The state of world fisheries and aquaculture 2022


United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

Fisheries and aquaculture and the FAO–UNEP-led Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in March 2019 and in effect from 2021 to 2030, is a global call for the revival of ecosystems and their services. The Decade foresees habitats and species, which are components of ecosystems, being restored to health so that social–environmental systems are productive and resilient in the face of ongoing and foreseen stresses (e.g. changing global climate, increasing pollution, habitat degradation and fragmentation, and market-related stress).

Ecosystem restoration is considered a foundational contribution for enabling delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for poverty eradication and food security and the goals of the Rio Conventions. In June 2021, the United Nations Secretary-General’s message for World Environment Day stated:

The degradation of the natural world is already undermining the well-being of 3.2 billion people, or 40 percent of humanity. Luckily, the Earth is resilient. But she needs our help. We still have time to reverse the damage we have done. That is why ... we are launching the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (United Nations, 2021b).

FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) are tasked by the General Assembly to lead this decadal initiative in an inclusive, efficient and cost-effective manner. FAO and partners have begun by helping the global community define more clearly the outcome sought by this Decade, promoting a pragmatic vision for ecosystem restoration that is more inclusive of people and their actions to safeguard the planet’s resources.

Restoration can be defined as a process of reversing the degradation of ecosystems, such as landscapes, wetlands and oceans, to regain their ecological functionality; in other words, setting up policies and supporting actions to improve the productive capacity of ecosystems to meet the needs of society, while maintaining their function for all of life. This can be achieved both by allowing the natural regeneration of overexploited ecosystems and via active interventions to facilitate recovery of nature through active and adaptive management.

Ecosystem restoration involves policy and practices beyond traditional rewilding to recreate pristine wilderness. It foresees ecosystem improvements in the places where people live, work and produce food, reframing traditional concepts to one that improves people’s “joint venture” with the rest of nature. This is required as there is a growing need for food, set against a backdrop where people’s footprint in nature is already ubiquitous (Plumptre et al., 2021). Healthier ecosystems, with richer biodiversity, yield greater benefits and are more resilient to change. In the case of aquatic systems, this means more productive waters, increasingly productive fisheries and larger storage of greenhouse gases. Such a framing of the task at hand is supported by a new set of ten guiding principles for ecosystem restoration developed by FAO, UNEP, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the Commission on Ecosystem Management and the Society for Ecological Restoration (FAO et al., 2021), and well aligned with people’s needs and aspirations.

FAO recognizes the monumental scale of the task to restore inland, coastal and marine ecosystems – a task which in some areas seeks to reverse long-term negative biodiversity change. In putting in place the policy framework and providing support for delivery of restoration, FAO needs to re-engineer the way restoration is approached across a broad variety of aquatic ecosystems. Noting the dynamic and interconnected nature of aquatic systems across terrestrial and marine sea- and landscapes, FAO is helping to link up polycentric governance approaches at all levels, to incorporate diverse conservation and sustainable production actions by multiple actors, sectors and jurisdictions. This is needed, as the challenge of improving people’s relationship with the rest of nature can only be met if everyone – including international and national authorities, local governments, the private sector, academia and civil society – comes together to implement viable and durable solutions to reversing loss of ecosystem services.

So how will FAO and UNEP help improve the global community’s relationship with the rest of nature so that ecosystems can support people in meeting the most pressing challenges faced by humanity today? Practical support starts with FAO and partners characterizing points of entry for restoration across aquatic systems so that activity reflects a continuum of restorative activities (FAO et al., 2021, Principle 3). The Decade represents an opportunity to build and link networks and partnerships across the globe, strengthening the restoration–science–policy nexus. The United Nations partners will provide a forum to assist in linking up planned and ongoing restoration management, as part of FAO’s effort to support countries’ Blue Transformation7 (see the section Blue Transformation: a vision for transforming aquatic food systems). Through well-coordinated and effective restoration, it is suggested that the transformation to make aquatic systems more productive and sustainable can create millions of new jobs by 2030 and contribute to generating over USD 7 trillion every year to help eliminate poverty and hunger (United Nations, 2021b).

Aquatic food production often requires a broader focus on the restoration of the ecosystems supporting that production, including mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and reefs, as well as on the rehabilitation of terrestrial watersheds and wetlands. It is also necessary to improve management of living aquatic resources, themselves a major component of aquatic system biodiversity. Direct restorative actions in this context would include efforts to minimize impacts on ecosystems’ structure and function by collateral effects of human activities. This includes rebuilding fish stocks (Box 27) and reducing adverse impacts of fishing on the environment. In the case of aquaculture, in which natural systems are often modified to maximize production, actions are centred on restoring ecosystem structure and function to support food provisioning, while minimizing impacts, pollution, waste and the emergence of aquatic animal diseases. In this respect, promoting aquaculture of extractive species or adopting innovative systems such as integrated multitrophic aquaculture represent promising solutions (see the section Bivalve aquaculture).


Fishery stocks are a major component of the living biomass of the planet and play a large role in the functioning of marine and freshwater ecosystems. In fact, fish comprise the greatest proportion of vertebrates on Earth, far outweighing all others, including humans, farm livestock and wild mammals.1

Successful rebuilding of depleted fish populations has been achieved at local and regional scales through investment in proven fisheries management, such as catch and effort reduction, regulation of fishing gear, temporal or spatial controls, and innovative and inclusive ways to share catches and management direction.2 It has also been assisted by pollution control measures and actions to restore ecosystem structure, for example, in habitats that are nursery grounds for fish. Management interventions require detailed consideration of socio-economic and cultural circumstances, so that solutions can be tailored to the local context.

According to FAO’s global assessments of fishery stocks – using basic fisheries science on about half of the reported global marine fish catch3 – trends in abundance and harvest rate are increasing and at the proposed target levels. Hilborn et al. (2020)4 assessed 882 fishery stocks worldwide (major stocks in the Americas, Europe, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Chile, Japan, the Russian Federation, the Mediterranean and Black Sea, and Northwest Africa) and reported that fishery stocks were being rebuilt, reversing previous declines on average. The study showed an increase in average fishing pressure accompanied by a decline in biomass until 1995, after which fishing pressure began to decrease (Figure A).

FIGURE A Timeline representing change in human pressures

SOURCE: Adapted from Duarte, C.M., Agusti, S., Barbier, E., Britten, G.L., Castilla, J.C., Gattuso, J. & Fulweiler, R.W. 2020. Rebuilding marine life. Nature, 580: 39–51.
NOTE: Human pressures on fisheries commenced well before the Industrial Revolution, peaking in the 1980s and more recently slowing down (with great regional variation). Other pressures, such as pollution and climate change, are notable exceptions to this trend.
SOURCE: Adapted from Duarte, C.M., Agusti, S., Barbier, E., Britten, G.L., Castilla, J.C., Gattuso, J. & Fulweiler, R.W. 2020. Rebuilding marine life. Nature, 580: 39–51.

By 2005, a significant proportion of fishery stocks were rebuilding, and average biomass had started to increase (Figure B). By 2016, the biomass across all stocks reviewed was on average higher than the global standard for sustainability (maximum sustainable yield [MSY]), and fishing pressure was lower than that which would result in MSY. This was not seen across all fishery stocks assessed, and more work is needed to improve management for 24 percent of stocks that accounted for 19 percent of the potential catch. The study by Hilborn et al. (2020) estimated that excess fishing pressure still results in about 3–5 percent loss of potential yield and there is room for more rebuilding.

FIGURE B Worldwide trends in relative biomass (B/BMSY) of assessed fish and invertebrate stocks and relative fishing pressure (F/FMSY) predicted from a state–space model1

SOURCE: Adapted from Hilborn, R., Amoroso, R.O, Anderson, C.M., Baum, J.K., Branch, T.A., Costello, C. & de Moor, C.L. 2020. Effective fisheries management instrumental in improving fish stock status. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(4): 22182224.
1 BMSY = biomass at maximum sustainable yield; FMSY = fishing mortality sustainable yield.
NOTES: Solid line denotes the geometric mean, with shaded regions denoting 95 percent finite population-corrected confidence bounds. In years when all stocks are assessed, no uncertainty is considered.
SOURCE: Adapted from Hilborn, R., Amoroso, R.O, Anderson, C.M., Baum, J.K., Branch, T.A., Costello, C. & de Moor, C.L. 2020. Effective fisheries management instrumental in improving fish stock status. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(4): 22182224.

So how long does it take to rebuild stocks to an internationally agreed level (MSY)? A previous review of more than 150 overfished stocks5 showed that ten years was sufficient for recovery of stocks depleted below 0.5 biomass corresponding to maximum sustainable yield (BMSY), but not for stocks driven close to collapse (below 0.2 BMSY), which required longer and more variable recovery times. Improvements in the abundance of fishery stocks where rebuilding had occurred were directly linked to changes in legislation and subsequent implementation of fisheries management.

Rebuilding is not ubiquitous across all depleted fishery stocks, and the global community is still hamstrung by less reliable information on the status and trends of a large part of the world’s fishery stocks, where the intensity of fisheries management is low and expert opinion suggests fisheries rebuilding is much needed. Better data collection and understanding of the status of change in these locations is required.

This presents the greatest challenge for future rebuilding where unassessed fisheries, often in tropical and subtropical regions, are dominated by highly diverse mixed fisheries that support some of the world’s most dependent communities. This is further burdened by the need to remove harmful subsidies, combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, and reduce the disruptive ecological impacts caused by some fishing practices. In addition, resources are needed to help fishing communities overcome the problems of poverty and lack of alternative employment opportunities.

Where fisheries science and management tools are still needed, for example in regions of South and Southeast Asia, and East Africa, significant investment is required in strong policy frameworks, fisheries management and livelihood diversification to promote rebuilding of fishery stocks. This investment is needed, not just to diminish recognized gaps in food production, but also to counterbalance a loss in ecosystem services which is leading to biodiversity conservation concerns.

During the coming decade, FAO needs to help in raising awareness and to support decision makers to acquire the scientific information and technical know-how for restoration of aquatic ecosystems in relation to fisheries and aquaculture production.7 This involves sharing information on new technological advances, promoting cooperation, capacity-building, education and training, and ensuring that the best available scientific advice is used to inform decision-making across the full value chain of aquatic systems in line with the local and land-/seascapes context of ecosystem restoration (FAO et al., 2021, Principle 8).

Fisheries and aquaculture and the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework

Efforts to maintain and restore social–environmental systems are gaining an international focus in 2022 and for the coming decade as Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) work together to define a work plan that will deliver into their vision for 2050: Living in harmony with nature. The Convention’s three objectives – (i) conserve biological diversity; (ii) use biodiversity components sustainably; and (iii) ensure fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from genetic resources – share many elements with the 2030 Agenda.

Globally, with increasing population, life expectancy and per capita incomes, we have also experienced long-term declines in the status of biodiversity. Pressures of population growth, urbanization, unsustainable consumption and production patterns, pollution, spread of alien invasive species and climate change are all negatively impacting the ability of ecosystems to provide life-sustaining services.

Adopted in 1992, the CBD has played a coordinating role among multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) to support countries in understanding and attempting to reverse declines in biodiversity through promoting the uptake and implementation of relevant policy and legislative instruments. This work has not been without challenges, as despite some bright spots, Parties to the CBD have largely failed to meet targets set for the last two decadal initiatives. In October 2021, the 193 Parties to the CBD were working to re-invigorate their work plans and finalize the formulation of a new set of CBD goals and targets for 2030: the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (Post-2020 Framework).8

The evolution of the Post-2020 Framework followed an extensive process of consultation among CBD Parties, academics, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society in defining its format and content9 and outlining goals and targets for people’s interaction with nature for the next decade. The consultative phase was followed by the final negotiation and adoption of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China (29 August – 11 September 2022).

It is hoped the Post-2020 Framework will catalyse a change from business as usual approaches in all sectors of society, including fisheries and aquaculture. The challenge facing the CBD in creating a global long-term vision for biodiversity conservation is threefold:

  1. Broaden the adoption and delivery of the Post-2020 Framework outside its own conservation community, to encourage more general ownership of challenges and solutions for biodiversity.
  2. Match resources for implementation of change to the ambition of the tasks outlined in the Post-2020 Framework.
  3. Translate this ten-year initiative into something that becomes a live process that “learns from doing”, can be well measured, ratchets up ambition and is well communicated!

During the webinar, COP15: Road to Kunming, Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth, held on 21 May 2021, the United Nations Secretary-General stated:

A healthy planet is critical for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Yet biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented and alarming rate, and the pressures are intensifying (United Nations, 2021c).

So how can the global community come together to deliver a better relationship for people and the rest of nature?

For fisheries and aquaculture, it is necessary to know the status of biodiversity in aquatic systems and define the key challenges and opportunities for action to maintain or recover biodiversity in a form that maintains its function. Ecosystem function is critical to the production of aquatic foods that support the livelihoods connected to fisheries and aquaculture value chains.

A recognized weakness in past CBD frameworks has been to not sufficiently promote the mainstreaming of biodiversity into all sectors, in those places where most interactions with biodiversity occur. To respond to issue (1) above, a primary challenge for production sectors such as fisheries and aquaculture is to elevate the consideration of biodiversity across all policies and actions. Importantly, the narrative of the Post-2020 Framework must reinforce the reality of people being part of, and not apart from, the rest of nature. In this framing, people and biodiversity are in a reciprocally beneficial relationship – where people’s actions in delivering sustainable management can offer social–environmental systems resilience to ongoing human and natural pressures. At the Thirty-fourth Session of the Committee on Fisheries in 2021 (FAO, 2021j), it was recommended that negotiated ecosystem approach frameworks be promoted as part of the Post-2020 Framework, which will result in the adoption of a more holistic architecture in which to design and implement positive change in aquatic systems for people and the rest of nature.

To respond to issue (2), the global community needs to find funds to achieve the goals of the Post-2020 Framework, as an investment for their economic and social development. The CBD can assist by framing the increase in ecosystem services as a major benefit to society. This means strengthening the nexus between biodiversity restoration, economic benefit and livelihoods. To face the challenge of financial resource mobilization, Article 21 of the CBD provides for the establishment of a dedicated financial mechanism to support implementation of mainstreaming, while the Global Environment Facility that funds many environmental conventions has reached a ceiling that has not been increased. At the government level, countries can further rebalance the effects of harmful subsidies against more positive incentives, as subsidies that are potentially harmful to biodiversity receive five times more funds than do biodiversity-friendly instruments.10 In addition, there are opportunities for greater use of public–private partnerships necessary for funding robust, enduring and ambitious ways to increase or turn around the loss of ecosystem services.

In response to issue (3), FAO recognizes that recovery from environmental degradation tends to be slow. Delivery of positive management change in fisheries and aquaculture requires transformation of new and varied sources of knowledge into policy, enabling new governance to be established and implemented (Rice, 2011). Correcting past mistakes typically incorporates multiple steps of change in local and central management approaches, and this requires bottom-up and top-down actions, often operating in combination. Maintaining and restoring nature relies heavily on the work delivered by innovators on the ground and by local people working on or close to the water offering practical and targeted solutions, respectful of local biocultural contexts. Therefore, the CBD needs a receptive, dynamic and flexible process that is adaptive to new inputs from on-ground practitioners over the coming decade. This will include work increasingly facilitated through information technology and artificial intelligence, supported by rapid development in machine learning and deep learning. FAO supports the fisheries and aquaculture community in the development and use of novel technologies as demonstrated by the forum on artificial intelligence, held 28–30 June 2021, and the webinar on recording deep-water shark and vulnerable marine ecosystem (VME) catches.11 In order for the Post-2020 Framework to be more adaptive over the next decade, we can learn from the global community’s response to the issue of climate, thanks to the five-year review process introduced by the Paris Agreement. The CBD currently lacks a formal review process which would serve to promote accountability for strong global leadership and ratchet up ambition in delivering progress on biodiversity.

Recovery actions for vulnerable species and habitats

FAO’s work across multilateral environmental organizations working on characterizing and recovering threatened species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which entered into force in 1975, is a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals from international trade that could threaten their survival in the wild. This is important as fisheries and aquaculture products12 are among the most traded food commodities in the world, and trade keeps on growing. Species included in any of the three CITES Appendices are accorded varying degrees of protection. There are currently almost 2 400 marine species listed in CITES Appendices,13 accounting for less than 10 percent of all CITES-listed species and around 40 percent of CITES-listed animal species.

The number of aquatic species listed in CITES Appendices has grown markedly in recent decades, with most listings accepted into Appendix II, which regulates international trade of species that are or could become “threatened with extinction” due to market demands (Pavitt et al., 2021). Species listed in Appendix II can be legally traded across international borders, but transactions require documented legality of trade and sustainability assurances to be lodged by the exporting country. Since 2003, new species added to Appendix II have included predominantly sharks and rays, with some mollusc and echinoderm species (Figure 65).


SOURCE: Adapted from Pavitt, A., Malsch, K., King, E., Chevalier, A., Kachelriess, D., Vannuccini, S. & Friedman, K. 2021. CITES and the sea: Trade in commercially exploited CITES-listed marine species. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper, No. 666. Rome, FAO.
SOURCE: Adapted from Pavitt, A., Malsch, K., King, E., Chevalier, A., Kachelriess, D., Vannuccini, S. & Friedman, K. 2021. CITES and the sea: Trade in commercially exploited CITES-listed marine species. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper, No. 666. Rome, FAO.

FAO and CITES continue to cooperate under a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2006 that includes commitments to addressing scientific and technical issues relating to the listing and implementation of CITES provisions and facilitating capacity-building in countries for the promotion of sustainable trade.

To provide insights on what traded species are reported to CITES, when, how much and how often, FAO and partners including UNEP analysed direct export transactions reported by CITES Parties between 1990 and 2016. This review revealed a sevenfold increase in reporting of trade in CITES Appendix II marine species (Pavitt et al., 2021). FAO continues to work with CITES to identify successful control of trade in CITES-listed species and, where challenges remain, offer suggestions for their possible amelioration (Friedman et al., 2020, 2018; FAO, 2021k).

CITES Parties will again consider new species for inclusion in its Appendices at its Conference of the Parties (CITES COP19), scheduled for November 2022 in Panama. Aquatic species proposals are likely to be dominated by consideration of sharks and rays; however, eels, sea cucumbers, aquarium fish and other species groups are also under consideration. Notification of species proposed for listing amendments submission in COP19 will be made public 150 days prior to the CITES Parties’ vote.

National Plans of Action on sharks and seabirds

The implementation of FAO International Plans of Action (IPOAs) and the development of National Plans of Action (NPOAs) are always very relevant for addressing directed fisheries for sharks and bycatch of both seabirds and sharks. States may consider developing NPOAs in line with the IPOA for the Conservation and Management of Sharks and the IPOA for Reducing Incidental Catch of Seabirds in Longline Fisheries.

To support Members in the development and implementation of NPOAs, FAO has created a database that regularly updates progress made by fisheries in conserving sharks, rays and chimaeras (FAO, 2020). This database provides a “one-stop shop” for those wishing to find shark-related management and guidance measures, instituted by CITES, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, regional fishery bodies and national authorities, and it includes both binding and non-binding conservation and management measures, plans of action and national legislation.14

Area-based fisheries management in meeting global biodiversity targets

The need for integrating effective marine conservation measures into more holistic and synergetic ocean management strategies has never been greater, making marine conservation critical to any sustainable development effort. In particular, the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) and other area-based management tools (ABMTs) has received considerable attention globally for their ability to conserve biodiversity, restore ocean productivity and strengthen food security. The use of ABMTs in marine and coastal zones has been defined by global and regional agreements, and the commitment to use them has been reiterated in many international processes.

The 2030 Agenda stimulates national and regional action specifically via SDG 14 (Life below water). Target 14.5 calls for countries to conserve at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas. Similarly, the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 included Aichi Biodiversity Target 11, calling for the conservation of “at least … 10 percent of coastal and marine areas … through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures” (OECMs) by 2020 (CBD, 2021), therefore placing an important focus on the potential of using area-based management to achieve the dual objectives of conserving biodiversity and providing the resulting benefits to people. Interest in ABMTs is on the rise internationally, with the Parties to the CBD currently negotiating the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, including a draft target increasing MPAs and OECM coverage so that 30 percent of the oceans are managed through spatial controls by 2030 (Box 28).


Other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) are taking centre stage in many international fora and are the focus of an increasing number of publications1 as countries try to reconcile the many goals and objectives agreed to in international conventions. OECMs offer many countries tangible prospects as they provide an opportunity to address the linkages between fisheries, aquaculture, biodiversity and other sectors and catalyse concrete actions towards coordinated management strategies and policies. Furthermore, given that the primary objectives of area-based fisheries management tend to not only concern biodiversity conservation, but are often related to fisheries sustainability, those that meet the OECM criteria are more likely to generate multiple benefits for species, ecosystems and fishing communities, as well as support social and economic development. Fisheries-related OECMs are, therefore, particularly relevant to food security, biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, as well as to several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – SDG 1 (No poverty), SDG 2 (Zero hunger), SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production) and SDG 14 (Life below water) – alongside the global biodiversity targets. Now that the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is set to be adopted in late 2022 with an increase in the area-based management target, countries are increasingly recognizing OECMs and are seeking guidance about how to interpret and apply the OECM definition and criteria, particularly in the marine environment and the fisheries sector.

In February 2021, FAO Members discussed these challenges at the Thirty-fourth Session of the Committee on Fisheries (COFI). They noted the importance of considering multiple effective time- and area-based management tools, such as protected areas and OECMs for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. COFI also noted the relevance of OECMs to support the achievement of several SDGs and global biodiversity targets, and requested that FAO produce and disseminate practical guidelines to support Members in their identification and implementation.2

As a result, FAO now has a mandate for developing and implementing OECM guidance. In cooperation with partners and FAO Member countries, the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Division is leading the development of this guidance and is actively moving forward to assist countries in assessing OECMs in the fisheries sector. In this context, it is committed to building the capacity of countries to report fisheries-related OECMs and document how the fisheries sector is contributing to area-based biodiversity conservation goals. It aims to develop specific guidance on applying the OECM criteria in the fisheries sector and assist its Members and regional fisheries bodies (RFBs) in assessing and identifying fisheries-related OECMs. For that purpose, the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Division will host a series of shared learning workshops on fisheries-related OECMs to provide the basis for a guidance document for the identification, establishment and management of OECMs in the fisheries sector that complements existing non-sectoral guidance.

Ultimately, both countries and RFBs will need to actively engage in promoting and supporting the identification and reporting of OECMs in order to maximize their potential in helping reach the new post-2020 CBD targets (undefined at the time of writing) and SDG Target 14.5 (by 2020, conserve at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on best available scientific information). The availability of sector-specific guidance such as that being developed by FAO will be crucial to guide countries and RFBs as they navigate the application of the OECM criteria in different sectors.

The 2017 UN Ocean Conference Call for Action strengthened these goals and targets by calling upon all stakeholders “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development … on an urgent basis,” including supporting “the use of effective and appropriate area-based management tools, including marine protected areas and other integrated, cross-sectoral approaches” (UNGA, 2017, pp. 3–4).

FAO Deep-sea Fisheries Guidelines – Actions to conserve and recover vulnerable marine ecosystems

The potential impact of deep-sea bottom fisheries on the seabed and its vulnerable species has been high on the global ocean agenda since the 1990s. In 2006, UNGA Resolution 61/105 Article 83 called for the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs, meaning fragile sessile benthic ecosystems such as corals, sponges and sea pens) from significant adverse impacts caused by bottom fishing. FAO adopted the International Guidelines for the Management of Deep-sea Fisheries in the High Seas in 2008 to promote integrated area-based management measures for bottom fisheries in the high seas. This completely changed the way these bottom fisheries were managed and stimulated the establishment of new regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) in the North and South Pacific and Indian Ocean. By 2015, most major bottom fisheries in the high seas were managed through legally binding mechanisms.

The North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission was the first to identify and close VMEs to bottom fishing in 2005 in the Northeast Atlantic, later followed by other RFMOs (Figure 66). This is one of a range of area-based measures to conserve ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas. The measures comprise:

  • identification of bottom fishing areas where fishing can occur according to agreed management measures (green areas);
  • establishment of stringent exploratory protocols for fishing outside existing fishing areas (orange areas);
  • closure of VME areas to bottom fishing (red areas); and
  • adoption of encounter protocols to protect undiscovered VMEs (all areas).


SOURCE: VME Database: FAO. 2021c. Vulnerable marine ecosystems. In: FAO. Rome. Cited 11 November 2021.
NOTES: RFMO = regional fisheries management organization; VME = vulnerable marine ecosystem.
SOURCE: VME Database: FAO. 2021c. Vulnerable marine ecosystems. In: FAO. Rome. Cited 11 November 2021.

These regulations directly support the CBD’s draft Post-2020 Framework by ensuring that at least 30 percent of the wider seascape is managed effectively by area-based conservation measures (Targets 1, 3 and 4), and showcase the proactive elements of deep-sea fisheries in protecting and maintaining global biodiversity. In fact, in most RFMOs, 100 percent of the area has bottom fisheries measures in the high seas, and these are supported by other measures dealing with small pelagic and tuna fisheries. Hence, the Deep-sea Fisheries Guidelines (FAO, 2009) promote area-based measures that permit bottom fishing where impacts on biodiversity are low, but prohibit fishing in areas where biodiversity is fragile (e.g. on VMEs). The measures thus incentivize deep-sea fisheries to provide nutrition, income and employment while eliminating negative impacts on biodiversity, thus supporting sustainable use of fisheries resources as well as biodiversity conservation goals of the CBD.

Inland fisheries

Basin-based management to ensure sustainable inland fisheries

Inland fisheries are sustained by aquatic biodiversity, healthy key habitats such as spawning grounds, nursery areas and dry season refuges and connectivity between these habitats, and the maintenance of hydrological regimes. Although fishing pressure can be extremely high in inland waters, the main drivers of decline in inland fisheries usually arise outside the fisheries sector, for example, competition for water resources between sectors, land use change and pollution. To address these issues, the ecosystem elements requiring improvement must be identified, mapped – considering all phases in the life cycles of the fish – and restored. Restoration may include re-establishing riparian vegetation, re-profiling river channels, reintroducing habitat heterogeneity, recreating spawning grounds and reconnecting floodplains or backwaters with the river channel, as well as basin-wide measures to sustain environmental flows (Valbo-Jørgensen, Marmulla and Welcomme, 2008).

The sectoral approach to natural resources management has not benefited inland fisheries since fisheries authorities rarely have the mandate to regulate other water and land use activities affecting fisheries, effectively leaving them without the necessary tools to ensure sustainability. Mechanisms to ensure good governance in the water sector are often weak, and less powerful actors such as fishers are not always consulted regarding interventions that impact them. In large river basins, a subcatchment approach can be used whereby the basin is divided into ecologically appropriate units which can be managed at the appropriate levels by the appropriate parties. In international basins, basin organizations should balance costs and benefits and guide development in line with regional policies and international instruments (Valbo-Jørgensen, Marmulla and Welcomme, 2008) (Box 29).


There are significant opportunities for ecosystem restoration to benefit inland fisheries in view of the degraded state of the habitats and environment that has contributed to the decline of such fisheries. Ecosystem restoration needs and benefits are nearly always multipurpose. There are important synergies among inland fisheries and other important high-value services, such as water quantity and quality regulation, disaster risk reduction, nutrient cycling and biodiversity conservation. Climate change adaptation interests are likewise closely aligned with those for inland fisheries through the mutual need to protect and restore inland water ecosystems in order to reduce disaster risks. Many ecosystem services can be converted to monetary values, making comparisons among them easier, but assessments should also include non-monetary values. The average values per unit area of aquatic ecosystem types on which inland fisheries depend – for example, rivers, lakes and wetlands – are orders of magnitude higher than for terrestrial ecosystems.

Reviews of ecosystem restoration for inland fisheries have tended to focus on North America and Europe, mainly for recreational fisheries and mostly for salmonid fish species, paying little attention to the food and nutrition components that are no longer very important in these fisheries. This contrasts with the situation in developing countries where the socio-economic status of the various stakeholders, winners and losers, should also be considered in the context of pro-poor sustainable development. Local communities in developing countries also tend to have high dependency on inland fisheries and are closely associated with the resource, usually living within it. This represents a potential management asset able to implement restoration measures, but which is now unavailable in developed countries. The local significance of inland fisheries is often best expressed not just through gross weights of catches, but through their contributions to the food and nutrition security and livelihoods of local communities, which can be very high and present a strong case for restoration. There are numerous examples showing that ecosystem restoration for inland fisheries can be a very cost-effective investment and, in many cases, particularly for community-based restoration efforts, costs can be minimal. The benefits of ecosystem restoration for inland fisheries can be achieved very quickly, with examples of local catches doubling or trebling within one to two years. When these are factored in, ecosystem restoration for inland fisheries can present a convincing business case.

NOTE: Summarized from: Coates, D. (forthcoming). Ecosystem restoration and inland food fisheries in developing countries – opportunities for the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2030). FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular No. 1231. Rome, FAO.
Reconnecting inland aquatic habitats for biodiversity and fisheries

Restoring aquatic ecosystems for inland fisheries requires catering for the needs of fishes in both time and space – providing upstream (spawning) and downstream (feeding and refuge) habitats, ensuring the connectivity between them and considering the impacts of water management on the timing of hydrological events. These elements need to be agreed upon as part of any river basin or catchment area management plan. The growing number of mainstream dams in the world’s major river basins and their potential impact on riparian communities has received a lot of attention in recent years. However, the proliferation of small dams, weirs, barrages and other obstacles for water storage or flood control can reduce downstream flooding and prevent fish from accessing productive floodplains that are an essential seasonal habitat for completing their life cycles, with considerable scope for re-engineering or better managing these smaller structures to improve fishery stocks and fisheries in a multipurpose landscape (FAO and IUCN, 2017). Experience has shown that there are considerable co-benefits for biodiversity when improving ecosystem conditions for inland fisheries: biodiversity conservation and inland fisheries are mutually supporting (Phang et al., 2019).

Appropriate annual hydrological patterns must also be maintained or restored, including their role in creating seasonal floodplain habitats, triggering migration, and distributing fish larvae and juveniles through passive drift. These requirements of fish and fisheries should be included in the calculation of environmental flows when negotiated with other users of water at the basin level.

Critical actions needed to seize opportunities stimulated by the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030 and the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework include:

  • recognizing the importance of inland fisheries for achieving food security and sustainable livelihoods in relevant policy and investments;
  • building on the complementarities between inland fisheries and environmental and biodiversity goals by targeting interventions that enable inland fisheries-dependent communities to support environmental sustainability; and
  • prioritizing ecosystem restoration investments for inland aquatic ecosystems because – although they and their biodiversity are the most highly degraded and threatened – they offer significant multipurpose gains, including inland fisheries and food security, water security and adaptation to climate change.

Optimizing sustainable biodiversity use, including mitigating ecosystem impacts, through technology and innovation

Risks and mitigation associated with farmed aquatic diversity

It is widely acknowledged that future increases in demand for aquatic food can only be adequately met through growth in aquaculture production; it is essential that this growth reflects best practice for sustainable aquaculture. Some aquaculture systems or practices can present significant risk to the biodiversity of aquatic systems in which they occur. The most recent global assessment of aquatic genetic resources for food and agriculture (AqGR; FAO, 2019a) identified a strong association between farmed and wild relative AqGR and showed that aquaculture can represent a threat to wild relative diversity through genetic interaction with escapees and deliberate introductions, or through habitat change related to fish and feed production. Threats are greatest from non-native and developed farmed types (Lorenzen, Beveridge and Mangel, 2012). The global assessment also noted the paucity of information on the properties of AqGR in aquaculture and the limited knowledge of ecosystem impacts of non-native and developed farmed types. Lucente et al. (2021) identified that 14 percent of cultured species are under threat in the wild, including some well-established aquaculture species. The Database of Introduced Aquatic Species (DIAS) (FAO, 2021l) indicates that most introductions of species occur for the purpose of aquaculture and provides access to information on introductions and their impacts on the environment. However, DIAS provides no indication of the relative scale of negative (e.g. harm to the environment) and positive (e.g. economic benefits from aquaculture) impacts.

There are various mechanisms to mitigate the impact of farmed types on wild relatives, including regulatory measures (e.g. aquaculture zoning) and actions of physical containment (creating barriers to prevent or minimize the interaction of cultured and wild resources) or biological containment (e.g. siting farms in environments outside the tolerances of species or using sterile or monosex seed).

Several key measures are available to transform the management of genetic diversity in aquaculture and reduce the potential risks associated with the further expansion of aquaculture production. These measures are incorporated into the Global Plan of Action for Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture adopted by FAO Members in late 2021. Greater availability of and access to information on the properties and use of aquatic diversity in aquaculture would enhance understanding and awareness of the associated benefits and risks of their use. FAO is addressing this through the development of AquaGRIS, a global information system on AqGR.15 When populated with country data on farmed types, reports can be generated to support informed development of associated policies and strategies to effectively address the negative impacts of aquaculture, including the use of non-native species and developed farmed types.

Development, dissemination and adoption of guidelines and policies specific to responsible introduction and exchange of AqGR should also reduce the impacts from irresponsible introductions. These should be based on appropriate risk assessment16 and mitigation and include a focus on non-native species and developed farmed types, incorporating the development and use of relevant material transfer agreements.

A potentially transformational future technological innovation is gene editing, which may offer the capability to generate selectively sterile farmed types. Widespread use of such technology could dramatically decrease the impacts of cultured farmed types on the receiving environment. However, in the near term, use of gene editing in commercial production systems remains contentious, and regulatory burdens are likely to limit the application of gene editing in many jurisdictions.

Responsible fishing technology

Innovations in fishing technologies can improve efficiency, increase effectiveness and reduce costs, saving energy use and reducing impacts on ecosystems. Such innovations are essential elements contributing to ecosystem restoration and SDG 14 (Life below water), particularly regarding components of the following targets:

  • SDG Target 14.1 – prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, including marine debris.
  • SDG Target 14.2 – sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts.

The Working Group on Fishing Technology and Fish Behaviour (WGFTFB), comprising fishing technology experts from around the globe and jointly supported by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and FAO, regularly discusses and reviews research and practices of fishing technology and behaviour of aquatic species in relation to fishing gears, and provides guidance for management including the impacts of fishing gears on the environment. Details on the latest research and developments aimed at reducing the impacts of fishing operations on the marine environment, decreasing pollution and improving energy efficiency can be found in the WGFTFB report (ICES, 2021).

Bycatch mitigation

After the publication in 2021 of its Guidelines to Prevent and Reduce Bycatch of Marine Mammals in Capture Fisheries, FAO continues its efforts to assist States and RFMOs through technical advice and wide promotion of the Guidelines in several UN languages (FAO, 2021m). These guidelines are directed at decision makers, planners, managers and all those involved in developing and implementing policy and technical interventions which relate to the bycatch of marine mammals in fisheries (FAO, 2021n).

The five-year (2015–2020) FAO-GEF project, Sustainable Management of Bycatch in Latin America and Caribbean Trawl Fisheries (REBYC-II-LAC), improved bycatch management in shrimp trawl fisheries of six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. A new phase, REBYC III, to include reducing bycatch from fishing gears other than trawls, is currently being developed.

Development and subsequent implementation of measures addressing bycatch issues will provide critical contributions to achieving the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework vision of living in harmony with nature and regarding in particular SDG Target 4 (CBD, 2021) and Aichi Biodiversity Targets 6 and 12 (CBD, 2020).

Addressing pollution in the fisheries sector

Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) is of increasing concern due to its negative environmental and economic impacts, including navigational hazards and associated safety issues. The ability of ALDFG to continue to capture aquatic animals in a non-controlled manner (i.e. “ghost fishing”) is detrimental to fishery stocks with potential impacts on endangered species and benthic environments.

ALDFG is an internationally recognized problem within the global challenge of marine plastic litter, with many international organizations, activities and agreements focusing on marine debris and numerous national- and local-level initiatives implemented around the world. Within this context, the United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) Working Group 43, comprising independent scientists and co-chaired by FAO and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has produced a report to provide updated information and build understanding of the extent of the impacts of sea-based sources of marine litter, in particular from the shipping and fishing sectors. The report includes a section on solutions for reducing sea-based sources of marine litter (GESAMP, 2021). The current Terms of Reference for GESAMP Working Group 43 are being updated to ensure that the latest scientific developments in this field and identified data gaps are considered when addressing the issue of marine plastic litter originating from the fishing and shipping sectors.

The 2021 FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) Declaration for Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture reiterates the importance of reducing the impact of ALDFG and marine litter. To fill data gaps identified by GESAMP Working Group 43 and to facilitate and standardize data collection on ALDFG, FAO designed questionnaires and is working with countries and partners such as the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI, 2021) to implement surveys and fill gaps. Data collated will provide an overview of the current status of the ALDFG issue across fisheries and geographies, support long-term trend analyses and monitoring of ghost fishing, and guide development and implementation of appropriate technologies and other mitigation measures.

Marking of fishing gear to enable the identification of the operator and/or owner of the gear is widely accepted as a key tool for reducing ALDFG and IUU fishing. To assist States to implement the Voluntary Guidelines on the Marking of Fishing Gear (VGMFG) (FAO, 2019d), FAO is developing a technical manual and a risk assessment framework that countries can use to assess the needs and requirements of a national system for marking of fishing gear.

Additionally, FAO is supporting the implementation of the GloLitter Partnerships Project (IMO, 2019a), funded by Norway and implemented in collaboration with the International Maritime Organization (IMO, 2019b).. GloLitter assists developing countries to implement the IMO Action Plan to Address Marine Plastic Litter from ships and the VGMFG at the national level. Through this project, FAO will develop and test gear modifications aimed at preventing ghost fishing in small-scale fisheries, which represent 90 percent of world fisheries employment (FAO, Duke University and WorldFish, forthcoming).

Collectively, these initiatives can synergistically contribute to addressing threats to biodiversity by reducing levels of pollution and discharge of plastic waste in accordance with the relevant 2030 Agenda SDG targets.

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