FiTI lays out case against a global fisheries transparency index

Published on
August 9, 2022
A row of fishing vessels lined up at night.

The Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI) has laid out a case against ranking fisheries transparency efforts in a global fisheries transparency index.

FiTI is a global multi-stakeholder partnership focused on increasing transparency and collaboration in marine fisheries management. It is working with governments of coastal nations around the world to produce country reports that provide a deep dive into the state of the country’s seafood sector. The first report was published in April 2021 by the Seychelles, followed by Mauritania’s report in May 2021, and subsequent reports have since been published covering SenegalCabo VerdeMadagascarSão Tomé and PríncipeEcuador, Bangladesh, and Mexico.

The reports assess the level of information national authorities publish on government websites in regard to the countries’ marine fisheries sector, with the goal of providing a clearer picture of transparency levels in the fishery sector of governments and creating a benchmark to show improvements made over time, as well as turning up ideas for possible improvement.

As FiTI has rolled out the assessments, interest has arisen to create a global fisheries transparency index that would use its reports to rank countries by their level of transparency. On 21 July, 2022, FiTI issued a statement strongly opposing the creation of such an index. While such an effort could incentivize national authorities to publish more data, and would allow for closer monitoring of changes in levels of transparency, and might create positive publicity for the issue of transparency, it runs the risk of oversimplifying the complexity of marine fisheries in a harmful way.

“Transparency within countries is important but there are national contexts and international influences that must be recognized when comparing them to each other,” FiTI said. “There are many reasons why the temptation in creating a global fisheries transparency index should be resisted. While analysis of transparency within and between countries is important, research must recognize national contexts and international influences. Supporting positive changes over time requires collaboration and understanding of national priorities and resources. A global transparency index offers, at best, a blunt instrument to do this – and risks oversimplifying the complexity of marine fisheries.”

For developing countries, which normally find themselves at the bottom of international index scores, their underdevelopment is an outcome of international relations and exploitative or unfair trade, FiTI said. This leads to misleading assumptions that fisheries governance is a product of choices made by domestic governments. Furthermore, the data underlying the ranking might not even be accurate, since foreign investment contracts and powerful foreign partners often demand their data stay confidential, therefore lowering the country’s overall transparency score. And governments may publish information or data that is difficult to interpret, potentially leading to a misunderstanding of whether a government is being transparent or intentionally obfuscating.

Further, FiTI said, for the index to be useful, country assessments need to be completed in most fishing countries around the world at regular intervals, which is currently not happening. FiTI said indexing to arrive at a single score that conveys fisheries management and transparency would require the creation of a weighting formula that most likely would open to accusations of subjectivity, especially in regard to the ambiguous concept of transparency.

When it comes to fisheries transparency, FiTI said there are simply too many factors to consider when comparing countries, making the comparison useless. Some countries have large, industrial fishing sectors that operate in international waters, while others are completely small-scale and operate only in their own domestic waters. Some countries provide large subsidies to their fleets, while others don’t provide any support at all. It is likely impossible to provide a single score metric that meaningfully captures all of the nuance and complexity of the global fisheries sector, FiTI said.

Lastly, FiTI decried a “naming and shaming” approach that a global fisheries transparency index might enable.

“This would be a superficial approach to the systems behind how change actually occurs in countries,” it said. “Real change involves aspects such as governance, standards of living, and/or environmental sustainability. Even if a score change occurs, often it is countries making superficial changes to occur marginally higher but with no substantial change happening to increase transparency.”

FiTI did not rule out making comparisons between countries or groups of countries  or calling out poor performance.

“There are also specific areas where comparative analysis could work well, such as in demonstrating the varying levels of publicly available information on vessel licenses published by the main distant- water fishing nations, or the publication of information on subsidies among the top fish-producing countries,” it said. “But a composite index on transparency that tries to rank every coastal country, including the myriad of small island developing states (SIDS), into a single score is a step too far.”

FiTI said for its effort of compiling its country-by-country reports to translate into improving fisheries governance, “information has to be meaningful to those who use it.”

“It is hard to imagine how competition on a global ranking system would bring about that result,” it said.

Photo courtesy of FiTI

Contributing editor/Reporting from Hawaii, U.S.A.

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