Fly over the crystal blue waters of the South Pacific archipelago of Palau, and in many places you may notice something unusual: a total lack of fishing boats.
In 2015, Palau designated 193,000 square miles of its maritime territory a protected reserve, where no fishing can take place.
While that has helped protect marine life, it has created a challenge. How can the country ensure its focus on conservation does not come at the expense of job creation and economic growth?
Palau, with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is examining one possible solution: aquaculture.
While the cultivation of both aquatic plants and animals in many places has become a blight on the environment, in Palau officials are hoping to build an environmentally friendly aquaculture industry, one that will provide jobs and ensure the country’s 18,000 residents are not totally reliant on wild fish stocks.
Palau’s aquaculture industry has huge potential, says Tsunghan Lee, an aquaculture consultant who works for the Palau government. But it is still nascent. There are only two commercial scale aquaculture farms, which produce fish for bait, and 11 fish farms at sea, Lee says.
Palau is not the only country grappling with how to protect fish stocks while also safeguarding fishers’ livelihoods and the marine biodiversity that underpins coastal tourism.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, up to 10 percent of the global population relies on fisheries for their livelihood. Yet in 2019, one-third of the world’s fish stocks were overfished, up from 10 percent in the mid-1970s, while another 60 percent have been exploited at their maximum sustainable limit.
Aquaculture has grown hugely in the past three decades and now provides half of all fish for human consumption. Global aquaculture production more than tripled to 112 million tonnes in 2017 from 34 million tonnes in 1997, says Sang Jin Lee, Task Manager within the UNEP- Global Environment Fund Biodiversity Unit.
By 2030, aquaculture could produce nearly two-thirds of the fish consumed globally.
And with the world’s population expected to grow from 7.96 to 9.8 billion by 2050, food security will continue to be a vital global issue.
Aquaculture is not just about the production of food: it also generates products used in food processing, feed, fuels, cosmetics, and a variety of other industrial products.
“Over the past 20 years, aquaculture has evolved from having a relatively minor role to playing a mainstream part in the global food system,” Sang Jin Lee says.
But aquaculture is not without its problems.
Much of the aquaculture practiced across the world causes pollution, leads to disease outbreaks and degrades coastlines, Sang Jin Lee says. Yet well-run aquaculture farms have the potential to provide a number of ecosystem services, he adds.
Aquaculture farms can vary hugely in size, from the Salmar Ocean Farm off the coast of Norway, which can hold 3 million salmon, to small, freshwater farms in earthen ponds, which hold hundreds of fish.
“When managed within a broader ecosystem framework and strategy, aquaculture has the potential to enhance ecosystems and provide increased benefits to humanity, with values potentially returned via a wide range of regulating, provisioning, habitat, and cultural ecosystem services,” Sang Jin Lee says.
In 2022, UNEP designed a national project funded by the Global Environment Facility to strengthen aquaculture policy, planning and management in Palau.
The country has one of the most biologically diverse underwater ecosystems globally, yet unsustainable development practices, the impacts of climate change, overharvesting of natural resources, and ongoing expansion of tourism represent significant threats to Palau’s environmental quality and biodiversity. “Many of the human-induced ecosystem changes currently occurring on and around these fragile islands are irreversible,” Sang Jin Lee adds.
These issues extend to the country’s aquaculture industry, which according to Sang Jin Lee, has suffered from limited planning, capacity, and coordination. “This has often resulted in unintended ecosystem impacts, and mismatches in seedling production, needs, and sites for aquaculture farms,” he says.
The UNEP-led project will guide the development of the aquaculture sector to complement Palau’s legacy of marine biodiversity conservation.
“When developed responsibly, aquaculture represents a significant opportunity to simultaneously meet the three pillars of the UN Sustainable Development Goals: ending poverty and hunger and promoting prosperity, while protecting the planet from degradation,” says Sang Jin Lee.
This article was originally posted by UNEP.