimism as we gather in Singapore this week for the 2023 Earthshot Prize awards ceremony. His Royal Highness Prince William and the Earthshot Prize, named our three organizations Finalists for our work to “Revive Our Oceans.” We are honored by this recognition, but dutifully aware that our nominations reflect the scale of the challenges ahead. To that end, we found it critical to come together here to bring urgent attention to the needs of our planet’s coastal waters.

Coastal fisheries are the parts of our ocean accessible to small-scale fishers, lying within 50 km from shore and up to depths of 200 meters. Coastal waters are some of the richest parts of the ocean in terms of biodiversity. One hundred percent of mangroves, seagrass beds, and kelp forests occur here, as well as more than 80% of coral reefs — all vital habitats for fish and other marine life, and critical ecosystems to protect against climate change.

Healthy coastal fisheries are also critical to the livelihoods, food security, and climate resilience of communities and countries. Small-scale fishers represent the largest group of ocean users on our Blue Planet. The waters in which they fish account for one-third of the global marine catch, and they support more than 100 million direct livelihoods.

Not surprisingly, coastal waters are also intensely exploited by humans and face a barrage of anthropogenic changes. Over 35% of fisheries globally are fished at unsustainable levels. A rapidly growing population further strains coastal and marine resources.

These pains are exacerbated by poor or ineffective management of coastal fisheries, leaving them vulnerable to chronic overfishing and to widespread illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that fuels a lucrative black market.

The collapse of coastal fisheries and ecosystems is felt most acutely by those who can least afford it across the globe, and not only in fishing communities. While one in five people globally depend on fish for a significant part of their protein requirements, that is closer to 50 percent in many of the least developed countries of Africa and Asia.

In unique ways, each of our organizations is working to combat the decline in coastal fisheries. As we strive to scale our individual solutions, we urge the international community to take three critical steps to revitalize the coastal waters on which so many people depend.

First, we need stronger governance, robust protection, and greater prioritization of coastal fisheries. Policies and laws are often unenforceable, unclear, or completely absent, leaving coastal communities and ecosystems vulnerable. While increasing swaths of ocean are being designated as marine protected areas (MPAs), most are not adequately safeguarded. That needs to change, because properly implemented MPAs and coastal fisheries have outsized benefits for marine species, including fish stocks. MPAs can contain four times more fish within their boundaries than highly fished areas, increasing species’ resilience to climate change.

Second, we must empower local leaders, who are more familiar with the specific challenges and appropriate solutions for their communities. Let’s increase the rights of local fishers to access local waters and support enforcement of regulations. Let’s equip local communities with the resources and technologies to manage fisheries sustainably, while supporting the proper enforcement of fishing restrictions in protected areas.

Third, we need a data-driven approach to rebuilding fisheries that prioritizes ocean life and livelihoods. Data collection tools, designed and led by coastal communities, can leverage local ecological knowledge to inform adaptive fisheries management and nurture ocean stewardship. Community-led, data-driven fisheries management can deliver sustainable seafood systems, while improving the livelihoods of communities. By shifting markets to embrace three-dimensional sustainability – social, economic and ecological – we can address the root causes of overfishing, including poverty, food insecurity, and social inequity.

When managed effectively, coastal fisheries are the foundation of local economies in coastal communities, especially in developing nations. With proper management, fisheries have the potential to become the most sustainable and climate-friendly way to feed the world, support local livelihoods, and protect the natural systems that are among our best defenses against climate change.

In the past year, we have seen tremendous momentum for protection of the ocean: a “30×30” strategy to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 and a High Seas Treaty to implement protected areas. But amidst the progress, coastal seas and communities face unique challenges, and they offer tremendous solutions that benefit people around the globe. We challenge leaders and communities across the planet to appreciate the impact of these fisheries and to take steps to help them thrive.

The authors represent WildAid’s Marine Program, ABALOBI, and Coastal 500, the three Finalists for The Earthshot Prize’s ‘Revive Our Oceans’ category. On November 7, one of them will earn the £1 million prize for the category.

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About WildAid

WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to protect wildlife from illegal trade and other imminent threats. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $308 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too. 

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