SDG 14 – Living aquatic resources as part of the food system

By Julian Münster
Life below water – that’s the title of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14. The aim is to protect this life and its unique ecosystems through the sustainable use of the oceans and their resources. Having healthy oceans, as well as seas and rivers, is fundamental to the livelihoods and balanced diets of millions of people who rely on fish and other aquatic foodstuffs.

© GIZ, Ranak Martin

By Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)


The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) is a globally active provider of international cooperation for sustainable development. It has more than 50 years of experience in a wide range of fields.  

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Life below water – The aim of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 is to ensure the sustainable use of the oceans and their resources and thus to help conserve these ecosystems. The climate crisis, overfishing and pollution are putting immense pressure on the oceans, which need to be healthy in order for ecosystems to function and therefore to sustain natural livelihoods. To protect the oceans, the United Nations has set out ten targets aimed at conserving and restoring marine ecosystems. To this end, for example, fish stocks are to be managed sustainably, overfishing and illegal fishing are to be stopped and harmful subsidies are to be eliminated. In addition, at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas are to be designated as protected. Adoption of the Global Biodiversity Framework in 2022 increased the level of ambition significantly in this respect, with the ‘30 by 30’ goal.


Criticism has been levelled at the fact that SDG 14 only relates to marine ecosystems. The use of inland aquatic systems, e.g. pond farming or inland fisheries, is hugely important for food security in many regions and diversifies the local food supply. From a global perspective, fresh water ecosystems are among those most at risk in terms of loss of species and habitats. Germany’s development policy on the sustainable use of living aquatic resources for food security therefore takes an overarching approach.


Aquatic foodstuffs as part of a balanced diet

Fisheries and aquaculture, both at sea and inland, directly provide the livelihoods for 58.8 million people and more than 600 million people depend on them indirectly. In 2022, the sector contributed to the livelihoods of 7.5 per cent of the world’s population, mainly in developing countries. Around 90 per cent of people working in the fishing sector worldwide, 50 per cent of which are women, are engaged in small-scale fishing. Small-scale fishing is responsible for 44 per cent of the value of all landings around the world. Aquatic foodstuffs, meaning fish, molluscs, shellfish and algae, are not only of significant economic importance. They are also an essential part of people’s diets. Aquatic foodstuffs are an important source of animal protein (min. 20 per cent) for more than 3.3 billion people. Particularly in coastal regions and around inland waters in the Global South, aquatic foodstuffs have traditionally been highly valued as an easily accessible, affordable source of animal protein (>50% in Bangladesh, Cambodia or Ghana).


Fisheries and aquaculture products are not only a source of animal protein, however. Because of their high content of vitamins, micronutrients and long-chain polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, they are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet, particularly for pregnant and nursing women and children. A single portion of fish, particularly when prepared whole, mussels or shellfish often provides more omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12 and calcium than the recommended daily amount, and about half the recommended daily amount of iron and zinc for a child under 5.


Compared to other sources of animal protein, aquatic food resources from fishing or aquaculture cause relatively low greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon footprint of caught fish is, on average, comparable to that of industrially produced poultry, which is one of the lowest-emission sources of land-based protein. The carbon footprint of many fed aquaculture groups is much lower. As we move toward decarbonising our global food system, aquatic foodstuffs can therefore play a decisive role.


Status quo – the big challenge for fisheries and ocean protection

It was long assumed that the oceans’ fish stocks were inexhaustible, but the continued mechanisation of fishing led to the overfishing of many commercially used species and finally to stagnation in global catches in the 1990s. Today more than 35 per cent of fish stocks are regarded as overfished, while 57 per cent are at their maximum limits for sustainable use. This means that more intensive fishing would lead to overfishing and a decline in stocks. Only 7 per cent of stocks could be more intensively fished for higher catches. In recent years, demand for fish as well as the percentage of stocks that are overfished have continued to rise.


Overfishing, which is responsible for the poor condition of global fish stocks, is being encouraged through harmful subsidies, a lack of transparency in the fishing sector, inadequate management and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The FAO estimates that IUU fishing is responsible for the loss of 11-26 million tonnes of fish each year, the economic value of which is put at USD 10-23 billion.


Subsidies in the fishing sector are a key driver of global overfishing.  For example, boat-building subsidies increase catch capacities and with it the risk of overfishing. Around USD 35 billion in fishing subsidies are granted globally each year, of which USD 22 billion directly encourage overcapacity and overfishing – that’s equivalent to one third of the value of global fisheries production. The aim of the UN’s Agenda 2030 was to eliminate harmful fishing subsidies by 2020. Delayed by two years, the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, which prohibits harmful fisheries subsidies, was, however, adopted in 2022. Negotiations on some outstanding issues are still required and it has to be ratified by 2/3 of WTO member states before it becomes fully operational.


The pressure on aquatic ecosystems and fish stocks in the Global South is being exacerbated by the impact of climate change, which could lead to a reduction in the productivity of fish and thus in the maximum fisheries potential of 3 to 12 per cent. The greatest negative impact is predicted for the tropical regions. In contrast, increased fish productivity is expected in regions at higher latitudes.


To counteract human-made negative influences, the global community came together at the last biodiversity conference in December 2022 to strengthen global protection measures for the land and sea. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) increased the level of ambition from SDG 14, calling for 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface to be protected by 2030. Since only approximately 8 per cent of the ocean’s surface is currently protected, the GBF is hugely important for ocean protection and thus for coastal populations that live off marine resources. While protected areas play an important role in the conservation of fish stocks and their sustainable use, the associated restrictions also pose a threat to the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen at the same time. Mandatory consideration of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities when implementing protection measures is therefore anchored in the GBF as a central element. In the coming years, greater focus will therefore be on supporting participative processes for achieving area-based international protection goals. Small-scale fishermen will play a central role in this.


Turning the tide – How can the SDG 14 targets be achieved?

Transparency and a participative, ecosystem-based approach in both fisheries management and the designation of protected areas are crucial for achieving SDG 14. It is important to involve affected stakeholders such as small-scale fishermen and local residents in coastal communities in the processes and to safeguard the rights particularly of marginalised groups. Overall, greater prioritisation and better integration of fisheries and aquaculture production in global, regional and national strategies and policies surrounding the food system must be a key part of the necessary transformation of our agriculture and food systems.


To achieve these goals, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) is supporting the sustainable use of aquatic ecosystems in partner countries and, through multilateral commitment and bilateral cooperation, is helping to ensure food security and economic development at local level. Such local commitment comes, for example, from the global ‘Sustainable fisheries and aquaculture’ programme run by the German development agency, GIZ. The programme aims to encourage food security in partner countries through sustainable and resource-conserving fisheries and aquaculture. One example is the collaboration with Mauritania, where a registration and licensing system for fishermen and their boats has been introduced, with the aim of curbing IUU fishing, among other things. The programme also supports polyculture practices in aquaculture, such as rice-fish systems. Here the synergies between different species are utilised to increase yields and minimise costs. These symbiotic relationships also increase biodiversity in and around the ponds.


At international level too, the BMZ is championing the implementation of international agreements, such as the WTO’s Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies. In this respect, the BMZ participates in a fund for supporting implementation in developing countries.
The FAO Agreement on Port State Measures(PSMA), which entered into force in 2016, is the first binding international agreement that specifically addresses IUU fishing. The aim is to stop boats involved in IUU activities from coming into port and landing their catches. This is to prevent fish that has been caught illegally from reaching national and international markets. A collaboration between the BMZ and the FAO supporting the implementation of this Agreement in Kenya, Madagascar, Gambia and Senegal was launched in 2022.


In addition, the BMZ has been supporting the FAO in the development of guidelines on transshipment (the unloading of catches from one vessel on to another in open sea), so as to prevent illegally caught fish entering the supply chain and undermining sustainable and socially responsible fisheries. Transparency is a fundamental requirement for this, and that’s why the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI) has already been assisted in the past to support countries in introducing sustainable and transparent fisheries management.


In view of climate change, fisheries reforms are necessary which comprise effective, participative and adaptive fisheries management systems as well as a precautionary approach when it comes to dealing with uncertainty and risks.


Internationally, awareness of the urgent need to protect our oceans was boosted by the UN’s Ocean Conference in 2017. At the following Ocean Conference in 2022, the Lisbon Declaration intensified political efforts to extend and improve the management of protected marine areas. Conclusion of the UN’s BBNJ Treaty, which focuses on marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, and negotiations for a new UN agreement on plastic waste in the sea are also shaping political discourse. These topics are also finding their way into national politics. The German Federal Government has, for example, signed up to the ‘30 by 30’ goal of protecting 30 per cent of marine areas by 2030. The BMZ has wide-ranging commitments concerning protected marine areas, is coordinating international measures on mangrove protection and is raising the profile of these issues on the political stage. With the MeerWissen initiative, the BMZ is supporting African-German scientific collaborations to provide policymakers with the information they need to make knowledge-based decisions to protect the oceans, and with the Western Indian Ocean Governance Initiative (WIOGI) is supporting greater ocean governance at regional level.


Even greater efforts are needed with respect to implementation and monitoring in order to achieve SDG 14 in practice. An even though the ‘Life below water’ goal is central to securing sustainable global development, it often takes only a secondary place in political decision-making. The tools necessary for successful implementation already exist. They only need to be applied consistently across the board. What’s more, a fisheries and aquaculture sector that is more sustainable, fairer and more inclusive in social, ecological and economic terms is also crucial to the achievement not only of SDG 14, but of several SDGs: in combating hunger and malnutrition, reducing poverty and safeguarding livelihoods, reducing social and gender-based inequalities, and reducing the impact of the food system on climate change and the loss of biodiversity.


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