Global Fishing Communities Putting the Heat on Climate Change Talks

By Drs. Tim McClanahan and Joshua Cinner

International governments, development agencies, and other organizations have convened in Durban, South Africa to tackle the urgent crisis of climate change. Political disagreements on how to address this challenge continue, while in the real world, shifting weather patterns, increasing temperatures, and more acidic oceans indicate that planetary warming is having significant impacts on people across the globe.

On the local level, many communities dependent on natural resources are finding the effects of climate change to be a threat to their survival. For example, in the coastal communities of the Indian Ocean, coral reef fish are a staple on the menu of millions of people, providing protein and other critical nutrients. Overfishing already makes it difficult to get a day’s catch. This is now being compounded by increased ocean temperatures, which have killed 95 percent of the corals in some places. The associated habitat loss has and will continue to precipitate a further decrease in the availability of fish. Most strikingly, there is a pronounced lack of juveniles for many important fisheries species, which makes tomorrow’s catch look even bleaker.

Fishermen setting a net in the coral reef lagoon of Kenya (c) Joshua-Cinner

In the longer-term, rising acidity in the oceans will add to this habitat loss by making it more difficult for corals to build the reef structure itself. For the people who make their living from these tropical seas, climate change isn’t some possibility far into the future–it is already happening. The science indicates it is only going to get worse.

Does this mean that disaster is inevitable for multitudes of the world’s poor who depend on tropical seas for their livelihoods and sustenance? Not necessarily. Our studies on coral reefs and the people who depend on them throughout East Africa and the Indian Ocean indicate that local people, policy makers, and donors can have a considerable influence on the outcome. We know that coral reefs can’t be made “climate proof,” but we have seen that when they are well managed, many can bounce back from disturbance and remain productive. Likewise, some local communities have or can build the adaptive capacity necessary to cope with many impacts of climate change.

A coral reef system in southern Tanzania (c) WCS

Nurturing this resilience in both human and ecological contexts needs to be a central goal of governments and civil society.  Lessons on how to do this can be found today in coastal East Africa, where many impoverished communities are adapting to changes while simultaneously working to conserve their natural resources. This is occurring through a variety of innovations in governance and resource use.

Africa’s coastal communities of the Indian Ocean like those in Madagascar depend on fishing for food and livelihoods Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

Success happens when there is the right mix of fishing regulations to rebuild depleted ecosystems and mechanisms to build capacity in local communities. Yet too often, this blending of social capacity building and ecosystem management is not achieved or it is undermined by development activities that further limit the potential improvement of coastal livelihoods. For example, the fisheries contracts that allow wealthier nations to legally fish in African waters cost less than 2 percent of the value of the fish that are taken. Quite often, these fishing contracts also allow the fish to be processed in the wealthier countries, meaning that people in the poorer countries miss out on both resources and jobs.

Participants in Durban could offer a significant boost to fishing communities by committing to facilitate good resource governance and build adaptive capacity. Specifically, this means nurturing the social organization, assets, and learning that will provide a basis for adaptation. It also means that aid and fisheries contract money need to be fair, reflect the value of the fish, and promote social capacity development and improved ecosystems management.

Additionally, most developed countries have failed to meet their international commitments of contributing just 0.7 percent of their Gross National Product (GNP) to international aid. New commitments to support the Green Climate Fund—created in part to help developing countries cope with climate change—also appear to be soft and need to be a higher priority. Honoring these commitments is necessary to move beyond disaster relief and toward the proactive assistance that will help both people and ecosystems successfully confront the growing threat of a warming planet.

Julie Larsen Maher (c) WCS

Climate change may be inevitable, but the impact of these changes on the world’s most vulnerable regions is not. Finding the right mix of capacity building and adaptive management strategies, as seen in some local communities along the African coast, is the key to survival. We now need a different kind of heat on the international community to support such endeavors in a time of global change.

Dr. Tim McClanahan is a coral reef fisheries expert at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Dr. Joshua Cinner is a human geographer at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville, Australia.

They are the authors of Adapting to a Changing Environment: Confronting the Consequences of Climate Change (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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