Human Journey

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).

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.
  • Aileen Potter

    How about zero population growth? Get the Pope to encourage condom use ini these third world countries. Food and WATER will become more and more important.

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  • Larry Edelstein

    Some years back, Canada established, supported, and hosted the International Centre for Ocean Development (ICOD) with an international board of directors and a small number of Canada-based staff. Bilateral and multilateral technical assistance projects in coastal and island states focused on training and education in fisheries, interdiction, and coastal zone management, among other pursuits. Projects were, by and large, not expensive, required in-kind contributions from host countries and had such fishery specialists as Harry Winsor seconded to work with locals. There were many successes over the short time ICOD existed. An ICOD-style approach to remediation, training, and constructive ocean re-development would be most timely and designed to be cost-effective. Durban would be wise to consider such a renewed effort and Canada could easily take the lead to resurrect ICOD.

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  • Kyle

    What you really want me to feel bad for that guy sitting on his boat in the gorgeous sun with the beautiful water and beach?

    These people in those countries should develop their own technology to counteract the expected effects of climate change.

    Why should rich countries pay a dime to them, regardless of whose coal burning is the cause? They need to take responsibility for themselves and stop looking for handouts. Beautiful weather and landscape like that would make most people content.

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  • Lefty

    Climate change happens. AGW is a hoax.

  • Hai

    No Meat. Be a vegetarian. It’s the real solution to Global Warming.
    Be Veg. Go Green. Save the Planet.

  • […] Global Fishing Communities Putting the Heat on Climate Change Talks Filed under: The Effects Of Climate Change — adminterry @ 12:19 am Global Fishing Communities Putting the Heat on Climate Change Talks 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 … Read more on National Geographic […]

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  • […] tells a different story. While heat stress can cause mass mortality of reefs, well-managed reefs can recover and coral organisms themselves have even demonstrated the ability to adapt. While …read […]

  • […] tells a different story. While heat stress can cause mass mortality of reefs, well-managed reefs can recover and coral organisms themselves have even demonstrated the ability to adapt. While acidification […]

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