By Michel Kaiser

THE health of our seas and oceans matters, not just from an environmental point of view but from an economic one. It is a threat that is increasingly being taken seriously.

In recent weeks the World Economic Forum has published its Global Risks Report 2022, flashing warning signs on the dashboards of governments and businesses. It cites biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as a top concern. In addition, life insurance giant Aviva has put pressure on businesses by saying it expects those within its global asset management portfolio to meet new targets aimed at preserving biodiversity.

But how do we ensure our seas and oceans thrive with fish, other animals and plantlife? New research conducted by myself and a team of colleagues at institutions around the world underlines the need to roll-out sustainable fisheries management. There are examples of good practice, including here in Scotland, that we can learn from.

Our analysis looked at where trawling takes place and mapped this against the status of sea beds and the communities they support. We considered different habitats and various types of trawling gear.

We found that intensively-trawled regions had low habitat status relative to others, the worst of which was the Adriatic. However, we also found that when fisheries are managed sustainably, the wider environmental impacts are considerably lower. In the UK we have examples in Shetland, the Isle of Man and the English Channel of management plans which enable fish and shellfish stocks to be harvested sustainably. These plans promote less time at sea and less disturbance on the seabed as well as lower carbon emissions.

This research advances understanding and enables better assessment of risks. The hope is that our study highlights regions needing more effective management to reduce exploitation, improve stock sustainability and seabed environmental status. With healthy sea beds, we can protect and improve biodiversity and address the nature crisis our world faces.

An important aspect of our study is that high quality data is required so we have a better understanding of local situations. Mapping trawl footprints requires precise information about where and when boats are in operation. In most countries this detailed data is not publicly available.

The lack of high-resolution trawl effort data or, for confidentiality reasons, where it’s kept private must be addressed. The benefits to public policy at national and international levels would be immense. Management plans could be co-designed with local fishing interests to help bring together environmental, commercial and community interests.

Bottom-trawl fisheries provide about a quarter of marine catch, making substantial contributions to global food supply and livelihoods. So, on one hand we must protect our environment but on the other we must support coastal communities and human nutrition.

I am due to speak on this topic at Expo 2020 Dubai this Thursday. This is an urgent issue. Maintaining “life below water” is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. By improving access to data, there is a better chance of developing specific local sustainable management plans to future-proof our fisheries.

Michel Kaiser is Professor of Fisheries Conservation and Chief Scientist at Heriot-Watt University