Study finds economic pressures the driving force behind overfishing

Overfishing is often seen as a strictly environmental concern, but the issue should be also looked at through an economic lens, according to the new seafood-focused non-governmental organization Accountability.Fish.

Accountability.Fish was created to raise awareness of what it deems as “the under-monitored and murky politics” of regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). It seeks to support underrepresented stakeholders in the RFMO decision-making processes, to improve accountability in RFMO decision-making, and to influence RFMOs to take more economically and environmentally sustainable actions.

A recent Accountability.Fish survey of fishers in the South Pacific and Latin America, completed by strategy consultancy ClearPath Strategies, found two-thirds of respondents said overfishing primarily benefits large, wealthy companies.

“Mismanaged fisheries are a threat to people's jobs, livelihoods, and long-term well-being, according to participants. Respondents in both Latin America and the South Pacific show overfishing and illegal fishing are serious economic threats,” Accountability.Fish Global Director Ryan Orgera said in a release. Besides fishers, the fishing industry supports truck drivers, canners, market vendors, grocery workers, boat repair and maintenance services, chefs, restaurant workers, and many others, he said. But many of those surveyed said they felt more-equitable distribution of the proceeds of industrial fishing could lead to more sustainable fishing practices.

The survey included focus groups with participants in the seafood economies of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and Guayaquil, Ecuador, and individual interviews with seafood workers in Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, and Panama, over the summer of 2022, found economic concerns were their primary motivator. Over 56 percent of those surveyed in Latin America and 58 percent in the South Pacific said their cost of living topped their list of concerns, and 39 percent of Latin American participants and 41 percent in the South Pacific said they are struggling to meet daily needs.

In comparison, just 12 percent of those surveyed in Latin America and 8 percent of those interviewed in the South Pacific named environmental conservation as a top concern. However, when they were given facts about overfishing’s economic impact, the issue of fishing reform jumped 13 points in importance for the survey's participants in Latin America and 5 points for the survey's South Pacific participants.

ClearPath Strategies Founder and Partner John Garrett said those surveyed recognized issues identified by the global NGO community as the most-pressing environmental issues facing the oceans also threatened their own livelihoods.

“They also recognize fishing is under threat from overfishing and illegal fishing. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing has led to massive declines in fish stocks within the national exclusive economic zones, which include the coastal fisheries that the surveyed countries are most dependent on economically,” he said.

Those surveyed identified government mismanagement and corruption as even more damaging than corporate greed in depleting local fisheries. In the South Pacific, 65 percent of those surveyed said they believe their national government is corrupt, and 57 percent said they believe corruption results in higher prices for everyone. In Latin America, 64 percent of those surveyed said governmental corruption is a worse problem for fishieres than corporate activity.

“People view fisheries as important natural resources that should benefit everyone, not just a select few,” Orgera said. Respondents also thought that natural resources should be protected in the long term rather than used – with 62 percent in favor among those surveyed in Latin America, and 47 percent in favor among the South Pacific respondents.

According to the independent global think tank Overseas Development Institute, much of the distant-water fishing effort from China – renowned for using unsustainable fishing methods and engaging in IUU fishing – takes place in the territorial waters of low-income nations.  Recently, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, have consulted to advance joint solutions and intensify diplomatic actions aimed at combating alleged IUU fishing by Chinese vessels in off their Pacific coastlines..

However, not all IUU fishing is conducted by extra-national actors. A recent increase in value of fishmeal has seen a rise in illegal catches of anchoveta by small-scale fishers in Peru and Ecuador. This product is making it into global supply chains, according to InSight Crime. The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) estimates 9 percent of all fishmeal in the United States is obtained from illegal catches. 

And in Peru, authorities are working to formalize its artisanal fleet for the jumbo flying squid fishery, after more than 20 major buyers in the United States and Europe threatened to have the fishery classified as being rife with IUU fishing practices.

Orgera said the survey's findings, and the rise in IUU fishing globally, underscore the case for a citizen movement to refocus the current process for international fishery management towards economically and environmentally sustainable policies and away from what he terms "the current stranglehold" of industrial fishing interests in the RFMO decision-making process, which he said has been ineffective at eliminating illegal fishing.

“Fisheries management requires an economic framework that enables all residents to benefit equitably for generations to come,” Orgera said.

Photo courtesy of Homo Cosmicos/Shutterstock


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