Foreign aid for sustainability?

Published on
February 28, 2010

 A recent paper in Science magazine recommends that developed nations pay to help developing nations produce sustainable seafood.

The paper's authors are members of the working group "Envisioning a Sustainable Global Seafood Market and Restored Marine Ecosystems," which is made up of 20 economists, marine scientists and seafood experts. They're funded by the U.S. government through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

Published in the 12 February issue, the paper asserts that global food security is threatened by poor governance of fisheries in developing countries. "Food security", said the authors, is not limited to providing seafood for domestic consumption in developing countries, but may include exporting high-value seafood to developed countries to earn foreign-exchange.

The governance issues developing countries face with seafood are different from those for land-based protein production because seafood production is tightly coupled to ecosystems and depends on common-pool resources.

"No one owns fish stocks or has sole control over what their catch limits should be, or what type of gear or practices can be used to catch them," said Cathy A. Roheim of the University of Rhode Island.

The authors propose introduction of rights-based ownership systems, though what form this would take is not specified. If it were to take the form of individual transferable quotas, it might raise the same concerns about concentration of quota by a few wealthy fishing companies, or control by foreign countries, which Scotland and Irish fishermen have recently expressed regarding amendments to the European Commission's Green Paper on the Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy.

The authors do cite, as an example of effective collective regulation, the spiny lobster fishery along the central-west coast of Baja California, where fishermen are organized into nine fishing cooperatives and co-manage the resource with the federal government. Yet, they say, rapid technological change or rapid introduction of international trade can cause collective management systems to fail. They promote movement to rights-based systems, but note that these require good governance to be effective.

To make the connection among food security, governance and seafood exports, the report overlays country maps showing undernourishment and World Bank measures of governance effectiveness. These are additionally compared with seafood consumption and exports to show a correspondence among malnutrition, poor governance, low seafood consumption and high seafood exports.

While much of this correspondence can be attributed to simple poverty, there are significant exceptions. Chile and Norway are large exporters but do have effective governance, said the authors. China and SE Asia consume much seafood despite being relatively poor, due to their large aquaculture industries, including carp for the domestic market, the added.

To get developing-country seafood exporters to adopt good governance, the authors consider but rule out trade sanctions as counter to World Trade Organization rules and damaging to both well-managed and poorly managed fisheries alike within a target country.

Consumer preference for eco-labeled products is considered as a form of pressure, but consumers may not be willing to pay a premium to offset the cost of certification. So, the authors propose aid specifically earmarked for improved fishing gear and aquaculture facilities, and for traceability systems required to achieve and monitor sustainability.

While their proposal does present a risk of undercutting the competitive value of existing sustainability certifications acquired at fishermen's own expense, it would offer a "carrot" alternative to the "sticks" of trade sanctions and consumer rejection in pushing sustainable management.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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