It’s no secret that humanity is abusing the world’s oceans. We’re overfishing at all levels of marine food chains, we’re annihilating critical habitats from mangroves to coral reefs, and we’re polluting global seas with plastic, agricultural run-off, and carbon emissions. The challenges standing in the way of addressing these issues however are immense. At the root of it: The world’s oceans are the ultimate global commons, and as such, profits have been realized privately, but costs are borne by the public, with often the most marginalized and disadvantaged facing the greatest burdens.

But while the situation can seem daunting, there are reasons to be optimistic says oceans expert Eric Schwaab, who currently serves as the Senior Vice President of Ecosystems and Oceans at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)

“What gives me hope is the combination of awareness, commitment and ingenuity coming from many different parts of the world,” Schwaab told Mongabay during a recent interview. “Despite all our environmental and geopolitical challenges, the oceans are providing solutions. From their carbon cycling and storage capacity to their ability to help sustainably feed the world, people are focusing on new ways on ocean strategies. And they are bringing new understanding, new technologies and new commitments to working together on solutions.”

We are moving from a time of comparatively few ocean advocates to a time of global awareness that our survival is linked to healthy oceans.

Eric Schwaab, senior vice president, Ecosystems and Oceans at Environmental Defense Fund 

Schwaab’s perspective is rooted in his long experience in fisheries management, having served in a variety of non-profit and government roles, including the head of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), where he helped implement wider adoption of science-based catch limits and catch shares and represented the US in international negotiations over fisheries and ocean management. At EDF, Schwaab leads the Oceans and Ecosystems Programs.

Schwaab says the key is developing comprehensive ocean protection strategies that work to address the tragedy of the commons and deliver benefits to a wider array of stakeholders, including groups that are often marginalized or disadvantaged by business as usual approaches. 

“EDF strongly supports the designation of protected areas as a key component of comprehensive ocean protection strategies. We also firmly believe that protected areas must be accompanied by sustainable management of fishery resources outside of protected areas. Where fishers see the benefits of protected areas to overall stock abundance, they help ensure compliance and sustainability of benefits,” he said. “The need for comprehensive management approaches also extends to the need for protection of species like whales, sharks and turtles outside of designated protected areas.” 

As with effective catch share systems, the most effective protected areas are developed with full engagement of local communities most affected by designations. Participation of local communities in the design and designation process takes advantage of local knowledge, ensures the viability of coastal community livelihoods and maximizes buy-in to ensure compliance and durability of the designation.”

Climate change, adds Schwaab, is a complicating factor that ocean conservation efforts will need to navigate. 

“The question is, how do we manage fisheries in the midst of climate change? One thing is for sure: we can’t do the same things that we’ve done in the past. That is a recipe for disaster.”

Schwaab spoke about how to increase the resilience of fisheries to climate change; US oceans policy, including what the country has gotten right and wrong; and more in a recent interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

Mongabay: What inspired your interest in oceans?

Eric Schwaab: In a word, fish. I have been intrigued by fish, their variety, behaviours, catching them, and their habitats since my earliest recollections. Fishing was a big part of this, but so was growing up in the Chesapeake Bay region where we would wade for blue crabs in the seagrasses of the Eastern Shore with a bushel basket and a dip net. The grasses were largely lost in 1972 following Hurricane Agnes, which profoundly affected the Chesapeake Bay. The story has only gotten more interesting and complicated since, and the need for action has only grown.

Mongabay: How did your career path unfold?

Eric Schwaab: I would not recommend my career path as the most direct available, but it sure has been rewarding. I started as a Maryland Natural Resources police officer working from — at that time — one of the Chesapeake Bay’s busiest commercial fishing centres, Tilghman Island. That first job gave me a foot in the door and early insights into the people on the frontlines of the fishing industry. The foot-in-the-door mentality is one I often share with recent graduates seeking their first job. I travelled an unusual path through parks, forestry and wildlife and eventually back to fisheries as the Maryland Director.

That last experience, which exposed me to collaborative fisheries management up and down the Atlantic coast ultimately opened the door for me to lead the National Marine Fisheries Service early in the Obama administration and gave me a broader opportunity to oversee the ocean portfolio at NOAA. The NOAA experience exposed me to the important work EDF does in advancing US and global fisheries reform. Along the way, I helped to build sustainable management for blue crabs, striped bass and a wide range of US ocean fisheries, and to also affirm the important connection between healthy habitats and healthy fisheries.

There have been other important stops along the way, but seeing the world on the water — all the way to the highest government agency perspectives, and subsequently across diverse organizations — has been instrumental across my career.

Mongabay: Of all the problems facing the ocean–rising temperatures, acidification and the other effects of climate change; habitat loss; pollution; overfishing–EDF focuses most on making fishing more sustainable. Why is that? Can making fisheries more sustainable help fend off the worst of climate change?

Eric Schwaab: In many ways, we have to work across a range of challenges. But ultimately, sustainable management practices and healthy ocean habitats go hand in glove. Sustainable fisheries require good science, effective governance and compliance by fishermen. Habitat issues range from local pollution to global warming — any or all of which can undermine sustainable fisheries too.

One reason EDF has been successful is its community-first approach to building support for action. Whether along US coasts or in far-off places, people who depend on sustainable natural resource use for livelihoods can be both important contributors to and critical advocates for action. They experience firsthand the effects of both good and bad management, and environmental protection or decline. So fisheries management is a great starting point: both for visible results and for building community voices for broader action.

Increasingly, we are forced to look to broader solutions and build stronger partnerships for action, whether it be at local, national or global scales. But meeting people where they are is always an effective starting point.

Mongabay: What do you see as the most promising solutions for overfishing?

Eric Schwaab: There are multiple components, but the fundamental building blocks are a good understanding of the status and productive capacities of target fish stocks (science); an effective means for allocating catch at a sustainable level, whether it be at local, national or broad regional scales (management); and adherence to standards once set (compliance). There are many different ways to get the right science, management and compliance in place, but the absence of any of these three core components will cause failure.

It is also important to note that good fisheries management occurs in dynamic environments. So even with good science, management and compliance today, climate-driven shifts, pollution and other external factors must be addressed for long-term success.

Surveying a catch in Indonesia. Photo credit: EDF

Eric Schwaab surveying a catch with the locals in Indonesia. Image: EDF. 

Mongabay: The US has had success rebuilding overfished fish stocks with a “catch shares” system and EDF promotes versions of this approach internationally. Can you briefly explain how this works? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Eric Schwaab: From early in my fisheries management career, I saw the fallacy of “commons” fisheries where fishers competed with each other to maximize short-term gain. While many understood the benefits of long-term sustainability, the system did not allow for individual conservation commitments to pay off. Aligning the long-term business incentives of fishers with conservation needs changes this dynamic. Catch shares allocate a share of a total allowable catch to individuals or communities. Through this system, fishers could see their conservation action this year pay off through increased catches in future years.

One disadvantage is that in fisheries with a large quantity of or diverse participation, such as small-scale fisheries or where recreational fisheries coexist with commercial fisheries, setting and managing catch levels can be complicated. Poorly designed or executed systems can also lead to unintended consequences like consolidation of catch and disenfranchisement of some fishers.

Mongabay: Why haven’t more countries adopted catch shares?

Eric Schwaab: Effective catch share systems like those in place for many fisheries in the US require a management infrastructure that is still lacking in many places. Good science is required to set annual catches at sustainable levels. Governance is needed to set a fair system to allocate those catches, and compliance systems must still be in place to protect against cheating.

In some places lacking one or more of these capacities, alternative “rights-based” approaches are in use. Assigned territorial uses and community-based management systems employ many of the same principles of long-term stewardship. In these systems, alternative methods ensure sustainable annual catch limits, set governance standards and enforce compliance.

Mongabay: Catch shares has also been criticized for promoting consolidation into larger fishing conglomerates in the U.S., squeezing out the little guys. Since EDF says it aims to support small-scale fishers, how do you avoid that pitfall?

Eric Schwaab: Every management system must start with community-based needs and design. With that foundation, the system is set to ensure protections of small-scale fishers, address other community needs and protect against excess consolidation. Setting caps on the amount of quota any individual or entity can control is a fairly standard design element. EDF’s Catch Share Design Manual establishes this premise at the outset, starting with a series of questions that establish the very community needs on which an effective system is built.

Mongabay: Marine protected areas are far better known among the general public than catch shares, as perhaps the most fashionable solution to a variety of the ocean’s environmental problems, including overfishing. Is their popularity deserved? What problems do they address well and what problems not so much?

Eric Schwaab: Marine protected areas are a critical management tool around the world. They can effectively protect important habitats and areas necessary for critical spawning and other life stage needs within aquatic ecosystems. They can also protect against impacts to other non-target species and ensure that a critical component of a target species is protected from exploitation. And designed well, protected areas can help mitigate impacts of changing ocean conditions driven by climate change.

Protected areas are best used in conjunction with the sustainable management of fisheries in adjacent waters. By combining protected areas with sustainable management of other waters, you get the best of both worlds. Ensuring complementary management also builds a local appreciation of the benefits of protected areas, increasing the likelihood of compliance. When local fishers see the benefits of protected areas play out in sustainable catch in adjacent areas, they become local champions for compliance.

Finally, climate-driven change increases the need to design protected areas not only for the conditions that exist today, but for those that will exist in decades to come — this is both an opportunity and a risk.

Mongabay: President Biden has committed to protecting 30 per cent of the U.S.’s marine territory, part of the growing “30 x 30” movement to protect 30 per cent of the global ocean by 2030. Although 23 per cent of US waters are already well protected, so the goal is within sight, there is huge opposition from the fishing industry. Where does EDF stand on this? What is the root of the disagreement? What might break the impasse?

Eric Schwaab: EDF strongly supports designation of protected areas as a key component of comprehensive ocean protection strategies. We also firmly believe that protected areas must be accompanied by sustainable management of fishery resources outside of protected areas. Where fishers see the benefits of protected areas to overall stock abundance, they help ensure compliance and sustainability of benefits. The need for comprehensive management approaches also extends to the need for the protection of species like whales, sharks and turtles outside of designated protected areas.

As with effective catch share systems, the most effective protected areas are developed with full engagement of local communities most affected by designations. Participation of local communities in the design and designation process takes advantage of local knowledge, ensures the viability of coastal community livelihoods and maximizes buy-in to ensure compliance and durability of the designation.

Finally, climate-driven changes in ocean conditions increasingly need to be understood as a foundation for a protected area network.

Mongabay: You headed the US National Marine Fisheries Service under former President Obama, an agency with broad responsibility “for the stewardship of the nation’s ocean resources and their habitat.” What do you think the US gets right in terms of managing our fisheries and our marine habitat? What could the US learn from other countries?

Eric Schwaab: The US really got the science and governance side right. It really started a strong policy statement that set a course to end overfishing and rebuild federally managed stocks. The US also has an unparalleled science effort and a strong regional management system that supports good decision-making. EDF championed catch shares, which worked to build strong alignment with the fishing industry across the country. We became a model for reforms in the European Union, Japan and other places.

We have work to do in ensuring a strong domestic seafood industry and bolstering our ocean-based economies. Shortening seafood supply chains will improve domestic economic opportunity, improve our domestic food security and ensure that responsible environmental practices are the norm in seafood production.

Other countries have invested more heavily in aquaculture, and we are behind there. But just like the US led the way in developing and promoting sustainable marine fisheries, we can help redefine the practice of marine aquaculture, ensuring restorative approaches to shellfish and seaweed production and helping set a new global standard for finfish production.

Mongabay: EDF works with other countries to improve how they manage their fisheries. But strong fisheries management seems to require a lot of money to implement and enforce: for things like enforcement boats and personnel, monitoring technology, staff with technical expertise, landing inspectors, “smart boat” equipment and more. How can developing nations afford all this?

Eric Schwaab: EDF has worked to build capacity and tools for sustainable management even in low governance situations or where resources are limited.  Our Framework for Integrated Stock and Habitat Evaluation (FISHE) is a step-by-step process for providing scientific guidance for the sustainable, climate-resilient management of data-limited fisheries. This framework provides approaches that can work in lower governance and lower resourced places.

For compliance, both in developed and developing nations, new technologies offer solutions. From boat-based video monitoring and catch reporting to remote sensing of fishing activity, many lower-cost options are emerging that not only support management, but also provide business advantages for even small-scale fisheries.

Finally, we are working to connect fishers and their experiences from one place to another through learning networks, such as the Fishery Solutions Center and the recently released Small-Scale Fisheries Resource and Collaboration Hub, or SSF Hub, developed in partnership with many like-minded organizations.

Mongabay: Science indicates fish are fleeing the tropics for the poles as waters warm because of climate change. Does this represent a movement of wealth from the waters of poorer nations to the waters of already richer nations that will only exacerbate existing economic inequality?

Eric Schwaab: Fish are absolutely on the move because of climate change, and this is a really important issue we need to tackle. We recently launched Portraits of Change to share the stories of the fishers and fishing communities in Cuba, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia and the US who are being impacted by climate change, Covid-19 and other stressors. And in a nod to the pandemic, these videos were recorded on each fisher’s personal phone. These are people dealing with the realities of climate change, such as declining fish populations and more extreme weather events.

The question is, how do we manage fisheries in the midst of climate change? One thing is for sure: we can’t do the same things that we’ve done in the past. That is a recipe for disaster. That’s why we’ve developed a framework consisting of five key tenets to get to climate-resilient fisheries:

  1. Put in place effective fisheries management and governance as soon as possible based on the best available information.
  2. Look forward, while retaining lessons learned from the past.
  3. Build and strengthen international institutions.
  4. Strengthen the resilience of entire marine ecosystems.
  5. Apply principles of fairness and equity to guide policy decisions.

This last tenet gets to your question about economic inequality, especially where small-scale fisheries are disproportionately more important to the health and well-being of coastal communities. Many ocean-dependent countries face other socioeconomic challenges and disparities, such as food security issues and threats to their livelihoods. Moreover, inequity also threatens to bring social instability and a rejection of policies aimed at promoting more sustainable fishing. Confronting current and future inequities is vital on multiple fronts. These are issues that definitely deserve more attention.

Mongabay: Once we’ve made global fisheries sustainable, what do we do about plastic pollution? Ocean acidification?

Eric Schwaab: My personal view on plastics is that they must be addressed at the source. Beach cleanups and addressing floating garbage are important, but we will never get ahead of the problem until we reduce single-use plastics and get microplastics out of our consumer products and waste streams. I worked a lot in the past on invasive species which, once introduced into ecosystems, are difficult to control — the most effective action is control at the source. I see plastics in much the same way.

Acidification will be addressed hand-in-hand with climate pollution. The single most important challenge we face today is climate pollution. It is damaging our oceans, forests, coasts and farms. This really is a global “all hands on deck” moment. And I feel fortunate to be at EDF where we work every day in many different ways to address climate pollution and its impacts.

Mongabay: What gives you hope for the ocean?

Eric Schwaab: What gives me hope is the combination of awareness, commitment and ingenuity coming from many different parts of the world. In recent years, the narrative we’ve known about the oceans is starting to change. Despite all our environmental and geopolitical challenges, the oceans are providing solutions. From their carbon cycling and storage capacity to their ability to help sustainably feed the world, people are focusing in new ways on ocean strategies. And they are bringing new understanding, new technologies and new commitments to working together on solutions. We are moving from a time of comparatively few ocean advocates to a time of global awareness that our survival is linked to healthy oceans.

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