Wanted: new stewardship approach to fisheries trade

Current market system drives fisheries to the brink and blocks sustainable fishing

Photo: M. Almqvist/Azote
Fisheries represent one of the last major wild extractive endeavours undertaken at a global scale. However, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO), three-quarters of the world's fisheries are already fished maximally or over-exploited.

This is largely thanks to irresistible global trade opportunities, market institutions that are decoupled from ecosystem dynamics and a growing population that is hungry for fish, both for food and for animal feed.

"Many consider aquaculture the most viable option for meeting increasing demands, but despite the fact that it has provided economic and nutritional benefits to millions, there are concerns that unconstrained sector expansion is aggravating an already critical fisheries situation," says Max Troell.
 
Crucial ecosystem feedbacks missing
In a new book on ecosystem services and global trade of natural resources, centre researchers Lisa Deutsch, Miriam Huitric and Max Troell, together with Karin Limburg at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry of the State University of New York have contributed with a chapter on the implications global trade has for marine ecosystems and their services.
 
They argue that ecologically-relevant feedbacks are not only missing in the present market system, but are, in fact, blocked by current trade institutions.
 
"The present market system has few ‘receptors´ to capture changes in the capacity of ecosystems to supply fish and fishmeal. Technological developments that characterise the global market have made it possible to connect the economic part of food producing systems worldwide, but have not included ecosystem signals such as fish stock declines due to over-harvesting," Lisa Deutsch says.
 
"This hampers the ability to respond to environmental feedbacks and implement the ecosystem approach to fisheries management," she argues.
 
Too efficient for its own good
The expanded global commodity chain, because of the scale and speed at which it operates when modern technology is used, can mask a seemingly obvious ecosystem signal such as the collapse of a local fish population.

Market supply can remain constant although the source of the seafood moves all over the world as fishers deplete one resource and then move to another.
 
"We do not propose that trade is a bad thing per se. The global market is simply a highly efficient mechanism for supplying goods and services unavailable to a large portion of the world's population and providing producers with access to consumers worldwide. However, the very traits that make the international market so economically efficient contribute to the decoupling of consumers and producers from the resource base," says Miriam Huitric.
 
What to do
The authors make five recommendations to promote maintenance of marine ecosystem services which will consequently also promote human development:
 
1. Reduce overcapacity by removing government subsidies that encourage excess fishing would. This will make a major positive impact.

2. Continue efforts to reduce use of fisheries resources in aquaculture and instead use these resources for human consumption. The aquaculture industry has managed to lower the percentage of fishmeal and fish oil in some feeds — this development must continue.

3. Eat the right seafood. People in industrialised economies already consume disproportionally large amounts — they should certainly not consume more.

4. Include ecologically relevant indicators in the market. For prices to be right, environmental costs need to be included in production costs.

5. Develop appropriate rules and institutions at all levels. We need international trade institution that maintain nature's life-support capacity where countries are not only allowed but encouraged to have minimum environmental production standards.

Reference

Lisa Deutsch, Max Troell, Karin Limburg and Miriam Huitric. 2011. Thomas Köllner, editor. Global Trade of Fisheries Products: implications for marine ecosystems and their services in Ecosystem Services and Global Trade of Natural Resources: Ecology, Economics and Policies. Routledge, London, UK. 304 pp.
Max Troell is a system ecologist mainly working with environmental problems associated with aquaculture. This work focuses on inter-linkages between aquaculture and fisheries, on different spatial scales.
Lisa Deutsch examines the couplings between the ecological effects of globalization of food production systems and national policy and economic accounts.
Miriam Huitric focuses in her research on the mis-matches between institutions and the ecosystems they attend to. Her findings demonstrate that even severe changes in a resource (and/or its environment) can have limited impact on the institutions governing its use.

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