Hope for Asian Fisheries, with Brett Jenks

Apr 5, 2018

With rich and varied coral reefs, Indonesia and the Philippines are critically important for marine biodiversity, says Brett Jenks of Rare, a conservation organization. Overfishing could result in millions losing their livelihoods and leads to degradation of coastal habitats, making them less resilient to climate change. But there is hope. In marine reserves started as pilot projects, fish populations are increasing by as much as 390 percent.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I'm speaking with Brett Jenks. He is president and CEO of an organization called Rare, which is based in Virginia. Its focus is the sustainable management of natural resources.

Brett, thank you for speaking with us today.

BRETT JENKS: Thank you for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: For people who are not familiar with Rare, can you just give us a little background about its mission and what it is achieving?

BRETT JENKS: Sure. Rare's mission is to inspire change so people and nature thrive. We see ourselves as a leading voice for behavior change in the global environmental space. We are working in about 10 countries around the world on sustainable fisheries, sustainable smallholder agriculture, watershed conservation, and obviously climate adaptation and climate mitigation. As a conservation organization, we concluded long ago that the chief threat to nature is humanity and the way we use natural resources. So if we're going to get at the root cause, we had probably better figure out how to live more sustainability and, as a non-governmental organization/non-profit, how to inspire others to live more sustainably. That is essentially why we focus on behavior change in the environment.

DEVIN STEWART: I understand that coastal fisheries is a major focus of your work. Can you explain to people listening the crisis that coastal fisheries are facing? We don't hear a whole lot about coastal fisheries in the news. What is the crisis?

BRETT JENKS: Yes, I'm happy to. First of all, it's probably important to explain what we mean by "coastal fisheries." So often people think about fishing and environmental challenges related to fishing. Most people immediately envision an international trawler on the high seas dropping nets, collecting hundreds of tons of fish in big nets, and then selling those to a market legally or illegally.

What many people don't realize is that half the fish that humans consume is actually caught by coastal fishers, small-scale fishers, within a couple of miles of their coastline. There are probably 35 to 50 million coastal fishers, and they are rowing their own canoes, using small sailing vessels, and some small motors, but they have a significant impact on fishing, food security, and local livelihoods. It's sort of the biggest problem facing the ocean that nobody knows anything about, for the most part.

The crisis is essentially multifaceted. With the growing coastal populations and with the growing effort of coastal fishers, they are unwittingly and unknowingly overexploiting these resources. That leads to some significant risk for the planet. First, if we completely strip out coastal fisheries, we lose half the source of animal protein from the ocean. That overfishing leads to serious degradation of coastal habitats, which is important for its own sake, these sources of marine biodiversity, coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds. You need a stable ecosystem to maintain all that habitat, so overfishing and destructive fishing wipes out coral reefs.

It also makes the coastlines, the habitat, and people less resilient to climate change. Storm surges, which is one of the great risks—a hurricane or typhoon, for example—are mitigated often by the natural infrastructure along these coastlines: oyster beds, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and mangroves. Without those, as they get stripped away and overexploited, coastal communities are far more vulnerable to climate shocks.

Whether you are talking about food, nature, or climate resilience, the livelihoods at the end of the day of 50 million fishers, 250 million local people, it's the number-one employer, those are all at risk. Essentially, we got into this because it was a conservation challenge. We want to avoid it becoming a humanitarian crisis.

DEVIN STEWART: What about the connection to illegal fishing, which is often in the news? Is the current state of coastal fisheries being affected by illegal fishing?

BRETT JENKS: Yes. There is growing attention around the world on illegal and under-reported fishing. There is a lot of progress being made, but it is still rampant. I think the conservation organization Oceana did a study recently that showed 40 to 50 percent of fish in local markets were mislabeled. People often don't really know what they are eating. Unless you go to a reputable store that has a serious certification system, it's unlikely that you can have any idea where your fish came from or whether it was caught sustainably.

There is also a lot of illegal fishing both in coastal areas and on the high seas, which is born of people fishing in other people's territories or using illegal equipment. Whether it's a European nation fishing in African waters without reporting it and without paying for it or whether it's one community in the Philippines fishing in another community's waters, there are multiple ways to fish illegally. It's still pretty chronic. The kind of social norms that you would expect and that we experience each day in action when we decide not to jaywalk in droves or when we decide not to litter, those kind of social norms have really yet to be established on the sea. It is sort of a Wild West mentality, a race to catch the last fish, if you will. There is a lot of change that is needed to address illegal and chronic overfishing.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned the Philippines earlier. I understand that much of your organization's work is focused on Southeast Asia, in particular the Philippines and Indonesia. Why are those specific countries a focal point for your work?

BRETT JENKS: Countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are critically important for marine biodiversity. If you look at coral reefs anywhere in the world and count the species of coral in said area, I think it's fair to say that 50 to 60 percent of all species of coral are found in the coastal waters of Indonesia and the Philippines. This is the undersea Amazon of the natural world, if you will. They are arguably the two most important countries on the planet for coral reefs.

They also happen to be mega fishing countries. Both Indonesia and the Philippines are top 10 fishing countries. From a local economic development standpoint, from a marine conservation standpoint, from a food security standpoint, nutrition-wise, it's a really critical issue.

Our sense was that if we could make a go of it, if we could begin to stem the tide of coastal overfishing in countries as challenging, because they're so populated, as Indonesia and the Philippines, then we could develop a model that would be replicable all over the world.

DEVIN STEWART: How has it been going so far with your work in Southeast Asia? Are there some case studies that you could tell us about? How are the local governments working with you? Are they cooperating?

BRETT JENKS: Yes. I would say in general it's going extremely well, surpassing our own expectations. We have been at this for six straight years, and in that time, in the case of the Philippines, we have seen a growing demand from fishers and local mayors as well as ministers for changes in the way coastal fisheries are managed so that they can be more equitable, more sustainable, and more productive. We are seeing significant improvements.

Let me give you an example on what this looks like. In the Philippines several years ago, laws were passed that gave local municipal presidents or mayors the right to manage their coastal waters. So up to 12 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines, those waters are actually under the jurisdiction of the coastal mayors. By partnering with coastal mayors and the communities of coastal fishers in that particular municipality, we have been able to create partnerships whereby the mayor confers exclusive access, what we call managed access, to those local fisherman off the coast so that rather than having what you might call open access and the tragedy of the commons where every fisherman is just racing to catch the last fish, they are beginning to see their coastal waters as an asset, one to be cared for and one to be invested in.

The managed access rights these local fisherman get come with some responsibility, obviously. One, they are encouraged—and we help them—to design marine reserves or fish sanctuaries, areas where they all agree they will no longer fish. These are designed and selected to be the spawning aggregation areas or critical nursery habitats, which are essential for rebounding fish populations. The science of this is really fascinating. If you think about a 12-pound snapper producing 250 times more larvae or offspring than a one-pound snapper, you can see why it is so important to essentially leave a field fallow, if you will, and let part of the ocean become a regenerative plant for the rest of the sea.

In these communities, the model becomes managed access or exclusive rights for local fishers plus marine reserves that help repopulate their fishing areas as long as they are well-protected, often by the fishermen themselves. If you can then keep out the trawlers and keep the commercial industrial fleets outside of that 12-nautical-mile zone, our models show you immediately begin to see stabilization and then rebuilding of these local fish populations, which means a great new opportunity for not only restoring and securing the habitat on which those fisheries depend—coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds—but also it just becomes a big economic opportunity for these fishers who feel proud, inspired, and essentially excited to be the first generation in many to restore their fisheries, knowing they are also likely to make more money as a result.

DEVIN STEWART: Is that how you achieve a balance between the goals of managing the fisheries and the other goal of reducing poverty, by presenting the economic opportunity there?

BRETT JENKS: Yes. I'd love to tell you a little bit about our 41 pilots and the results that we can now share after five years. What we are really trying to do here is rather than maximize one particular variable—whether it's maximize conservation, which can come at a cost to local people, or maximize productivity, which can come at a cost to long-term sustainability—we are trying to optimize across many of those variables. Can we optimize employment and productivity and habitat conservation so that system can be maintained over time?

There's a science and there's an art, and it involves meaningful participation and leadership, capacity building, and training of local communities and the local governing units, like the municipalities. There is an art there, and it requires the kind of investment philanthropically needed to be able to create the confidence within those communities that it is going to be worth the journey, if you will.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see a connection between the goal of protecting small-scale fisheries in places like Indonesia and the broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

BRETT JENKS: No question. That is actually a great point. Of the Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 14 is about the ocean. There are probably six different SDGs around nutrition and poverty alleviation and sustainability of the ocean that this program is actually getting at in a really holistic way.

To give you a sense of the kind of impact we are having that can be measured in terms of the SDG, we have over five years literally been tracking a series of variables at each of 41 initial pilot sites. Those pilot sites are in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brazil. We just pulled up in the fall and took 650,000 data points collected underwater, counting fish stocks, fish populations, on those reefs in these 41 sites, 15,000 household surveys, and a variety of other data.

What we've found is really promising news, which is at 97 percent of those 41 pilot sites, fish populations for the first time in generations have stabilized and in many cases are starting to rebound, to increase. Where we have been in sites for more than four or five years, up to seven, we are seeing on average 390-percent increases inside the reserves, meaning if they protect those fish sanctuaries, the fish populations rebound significantly; 390 percent is a big deal. Probably more importantly, we are also seeing in the fishing areas around those reserves but within these managed access areas where these local fishermen are exclusively allowed to fish, in sites we have been more than five years, we are seeing 110 percent increases in fish populations.

Those are not the kind of findings common in any kind of replicable, repeatable, multi-country fishery reform efforts, so we are ecstatic. What that means is there is a great opportunity now to make the case to ministers of environment, finance ministers, and fisheries ministers that there is a real, investable proposition for coastal fisheries that would attract public funding, potentially private capital, that could be brought to bear so we are not limited to the coffers of global philanthropy, which are far too small to fix the kind of asset that feeds a billion people their number-one supply of animal protein every year. We are really excited about the prospects.

DEVIN STEWART: Those are certainly reasons to be optimistic. From the speeches I've seen you have given online, I get the sense that you are generally an optimist.

BRETT JENKS: Guilty as charged, but I have to be.

DEVIN STEWART: Give us a sense of why you seem optimistic about humanity's ability to protect the environment and maybe why our audience should be optimistic, too.

BRETT JENKS: That is a great question. Why should we be optimistic when we look at the natural world and we look at these headlines every day that talk about the plight of species, the extinction crisis, and the threat of climate change and rising seas, etc.? It can quickly become overwhelming, but I think what we should recognize about our species is that we do two things really well: we compete and we cooperate. I think that is the reason we have been so successful. You could argue we are successful enough to be the first species that has the intelligence, the technology, and the reach to actually recognize that we are a geological force. We have entered the Anthropocene and we are literally, day in and day out, changing the face of the planet.

You can look at that two ways. You can rest in despair or you can ask: "How can we harness our ingenuity and creativity and ability to cooperate in recognizing that we need to live more sustainably?" We need to be as creative about sustainability as we have been about exploitation.

I think there is good reason to have hope if you look at some of the major social changes that have taken place over the last couple hundred years. We have been around, as we understand humanity, for maybe a couple of hundred thousand years. In the last 200, our natural resource use has entered the proverbial hockey stick. But we have also begun to respect each other far more than we ever did in history: outlawing slavery, promoting civil rights, beginning to pass legislation through democracies which did not exist a few hundred years ago—the Bill of Rights and Constitution that protects our independence, our sovereignty, our ability to vote to elect leaders, civil rights, democratization, leading to clean air and clean water bills starting in the [1960s].

I think our celebration of the Earth isn't just measured by parades and marches in the 1970s and Earth Day. It is really how we have changed our own behaviors and begun to learn how to change our own behaviors so that where we sit today, it is not hard to make the case that—in fact, we are working on a paper right now that basically says people should feel more optimistic about climate change because when you do the math and you look at the various, let's just call them the slices of the pie chart that represent opportunities for addressing our greenhouse gas emissions, there are a number of big slices of that pie where individuals can feel totally un-empowered without agency to do anything, like our power grid or global climate agreements, like the Paris accord or a carbon tax, which many people think would really help fix and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

But there are also potentially 40 or 50 percent of that entire puzzle that could be addressed by individual behavior changes. As we think about the evolution of our cultures and the recognition that we are a planetary force, it may take a while, but it is going to occur to the average human at some point in the next century that we each individually and collectively have a role to play in changing our behavior so that we can have a sustainable planet.

I'll just give you a couple of examples. Think about something as basic as the food we eat. If we ate a far more plant-rich diet, we would emit far fewer greenhouse gases as a species and as a planet. Cattle are just not very climate friendly. If we were to change the way we think about commuting or getting to work; if we were to think about the food choices we make outside of meats, beef or cattle; if we just think about where our food comes from; if we think about how consumer behavior can lead to agricultural reform—just growing crops differently can reduce greenhouse gases. There are so many things we are increasingly aware of that we can do as individuals so that we don't have to wait for an administration or a government to fix the problem for us. I think that is the next phase of the environmental revolution where people really feel empowered to make change.

That's what gives me hope. I think we are going to get there, and I think we have encountered and overcome some really significant social challenges in the past. That is what gives me hope.

DEVIN STEWART: That is a great note to end on, Brett. Thank you so much.

Brett Jenks is CEO and president of Rare, based in Virginia.

Brett, it was great to talk to you today.

BRETT JENKS: Thank you so much.

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