What would you like to search for?

Vote EAF for oceans

Ecosystems are the collective networks on which many unrelated resources depend. Like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes well-connected healthy ecosystems to ensure nature functions as intended. When it comes to our marine environment, the answer lies in an ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF): how we manage the biggest extractive industry from our oceans, our fisheries.

An infographic showing positive actions to ensure healthy ocean ecosystems.
There are many positive benefits to adhering to an ecosystem approach to fisheries management.
What is EAF?

Fishing is the single biggest threat facing our oceans today. Not only does it deplete targeted fish stocks, but it also degrades the marine environment and has knock-on impacts for marine ecosystems. This threat is further exacerbated by climate change and competing maritime interests. To ensure sustainability, given the complexities in which fisheries have to be managed, it is important that fishery impacts to targeted stocks, bycatch species and the environment be considered together with socio-economic needs and governance considerations. Considering ecosystem impacts, socio-economic needs and governance forms the key pillars for a holistic means of managing fisheries, known as an ecosystem approach to fisheries or EAF. 

What about EAF in relation to other uses of our oceans?

EAF is nested within bigger concepts such as ecosystem-based management (EBM). While EBM refers to ecosystem management of multiple sectors such as fishing, offshore oil and gas exploration, shipping, tourism and more, EAF looks at incorporating an ecosystem approach specifically in fisheries management.

A clownfish sits in a sea anemone.
© Worldwide traveller / Getty Images
Sea anemones and clownfish have a mutually beneficial relationship as part of an interconnected marine system.
What is the opposite of an ecosystems approach?

Currently, South Africa manages its commercial fisheries and marine species at a ‘single’ species level. Marine scientists primarily carry out “stock assessments” of commercially targeted fished species such as sardines, hake, tunas and harders to lobsters, some sharks and fish caught using handline collectively referred to as “linefish”.  

These stock assessments are the factor for setting annual catch amounts for each respective fishery. South Africa had 77 commercially exploited resources assessed by 2023, however marine species are interdependent and interconnected in food webs and this is not considered in stock assessments. Also, limited socio-economic information is used in the management of these fisheries, for example considering economic viability when allocating how many fishing rights to allocate and the magnitude of the quota. 

What is the issue with not having an ecosystems approach to fisheries?

An EAF is supported by ecosystem, socio-economic and governance considerations. Focussing only one or two of these key pillars will not ensure sustainability. EAF is like a three-legged bar stool, if one leg is removed the stool will topple. Yet South Africa’s fisheries are primarily managed on the strength of the targeted resource(s) with limited consideration given to impact to bycatch species, the environment, ecosystem functioning, economic viability and equity, and in many cases our fisheries are undermined by weak governance. Consequently, there are many diverse challenges that have arisen in our fisheries today, including depleted fish stocks, concerns regarding ecosystem health, poor governance, reduced contributions to local economies, job losses, livelihoods at risk, food insecurity and disgruntled fishers.  

Our current governance mechanisms fall short of supporting EAF as an ideal management tool. 

A sunfish caught as bycatch
© WWF-Canon / Helene PETIT
Despite one species being targeted in a single fishery, other species get hooked and sunk to their death.
Why do we need EAF?

We need to ensure marine goods and services are available for now and future generations. To do this, we must use a scientific basis to measure and monitor use of marine resources. We need to allow the ocean to restore and replenish itself – not take more than nature can regenerate. 

The good news is that following an EAF will benefit more than marine ecosystems. By properly incorporating socio-economic factors, following an EAF would lead to equitable management of marine resources in a way that is fair when governed effectively.  

As is the essence of the three pillars of sustainability (people, planet and economics), sound environmental measures alone – without considering good governance and the human dimension – will not be sustainable. 

Or in layman’s words, if we wish to continue to survive, we need to acknowledge how much we rely on healthy oceans for the many roles they fulfil. Best we act now before it’s too late.  

A small-scale fishing vessel in False Bay, South Africa
© Gunner Oberhosel
Artisan small-scale fishers rely on a healthy ocean for their ability to earn income.
Who is responsible for enabling an EAF?

The South African government is mandated as the decision-making authority. They are the custodians of marine resources and the marine environment, on behalf of all South Africans and best placed to govern and balance often competing socio-economic needs. 

What does the law say about EAF?

The Marine Living Resources Act (MLRA) 18 of 1998 intends to provide for conservation of the marine ecosystem, as well as orderly access to, and long-term sustainable use, of its resources.  However, the MLRA predates EAF and is not explicit in prescribing an EAF, nor the need for it. Now 25 years later, the government fishery department is due to revise the MLRA.  

Another environmental policy considers the ocean too: the National Environment Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 intends to provide protection of species and ecosystems that warrant national protection. The general policy on the allocation and management of commercial fishing rights in all fisheries advocates for the use of EAF as a management tool; however, implementation of this is not systematically supported by government.    

What is a positive example of following an EAF?

In 2011, I&J and SeaHarvest came together to approach environmental NGOs and other science-based stakeholders to find ways to tackle the issue of high levels of seabird bycatch in deep-sea trawl fisheries. Through innovation and applied practical testing at sea, a special bird scaring line was created. It became known as a “tori line”. They then approached government to incorporate the use of tori lines into the permit conditions for practical implementation at larger scale. 

What is a negative example of not following an EAF?

An ecosystem approach to fisheries would consider the negative impacts along the food chain of over-extracting a resource that has dire consequences for another species or set of species in the food chain. A clear example of this is the African penguin which has a specific diet. They eat only sardines and anchovies. When they are even more land-bound to nest and nurture chicks during their breeding season, they cannot swim far out to sea to catch food. To this end, overfishing of the sardine and anchovy fishery has resulted in food scarcity for them. 

An infographic showing the decline of penguin populations.
The endangered African penguin relies solely on a diet of sardines and anchovies, within close proximity to their colonies.
How could an ecosystem approach help African penguins?

By adopting an EAF in the small pelagic fishery it would consider the food requirements of top predators, like the African penguin, in setting the total allowable catch (TAC) for sardines and anchovy. This will ensure that sufficient food remains in the system for predators and would serve to reduce resource competition between the small pelagic fishery and African penguins. 

Has a fishing ban ever been taken considering an ecosystem approach?

As sardines are a dominant food source for penguins, so sandeels are to puffins. Since the 1950s, sandeels have been industrially fished for fishmeal (feed for farmed fish and livestock), yet sandeels have long been the foundation of marine ecosystems in the North Sea, off the coast of northern England and Scotland, where iconic orange-beaked puffins are found. Now puffin populations are in severe decline – and a lack of their sole food source is why.  

To course correct, a new permanent ban on industrial sandeel fishing is in place since the sandeel fishing season opened on 1 April 2024.  

While achieving the closure of this fishery is a start, it is likely not enough. Let’s hope the fate of the iconic puffins can turn around. And for our penguins, may we not wait until it’s too late. 

An Atlantic puffin on the cliff side.
© Clement / Getty Images
The Atlantic puffin is considered vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, compared to the African penguin which is endangered.
How can we collectively take an EAF forward?

A multi-stakeholder workshop was convened in May 2024 by a voluntary collective known as the Responsible Fisheries Alliance (RFA) to explore an EAF and to determine the level of interest in reinvigorating this approach. Attendees included representatives of various government fisheries branches, commercial fishing industry, environmental NGOs and academia. 

A government representative from the monitoring side of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) expressed the urgent need to look at the people aspect and said that fisheries management needs to include the human dimension, by stating “That’s what we actually have to manage – people’s actions.” 

As shared by WWF’s senior manager for marine, Craig Smith, these are the five suggested aspects to accelerate an ecosystem approach to fisheries in South Africa: 

  1. Consensus that EAF is important for well-managed fisheries – in meetings, in policies, in strategies and implementation plans with clearly defined goals and dates. 

  1. Agreement that government is best placed to lead on EAFwith their mandate and many willing officers the directive needs to come from the top to firmly embed EAF. 

  1. Engage all stakeholders to support EAFall hands on deck is the way, starting with a revival of the regular use of the EAF phrase to ensure that it is moved forward by all, as well as including coastal fishing communities, academia, research institutions, NGOs and management authorities in the implementation – and monitoring – of an EAF.  

  1. Leverage the existing legal “toolkit – although the toolkit is not perfect there are a number of tools that can be used to implement an EAF.  

  1. Elevate a champion – EAF needs to be championed by a person/team who can take it into the future. This champion needs to be embedded within government, that would assist in refining the EAF tools that would allow for an effective implementation of an EAF and then celebrated as shared successes when the benefits are shown through a healthy marine environment, well managed fish stocks and thriving sustainable fisheries. 

All that remains is to determine the mechanism of how an EAF could be implemented in South Africa. This will be the focus of the next workshop in the RFA series. 

Sue Northam-Ras Photo
Sue Northam-Ras, Communications Manager: Environmental programme

Sue believes in making information valuable by writing and shaping content in a way that gives it meaning. She packages the environmental content for WWF South Africa.

Find out more about our work

Our oceans are our planet's life support system.