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Trading Away Our Oceans

Why trade liberalization of fisheries must be abandoned

Greenpeace | January 2007

Publisher: Greenpeace International

Author: Marc Allain, Geneva

Editors: Daniel Mittler, Karen Sack, Jürgen Knirsch, Sari Tolvanen, and Sebastian Losada


Under the World Trade Organization's currently suspended Doha Development Round negotiations, tariffs on fish and fish products are to be significantly reduced and perhaps even eliminated. The stated rationale for this undertaking is that trade in fish is both important to developing countries and that they would benefit from further liberalization.

In this paper, Greenpeace draws on published studies by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Union and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to show that further liberalization of trade in fish and fish products, particularly through the reduction/elimination of tariffs, will only bring lasting economic benefits to a handful of developed, fish-exporting countries that have relatively well-established domestic fisheries management regimes. These countries should, if they have the political will, be able to withstand the pressure to increase supply beyond sustainable levels that tariff reduction/elimination will undoubtedly unleash. But they will be the only ones.

Outside of this handful of beneficiary countries no other countries will benefit because the minimum conditions for mutual benefit—effective fisheries management at the exporting and importing end—simply do not exist.

UNEP case studies of the impacts of past fish trade liberalization in three countries (Mauritania, Argentina and Senegal) demonstrate that market liberalization in fish is particularly harmful for the economies, societies and conservation of stocks of developing countries with weak fisheries management regimes, a situation which is sadly characteristic of most of the world.

Greenpeace concludes that further fish trade liberalization will only worsen the "impoverishing growth" that developing countries suffered through the 1980s and 1990s as a result of World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed structural adjustment programs, and will accelerate already severe rates of fisheries resource depletion. While tariff reductions for fish and fish products may well bring short-term boosts in some developing countries export earnings, as the last vestiges of their high-value marine resources are scooped up for export, the margins for doing so are very tight. The current rates of exploitation on most high-value export stocks are already far beyond sustainable levels.

The most likely scenario under current conditions is that developing countries will deplete what is left of their wildfish biomass, increasing the already considerable loss of both genetic and biological diversity in the process and erode the very basis of sustainable use: a healthy and productive marine ecosystem. For consumers in the developing world, fish prices will rise as more of the national fishing effort is diverted to fishing for export species, leading to less supply of locally fished and consumed pelagics. Globally, liberalization will also increase pressure to divert food from the plates of the third world's poor to fishmeal processing in order to supply unsustainable forms of salmon and shrimp aquaculture that will get a boost from tariff liberalization.

In geographic terms there will likely be a shift in production especially in canned tuna to South-East Asia from African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP countries). African countries in particular will be affected by preference erosion as they lose the trade preferences associated with the Lomé and Cotonou agreements between the EU and ACP countries. Under this scenario, Bangkok is expected to become the uncontested hub of the international canned tuna trade.

Even importing OECD countries that benefit from the inadequate, lax or non-existent resource management regimes in developing countries could see further liberalization negatively impact their own fisheries. Faced with the competition from cheaper imports their domestic fleets are likely to respond by fishing harder on already depleted or threatened stocks unless they can shift their surplus capital (vessels) and labor to other uses; which is highly unlikely given past experience. While consumers in developed countries should see some short-term economic benefits in terms of less expensive seafood, these will be short-lived because further liberalization will only accelerate resource depletion through continued over-fishing—especially in developing countries—leading to higher prices in the medium to long term as global supplies diminish.

The paper concludes that the international legal responsibility for countries to police themselves and to ensure that their fleets and corporations fish responsibly are already spelled out in numerous international legal instruments that are largely ignored. These include the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, and the World Summit on Sustainable Development's Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. At the very least, until such time as these instruments are universally adhered to and enforced, it would be irresponsible for the members of the WTO to engage in further liberalization on fish and fish products. For these reasons, Greenpeace believes the Non Agricultural Market Access (NAMA) negotiations must remain suspended, and tariff liberalization for fisheries removed from bilateral and regional trade agreements.

Instead of pursuing further liberalization, states should ensure existing international law is implemented fully and establish new rules to ensure sustainable and equitable management of the high seas. Furthermore, developing countries must be provided with the capacity and know-how to establish and enforce effective fisheries management regimes in their own waters.

Marc Allain is a Geneva-based fisheries consultant who has worked extensively on policy issues to promote small-scale fishing and protect traditional fishing communities.

Download: Trading Away Our Oceans (PDF, 4.80 M)

Read More: Agriculture, Conservation, Development, Economy, Environment, Food, Jobs, Sustainability, Trade, Global

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