Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by <a href="http://flickr.com/photos/doctorow/135079520/" target=_blank>Cory Doctorow</a> (<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/" target=_blank>CC</a>).
Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Cory Doctorow (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Free Trade Means Empty Oceans

Apr 11, 2007

The world's fish stocks will be gravely threatened if a small number of developed countries succeed in further liberalizing trade in the fisheries sector. This is the conclusion of Greenpeace's new analysis of official data from OECD, EU, and UNEP sources. Some developed countries argue that further liberalization of fisheries will benefit developing nations, which account for half of the global trade in fish. To the contrary, continuing on this course will be a disaster for the marine environment as well as for food security and income, with the worst effects felt in the developing world.

Case studies of Senegal and Argentina show this clearly. In Senegal, catch rates for export fish species are falling, as stocks have dwindled in the wake of liberalization. The supply of locally consumed fish has also diminished, endangering national food security. Not even the economic case for liberalization is convincing. It is estimated that Argentina lost at least 3.5 million U.S. dollars in future earnings by over-exploiting its fish resources after liberalization measures.

Key trade ministers will meet once again in April to try and "rescue" the trade liberalization talks started at the World Trade Organization five years ago. If governments stopped ignoring their own evidence, they would have to admit that "zero tariff," fully liberalized trade won't work for fisheries. Prices may fall briefly for consumers in developed countries. But this will only lead to more demand for fish. This in turn will result in ever more excessive exploitation of fish stocks all over the world. Eventually, as stocks decline, prices for seafood will increase even in the developed world.

Governments should abandon trade liberalization in the fisheries sector and create proper management systems for fisheries globally. Otherwise, they must stand accused of blindly pursuing free trade for free trade's sake. When they will finally notice the impacts, the world's fish stocks and marine biodiversity will have paid the ultimate price. The message to trade negotiators is crystal clear: The health of our oceans and the long-term food security of billions of people is at stake.

Strong fisheries management regimes are not yet in place in most parts of the world's oceans. It is more governance, not less, that the world's oceans need, especially because some 20 percent of the world's fish is caught illegally by ruthless pirates. Even the North Atlantic, which has one of the best-resourced fisheries management regimes in the world, suffers from rampant illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. The situation is worse for coastal developing states, as they have very little capacity to police even their near-shore waters.

Fish on dinner plates around the world are often illegally and unfairly stolen from someone else's ocean, robbing the poor and future generations of food and income. It is therefore high time for governments to adhere to existing global oceans governance instruments, starting with the United Nations Law of the Sea. Nations must take responsibility for the impact that fishing vessels flying their flags have on the marine environment, on the high seas as well as in their exclusive economic zones. Furthermore, governments must fast establish and enforce new rules to guarantee sustainable and equitable management of the oceans, including legal mechanisms for the establishment of a worldwide network of marine reserves.

Rather than force developing nations to accept fisheries liberalization at the WTO, developed nations should provide developing countries with the capacity and know-how to establish and enforce effective fisheries management as the basis for sustainable use of resources. Free trade means empty oceans. Do developed nations really want to take the blame?

Daniel Mittler is a Political Advisor to Greenpeace International.

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