Blue Genes: Sharing and Conserving the World’s Aquatic Biodiversity

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In the rush to develop global policies that deal with access to genetic resources, aquatic animals and plants have largely been overlooked. International agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) have been largely driven by agricultural and pharmaceutical agendas, and have tended to treat aquatic matters as an afterthought. The same trend appears to be occurring in the development of national strategies for biodiversity management and of laws regulating access to genetic resources.

Plant genetic resources have received far more press than aquatic ones for good reason: scientific understanding and commercial use of aquatic genetic resources lag decades behind their plant counterparts. But this situation is changing fast. Although industrial-scale aquaculture was virtually unknown 30 years ago, it’s now predicted that more than 40 per cent of global food fish production will come from farms by 2020. (…) Meanwhile, the natural capital of aquatic genetic diversity is rapidly being eroded by overfishing and development, with species disappearing before they are even known to humans.

While it is true that certain aspects of biodiversity and genetic resources policy can apply equally to plants or fish, significant differences need to be taken into account as well. For example, whereas seed companies can collect their genetic resources from international gene banks, fish farmers generally rely on wild populations to replenish their broodstock. The very different nature of aquatic genetic resources (for example, hidden, migratory, publicly accessible) raises ownership issues that may be different from those known to the plant world. Communities in the areas where aquatic genetic resources are likely to be collected may have no traditional knowledge that is useful to fish farmers or pharmaceutical companies – yet some countries’ laws make the sharing of useful traditional knowledge a prerequisite for a community’s right to benefit from providing access to genetic resources.

These and many other distinctions between plant and aquatic genetic resources deserve consideration by policy makers. In addition, the vacuum in policies for the management and conservation of aquatic biodiversity needs to be addressed before countries begin to contemplate putting access regulations in place. This book offers an analysis of policy gaps and proposes approaches at the international, national and community levels to providing a foundation for the conservation and sharing of aquatic biodiversity.

— Excerpt from the book’s preface