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Sustainable fisheries: International trade, trade policy and regulatory issues

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Sustainable fisheries: International trade, trade policy and regulatory issues

Sustainable fisheries: International trade, trade policy and regulatory issues
Photo credit: UNCTAD

Fish is important to humanity and the environment in many respects. It is a particularly valuable resource for fishing nations and communities, especially in developing countries and least developed countries (LDCs) with sea zones, and in small island developing states (SIDS). However, over successive generations the human race has over-exploited marine resources. This has been particularly so since the dawn of the industrial age, and then subsequently since globalisation processes have accelerated.

In a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, only half the amount of fish harvested in 1970 will be probably available by 2015 and only one-third by 2050. In contrast, fish consumption can be expected to expand substantially, as the global population is predicted to increase from over 7 billion presently to about 9-10 billion by 2050. These trends raise serious questions about the sustainability of the sector globally and related sector practices.

This note proposes an agenda for sustainable fisheries that promotes the conservation and sustainable use of, and sustained trade in, fish by all and ensures that development benefits accrue to fishing nations and their populations, in developing countries in particular. It provides a stock-taking of the present situation regarding fish, and a forward-looking view on future actions that need to be supported by renewed mandates for action by governments, the private sector and other fisheries stakeholders.

The stocktaking finds that from humankind’s earliest recorded history to today, fish (wild oceanic species) and other marine species have constituted an important natural resource. They are a source of food and nutrition, health, culture, income, employment and trade, which can support livelihoods for coastal, as well as in-land, populations. Fish use and mangement is therefore intrinsically interwoven with humanity and nature. In the past, fish resources have been abundant and easily accessible. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case today. Fish stocks, especially of large predatory fish, have been severely affected and, in some cases, depleted. This tragedy is due to over- and harmful fishing, often aided by advanced fishing technology, to meet high-food demand from growing populations. Such practices have also been to the detriment of natural fish habitats, namely oceans, regional seas, lakes, rivers and adjacent coastal ecosystems.

A multitude of national, regional and multilateral/international initiatives, frameworks, regulatory and voluntary codes of conduct, standards and institutions have been developed over the past two decades to rebuild fish stocks, conserve marine species, halt destructive fishing practices, and preserve related ecosystems and oceans. Fishing agreements have also been concluded to facilitate sustainable harvest and trade in fish. The awareness of consumers has also been raised to encourage the purchase and consumption of sustainably caught fish which, in turn, is bringing about changes in supermarket chains and restaurants in terms of their buying, selling and producing fish products and meals made from sustainably harvested fish. These positive efforts have resulted in some progress; however, overall they have been unable to stop and reverse the deterioration of global fish populations and marine ecosystems.

A new opportunity for robust actions to revitalise sustainable fisheries management practices and ocean health comes from Goal 14 of the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It commits United Nations member states to: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’. Prior to the SDGs, a set of internationally agreed commitments on the conservation and sustainable use of fish found expression in The Future We Want, the Rio+20 outcome document (paras. 111, 113, 168-175); The Samoa Pathway, the UN Conference on SIDS outcome document (paras. 53 and 58); and recent resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly (UN GA). It is notable that the language in the SDGs and other international summit decisions focuses on oceanic marine resources. It is equally notable that all these commitments endeavour to seek a balance in addressing, positively, inherent conflicts between the conservation, rebuilding and restoration of fish stocks and ecosystems services on the one hand, and the sustainable use (harvest, trading and consumption) of fisheries resources on the other. Further complicating this ‘public good conundrum’ of contrasting priorities is the need to ensure equitable access to marine resources.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are accompanied by several management-related targets on fish. They denote the strong aspirations of the global community at the highest political level to prioritise and focus attention on restoring the health and resilience of our oceans and resources, including fish, over the next 15 years. This accord presents a new opportunity, but also some challenges for the international community to mobilise actions. These actions must be considered within the myriad of fishing-related instruments, including fisheries partnership agreements and trade agreements, so as to concretely and significantly arrest the ‘tragedy of commons’ in fish today and instead transform the situation into a ‘triumph of commons’ for fish in the future.


This note was jointly prepared by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Commonwealth Secretariat.

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