Preserving ocean resources

Options Magazine, Summer 2012: 

Preserving ocean resources romoting sustainable management of fisheries and other ocean resources is critical for future generations

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Oceans are one of the areas being given “priority attention” at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, with experts noting that oceans drive the global systems that make Earth habitable for humans. “Our rain water, drinking water, weather, climate, coastlines, much of our food, and even the oxygen in the air we breathe, are all ultimately provided and regulated by the sea,” a Rio+20 statement on oceans says.

One key to sustainability in the oceans, and by extension food and jobs for millions of people, is more astute management of fisheries, and IIASA scientists are deeply involved in a host of projects that would mitigate several of the problems plaguing the oceans—overfishing, loss of biodiversity, and fisheries-induced evolution.

Researchers in IIASA’s Evolution and Ecology Program (EEP), led by evolutionary biologists Ulf Dieckmann and Mikko Heino, are developing tools that integrate the biological, social, and economic aspects of fishery systems to help create management options that promote sustainable fisheries. The research recognizes that fisheries have at least four subsystems that are connected in a powerful feedback loop—the natural system, the resultant ecosystem services, the management system, and the associated socioeconomic system. Each subsystem consists of complex components that deal with everything from multi-species population dynamics to multi-fleet fisheries.

A recent article in the journal Science, co-authored by Mikko Heino, proposes a strategy of balanced harvesting to “more effectively mitigate adverse ecological effects of fishing while supporting sustainable fisheries.” This strategy, which “challenges present management paradigms,” distributes “a moderate mortality from fishing across the widest possible range of species, stocks, and sizes in a ecosystem, in proportion to their natural productivity, so that the relative size and species composition is maintained.”

EEP is also investigating how to improve the regulation of open resources—such as fish stocks in the oceans—by integrating elements of successful small-scale, bottom-up regulations into large-scale, top-down regulations. Such regulations are needed to ensure that common goods and open-access resources—everything from clean air and the global climate to fish stocks and aquatic ecosystems—are equitably and fairly available to everyone. The research draws on advances in game theory, choice theory, cooperative phenomena, and agent-based modeling to explore how top-down regulations can be improved to better protect open-access resources and prevent overexploitation.

A Rio+20 brief on oceans issues notes that in 2008 fish provided three billion people with at least 15% of their animal protein, and fishing provided livelihoods for about 540 million people. “Apart from food and livelihood provision,” the brief says, “oceans represent a natural resource with respect to the travel and tourism, mining, telecommunication and transportation industries.” The oceans, which cover 72% of the Earth’s surface, also absorb about 30% of global CO2 emissions.

The brief also notes that the UN Commission on Sustainable Development will undertake a two-year review of oceans, marine life, and linked issues involving “small island developing states.”

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Last edited: 27 August 2012


Ulf Dieckmann

Program Director

Evolution and Ecology


Capacity Building and Academic Training

T +43(0) 2236 807 386

Mikko Heino

Senior Research Scholar

Evolution and Ecology

T +43(0) 2236 807 442

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