Songlin Wang: Marine biodiversity should play larger role in upcoming United Nations COP 15 talks

Published on
April 10, 2020

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference, also called COP15 – the fifteenth meeting of the conference of parties to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), is scheduled to take place in October 2020 in Kunming, China.

COP 15 is expected to adopt the “Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework” which will outline what countries need to do, individually and collectively, in the next decade and beyond, to set humanity on course for achieving the CBD’s overall vision of “living in harmony with nature” by 2050. The framework sets out a vision for a world living in harmony with nature where: “By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people.”

Each of the framework’s five long-term goals for 2050 related to the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity has an associated outcome for 2030. One of the goals is no net loss by 2030 in the area and integrity of freshwater, marine, and terrestrial ecosystems, and increases of at least 20 percent by 2050, ensuring ecosystem resilience.

However, aquaculture and fisheries are not slated to be a topic of discussion at COP 15. That’s unfortunate, according to marine biologist Songlin Wang, the founder and president of the Qingdao Marine Conservation Society (QMCS) and lead strategist for China and Southeast Asia at the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), as the sectors are central to marine biodiversity efforts.

SeafoodSource: What is the potential of COP 15 to achieve results for ocean-focused sustainability efforts?

Wang: Reviewing the zero draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, it is a bit disappointing to see how little the fields of marine and fisheries are directly addressed. The word ‘marine’ appears twice in the entire text. I hope that the location of Kunming, which is almost 1,900 meters above the sea level and thousands miles away from the closest shoreline, won’t mean that marine and fisheries issues are forgotten by most the participants. Though this is a likely case.

SeafoodSource: Will you attend, and if so, are you preparing any input to the conference agenda or preparation?

Wang: I am considering joining the event, but this is not yet fixed. We do have a group of international and domestic NGOs with a marine and fisheries agenda considering at least expressing options or expectations before or during this most important global environmental event this year.

SeafoodSource: Specifically what does the COP hope to achieve that might affect the fisheries or aquaculture sectors?

Wang: [The text says] “No net loss by 2030 in the area and integrity of freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and increases of at least [20 percent] by 2050, ensuring ecosystem resilience.” Also, [it asks signatories to] “Retain and restore freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems, increasing by at least 50 percent the land and sea area under comprehensive spatial planning addressing land or sea use change, achieving by 2030 a net increase in area, connectivity and integrity and retaining existing intact areas and wilderness.” There’s also a provision that says “Reform incentives, eliminating the subsidies that are most harmful for biodiversity, ensuring by 2030 that incentives, including public and private economic and regulatory incentives, are either positive or neutral for biodiversity.”

SeafoodSource: What do you think can be achieved through the conference that might improve the sustainability of China's fisheries?

Wang: It appears that the involvement of Chinese fisheries and aquaculture management official authorities, public fisheries research institutes, the seafood industry, and relevant civil society organizations in preparation of COP 15 is very limited. This fact, in combination with the very low key status of marine and fisheries in the current draft framework, could leads to a prediction that fisheries and aquaculture will not be intensively discussed and debated over CBD COP 15. Yet it is hard to exaggerate how relevant fisheries and aquaculture is to CBD, and how particularly this is the case in China. A more environmentally sustainable and socially responsible development path of China’s fisheries and aquaculture sectors will significantly contribute to all the five long-term goals for 2050 listed in the framework not only in China, but across the globe. We cannot keep overlooking the critical linkages of fisheries and aquaculture sectors with freshwater and marine biodiversity in China and the rest of the world.

SeafoodSource: What does China have to contribute to that conversation?

Wang: Despite its widely applauded contribution to global food and nutrient security and relatively high efficiency in the use of natural resources, China’s fisheries and aquaculture sectors also face enormous sustainability challenges and its negative impacts on biodiversity are equally enormous. However, compared with leading Western aquaculture countries such as Norway, which primarily farm carnivorous finfish such as Atlantic salmon, China’s aquaculture industry produces large volumes of low trophic level- (and also to some degree low carbon footprint-) species, such as mollusk shellfish like oyster, scallop, clam, mussel, abalone, plankton and aquatic plant feeding carp, tilapia, and mullet. In addition, the existence of many traditional and innovative integrated multi-trophic level aquaculture systems, such as [coproduction of] rice and mulberry with crab, represent not only more biodiversity-friendly and low-carbon food producing solutions to China, but also potential answers for the rest of the world to feed the rising population without further increasing anthropogenic carbon footprint and multiple negative ecological impacts.

SeafoodSource: What are the challenges in the increasing emphasis on premium species in China’s aquaculture sector?

Wang: Given the growing volumes of carnivorous finfish like croaker, grouper, flounder, bass, snakehead, and crustaceans like shrimps, crab, and crayfish to feed, the aquaculture industry is an increasingly major driver of overfishing of wild small and juvenile fish, often sourced unsustainably from inland waters, seas, and oceans both within China and across the globe. The volume of wild small and juvenile fish used to feed China’s aquaculture industry is estimated to be over seven million tons a year, almost 10 percent of total global wild fish production.

SeafoodSource: How does the diversity of China’s aquaculture sector create problems for biodiversity?

Wang: There are more than 300 aquatic species being farmed in China out of the 500-plus species being farmed globall,y so China leads the world in farmed species diversity. But the establishment of over 500 China National Aquatic Germplasm Reserves by the Chinese Ministry and Rural Affairs to preserve wild stocks of commercially important freshwater and marine species are not all functioning effectively in fulfilling their missions. Many fall into “paper reserves.” As a consequence, irreversible losses of species and genetic diversity have been recorded in both inland waters and marine areas. For example, the widely farmed sea cucumber Stichopus japonicas is red-listed by IUCN as endangered.

SeafoodSource: Why has China recently placed a major emphasis on mitigating the environmental impact of aquaculture on sensitive ecosystems such as wetlands?

Wang: With around five percent of its marine areas under China’s jurisdiction designated as legally protected areas, China is only halfway to reach the Aichi Biodiversity Target 11, which states “By 2020, at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.” And even for most of the existing coastal and marine protected areas, IUU fishing and irresponsible aquaculture practices are still pervasive threats.

Photo courtesy of Songlin Wang/Aquaculture Stewardship Council

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