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Selected issues facing fishers and aquaculturists



Fishing at sea is the most dangerous occupation in the world. The data gathered from countries that keep accurate records show that occupational fatalities in those countries' fishing industries far exceed the overall national averages. For example, in the United States the fatality rate among fishers is 25 to 30 times the national average;1 in Italy it is more than 21 times the national average;2 and in Australia it is 143 per 100 000, compared with the average of 8.1 per 100 000. However, very few countries are able to supply these data. Although the members of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) agreed that the collection and analysis of statistical information on casualties, including fishing vessels and fishers, should be prepared on an annual basis,3 they acknowledged in 1999 that there had been only a very limited response to their appeal.4

It seems plausible that the fatality rate in countries for which information is not available might be higher than it is in those that do keep records. Thus, the International Labour Organization's (ILO) estimate of 24 000 fatalities worldwide, per year, may be considerably lower than the true figure.

Of the 36 million people engaged in fishing and fish farming, FAO estimates that roughly 15 million fishers are employed aboard decked or undecked fishing vessels operating in marine capture fisheries, and that more than 90 percent of these fishers are working on vessels that are less than 24 m in length.

The consequences of loss of life fall heavily on dependants. In developing countries, the consequences can be devastating: widows have a low social standing; there is no welfare state to support bereaved families; and, lacking an alternative sources of income, widows and children may face destitution.

Of particular concern are the reports from fishing administrations and fishers' organizations indicating that fatality rates are increasing in the artisanal sector of developing countries. In most cases, the increase in fatalities can be traced back to changes in the basic nature of fishing operations: overexploitation of coastal resources; advances in vessel and fishing technologies, including motorization and new types of fishing gear; lack of training, experience and skills; commercial pressure; and new fisheries management regimes.

Where inshore resources have been overexploited, fishers are often opting to work farther away from shore, sometimes for extended periods, in fishing craft that are based on designs for inshore fishing, which is limited to daily operations. Such vessels are often built by untrained builders who copy traditional and imported craft, and cost-cutting practices and the builders' lack of experience result in vessels that are unsound. Frequently, they do not comply with national regulations. Furthermore, older generations have no experience of fishing offshore, so there is a lack of traditional knowledge for today's crews about such essential issues as navigation, weather forecasting, communications, living habits during extended periods at sea (several days instead of only one) and the vital culture of safety at sea. The problem is compounded by fishing being a potential source of income for casual workers and the landless or urban unemployed; the fishing industry frequently provides employment for those who have no hope of an alternative source of income.

International voluntary guidelines do not have much effect on artisanal fisheries, largely because standards are directed towards decked vessels of more than 12 m. The Torremolinos Protocol, which is the only international instrument formulated specifically for fishing vessels (decked fishing vessels of at least 24 m in length), is unlikely to come into force because its provisions are seen as being either too stringent or too lenient by the countries whose signatures are required. In the absence of an international instrument, fishers must often rely on national legislation to ensure the safety of their craft, particularly when the vessel owner does not participate as a crewmember. While most countries have regulations concerning the design, construction and equipment of vessels, in developing countries these are sometimes outdated, inappropriate and inadequately enforced. In developed countries, the application of more stringent regulations has not always led to any significant decrease in fatalities; it seems that, as vessels are made safer, operators take greater risks in their ever-increasing search for good catches.

Cyclone in India

On the night of 6 November 1996, during a severe cyclone, approximately 1 435 fishers perished in the state of Andhra Pradesh on the east coast of India. Of these fishers, 569 were lost while fishing in mechanized boats at sea and 830 were lost while carrying out shrimp seed collection and other shore-based activities in areas remote from the villages. The causes of death differed between the two groups; the former were lost at sea in conditions of high winds and heavy seas, and the latter were lost on land, largely as a result of the storm surge.

The 569 fishers who were reported lost at sea were working on 110 trawlers, which foundered when struck by the cyclone. They had departed from Kakinada port several days before the cyclone struck and were fishing in an area to the southeast of Kakinada, along the coast of the Godavari delta. These trawlers were typically 11 to 15 m long and engaged in fishing trips of 10 to 15 days duration. They were poorly designed and built, yet significant numbers of similar vessels are still being constructed. Few, if any, of the vessels were equipped with safety equipment or even simple transistor radios. Thus, despite the media's transmission of cyclone warnings, the fishers were unaware of the intensity of the approaching cyclone and of its speed of advance.


Coastal fisheries and coastal sea transport in Guinea (West Africa) depend on open, planked canoes ranging from 6 to 22 m in length. The larger boats are powered by outboard motors of up to 40 HP.

In 1991, Guinea established a National Sea Safety Working Group, which brought together the national Fisheries Department, the Port Authority, the Guinean Navy, national fishers' groups and associated fisheries projects. As its first action, this group established a systematic survey of artisanal canoe accidents along the Guinean marine coast.

In the first three years of the survey, 110 people died in canoe accidents along the coastal stretch of 120 nautical miles - that is nearly one person for each mile of coast. About half of the deaths occurred in fishing canoes, while the other half resulted from transport canoe operations. Comparing deaths at sea with the number of registered small-scale fishers gave an indicative fatality rate of 0.53 percent, or approximately 500 deaths per 100 000 fishers per year. Principal causes associated with the fatalities were given (in order of importance) as capsizing, wind, disorientation (in winter months the sun can become invisible through dust clouds blown off the desert), overloading, waves and motor failure.

A number of other countries along the West African coast, where similar studies have been done, appear to have artisanal canoe fatality rates in the range of 0.3 to 1 percent of fatalities per year.

Source: J. Johnson, FAO Fisheries Department.


There are a number of areas where improvements can be made, including: provision and analysis of data that identify the cause of accidents; training of crews and trainers; and formulation of regulations that are enforced through increased collaboration among fishers, fishers' organizations and the authorities.

It has been argued that the root and causes of accidents in the fishing industry are easy to discern intuitively. While this may often be the case, reliable quantified data would show how the trends vary according to different regions, countries and fisheries, thereby contributing to an understanding of the main causes of fatalities. In order to focus and prioritize the actions to be taken to increase fishers' safety, the most frequent causes of danger and vessel losses must be investigated fully. Vastly improved accident reporting is therefore seen as central to the quest for improved safety in the industry.

Even when accidents are reported, the many diverse approaches to collecting information on their types and causes make it difficult to produce comparable data and statistics and, thus, to identify and address key issues. The nature of the employment arrangements in fishing, which may place many fishers outside traditional occupational accident and disease reporting systems, contributes to this lack of information.5

National-level regulations and technical standards must be formulated, reviewed and amended through dialogue among builders, owners, fishers and administrations, to ensure that all parties share a sense of ownership and responsibility in the application of new regulations.

Enforcement of safety regulations is essential and requires collaboration within administrations and, particularly, between fisheries and the marine authorities. However, very few of the individual inspectors attached to fisheries divisions have a background in boatbuilding, marine engineering or naval architecture, nor have they received any training in how to conduct condition surveys of vessels at the level normally required for classification or insurance purposes. Thus, while part of the solution may lie in regulating the quality standard to which boats are constructed and equipped, attention must also be paid to the necessary skills of the enforcers. Ensuring adequate enforcement implies a significant commitment on the part of the administration, taking into account the cost of establishing, staffing and training a new section.

The training of fishers is clearly one means of channelling the results of lessons learned from the analysis of improved data. Historically, the training of fishers has been limited to skippers, mates and engineers in developed countries. The British Merchant Shipping Act (1894), provided the basis for regulations that covered most of the Commonwealth, including India, Australia and Canada. The IMO Protocol to the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (1978) provided standards for countries to follow, but it was never ratified and was superseded by the Convention for the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Fishing Vessel Personnel (1995) (STCW-F). These provisions referred only to vessels over 24 m or powered by more than 750 kW. For smaller vessels, the FAO/ILO/IMO Document for Guidance on Fishermen's Training and Certification gave further information on courses and syllabuses. This document has recently been revised in line with STCW-F and retitled Document for Guidance on the Training and Certification of Fishing Vessel Personnel (referred to as the Document for Guidance in this publication).


The application of instruments on training, despite the lack of ratification, has been very good in some regions and virtually absent in others. Countries in Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and South America, along with Canada, Japan and Australasia, have now adopted standards that are in excess of the STCW-F's requirements and in line with the recommendations laid out in the Document for Guidance. The United States has recently started to issue certificates of competency and implement other fishing vessel safety legislation. In Central America, Africa and Asia, many fisheries schools were established in the 1970s and 1980s, and safety training is a major component of their curricula. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of fisheries training schools has been limited by low literacy rates in some countries. In many others, the low status attached to fisheries occupations has resulted in them attracting a high percentage of illiterate workers. Literate individuals with fisheries qualifications have been regarded as potential government employees rather than recruits to the fishing industry. Some training centres have opted to train trainers in order to produce extension agents who can disseminate the training to large numbers of artisanal fishers at the village level. It would appear that the wide disparity in training provision among countries is paralleled by disparities in safety legislation and the compilation of accident statistics.

Recent developments have seen a shift in the formal training of fishers from academic to functional training (i.e. assessment is carried out on the basis of what trainees can do rather than what they know). Such training means that lecturers and examiners must have mastered the skills required in order to teach and examine the candidates. Increasingly, administrations require that entrants into the fishing industry should complete a pre-sea training course in basic safety training, first aid, survival at sea and fire-fighting. Owners and skippers are being encouraged to "think safety" by compiling safety management reports in which they list the main hazards on board their particular vessel and identifying precautions and procedures to minimize the potential effect of such hazards.

A substantial report, entitled Safety and health in the fishing industries, was prepared by the International Labour Office as the basis for discussions at the Tripartite Meeting on Safety and Health in the Fishing Industry, held in Geneva in December 1999. It comprehensively examines recent information concerning safety and health in the fishing industry with a view to illustrating these issues and exploring actions that are being taken by international organizations, governments, employers, vessel owners, trade unions, the fishers themselves and other organizations. The meeting concluded that the industry has changed considerably as a result of new management regimes, technology advances and overcapacity, resulting in fishing operations and employment arrangements that create an incentive to work long hours and minimize the number of crewmembers. This, in turn, results in more frequent accidents. The meeting also concluded that international standards and training related to safety and health in fishing may not be reaching the majority of the world's fishers.

Safety and survival training

The first safety courses for fishers were offered in Norway (1981), where they became obligatory in 1989. The other Nordic countries followed this initiative, and all of them established safety education when Finland introduced safety courses for fishers in 1999. Although dispensations are still being granted, the courses will have become obligatory in all Nordic countries within a few years. The length and content of the courses vary considerably. The Nordic Council of Ministers is funding an ongoing project to improve and facilitate safety and survival training by comparing the requirements, courses, instruction materials and practical exercises that each of the Nordic countries has developed and by promoting the sharing of training material, instructors and expertise.

Owing to the different training requirements, Nordic fishers may have difficulty obtaining permits to work as fishers in other Nordic countries. The project aims at facilitating interchange of the workforce by suggesting minimal safety training requirements to be adopted by all the countries, along with guidelines on how to obtain additional training if required.

Source: G. Petursdottir, Director, Fisheries Research Institute, University of Iceland.

Two sets of guidelines to improve the design, construction and equipment of fishing vessels were formulated in the 1960s and 1970s, not as a substitute for national laws but to serve as a guide to those concerned with framing national laws and regulations. Revision of the two publications FAO/ILO/IMO Code of Safety for Fishermen and FAO/ILO/IMO Voluntary Guidelines for the Design, Construction and Equipment of Fishing Vessels is being undertaken by the IMO Subcommittee on Stability, Load Lines and Fishing Vessels, through a correspondence group led by Iceland.

Small boats going offshore

In Samoa, a number of safety problems have been encountered in the development and expansion of the domestic, small-craft (alia) tuna longline fishery. In a 15-month period during 1997 and early 1998, at least 14 major accidents occurred, many resulting in the loss of human life. In these 14 accidents, 25 fishers were lost at sea and another 24 were rescued. In addition to the loss of life, nine vessels were not recovered.

In many cases, the specific cause of these accidents is unclear because the vessels and crew disappeared without trace. It is believed, however, that the causes could be attributed to a range of possibilities, including: lack of seaworthiness and stability of the alia when loaded in rough weather; poor strength and stability of the alia design, which has been modified and "stretched" by builders at the request of owners; an inadequate level of basic skills among many skippers; lack of navigational skills; limited (or non-existent) safety equipment on board; and the rough weather that some skippers and crewmembers were working in.

The national Fisheries Division is working with other government departments to address sea safety issues. The construction of a radio base station in Apia and nine repeater stations around Samoa was completed and put into use in June 1997. The radio is operated around the clock. A vessel registration programme has also been started with a main requirement that every vessel be fitted with a radio. Fishers have to radio in when they are going out to sea, while they are at sea and when they return to port.

As well as the radio requirement for registration, each vessel now undergoes an inspection to check that:

    • flotation (foam) is according to the original FAO design;
    • the hull is in good condition (with no leaks);
    • the main engine is in good running condition;
    • the spare engine is in good running condition;
    • the boat number is clearly displayed;
    • the radio is in good working condition.

Regulations regarding the qualifications of vessel skippers and crewmembers, as well as crew numbers, have been implemented and training in sea safety, vessel surveys, safety equipment requirements and communications has been carried out. A committee to ensure the enforcement of regulations has been set up and includes representatives from the Ministry of Transport, the Police Department and the Fisheries Division.

Source: SPC Fisheries Newsletter, 84 (Jan/March 1998), Pacific Community. Updated by P. Watt, Adviser to Samoa Fisheries Division, June 2000.

FAO's Fisheries Department has implemented a number of projects aimed at improving sea safety. These have been directed particularly at developing countries and carried out in the field, in cooperation with local people. The issue has been tackled from various perspectives, including improved vessel design and construction, better preparedness for natural disasters, improved collaboration between governments and fishers' representatives, provision of assistance in the setting up of national sea safety programmes, and institutional support to fisheries training centres.

Self-help groups

The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (IASR) is an NGO that has played a major role in promoting fishers' safety. It was established in 1929. From the very beginning, women - the wives, daughters and mothers of fishers - were very active members of the organization. The first goal was to establish search and rescue groups in all fishing communities around the coast. These were made up of men, but women formed their own affiliates. The groups' main tasks were to raise funds to buy search and rescue equipment, erect shelters in places prone to shipwrecks and build rescue vessels, which were placed in strategic harbours along the coast. IASR has taken an active part in formulating recommendations for safety regulations and in lobbying for their promotion with the authorities.

Another of IASR's major tasks was to organize and carry out safety instruction in fishing communities. At first, this was done by visiting instructors who lectured to voluntary listeners but, with time, the scope broadened considerably and IASR now runs the official obligatory 40-hour safety training courses for fishers on vessels over 12 m. The courses are offered on board a well-equipped teaching vessel, which pays regular visits to the communities around the coast. IASR has grown to be a mass movement in Iceland and is a respected consultant and close cooperator with the authorities. At very short notice, it can call out hundreds of well-trained volunteers, both men and women, for search and rescue missions at sea or on land and using the most up-to date equipment. Volunteers are ready to operate under any circumstances, including wrecked or stranded ships, volcanic eruptions, avalanches and other unforeseen natural catastrophes.

Source: G. Petursdottir, Director, Fisheries Research Institute, University of Iceland.


IMO, ILO and FAO are the three specialized agencies of the United Nations system that play a role in fishers' safety at sea. IMO is responsible for improving maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships; and the adoption of maritime legislation is still IMO's best-known responsibility. ILO formulates international labour standards in the form of conventions and recommendations, which set minimum standards for basic labour rights. It also promotes the development of independent employers' and workers' organizations, providing training and advisory services to these organizations. However, the working methods and measures of ILO and IMO tend to have little impact on the safety of artisanal and small-scale fishers.

A safe working environment cannot simply be imposed from above. Measures to improve safety can only be truly effective where there is the motivation to apply them. The establishment and maintenance of a culture of safety is a continuous task that demands the participation of fishers and their families,
boatowners, legislators and the community at large. There are many examples of individuals interested in safety at sea who have formed fishers' self-help groups or other NGOs and established successful cooperation with the authorities to promote safety in their communities (see Box 8).

In the countries where appropriate regulations, enforcement procedures and training are in place, there has been a measurable (but not always significant) reduction in the annual number of fatalities over the last 15 years. Although these countries account for less than 5 percent of the world's fishers, they demonstrate that results can be achieved. Recognition of safety at sea as a major and continuing problem is the first step towards its mitigation. It is considered that the responsibility for safety at sea should be borne by both administrators and fishers, and similarly that effort and assistance should be shared between those two groups to ensure an effective partnership and hence enable a safer profession.

Risk policy: the case of ciguatera control in Cuba

Ciguatera is a form of human poisoning caused by the consumption of marine fish that has accumulated naturally occurring toxins. Toxins originate from several algae species (dinoflagellate) that are common to ciguatera-endemic regions, particularly in tropical countries. When the HACCP system was introduced in Cuba in the mid-1990s, the available epidemiology data showed that ciguatera was one of the main causes of disease from fish products. Between 1993 and 1998, 1 086 outbreaks of ciguatera were recorded in Cuba, representing 3 116 individual cases. Mortality attributed to ciguatera during this period reached 6 percent of all recorded deaths resulting from food hazards. Ciguatera peaked in 1996 with 279 recorded outbreaks. Since 1996, the following measures have been introduced to reduce the impact of this hazard on the population:

Improved hazard analysis for ciguatera was established to determine locations, seasonal variation, species involved, consumers at risk, sources of contaminated fish, etc.

Detailed analyses of epidemiological records led to dose/response data being defined as functions of the size of fish consumed and allowed limit weights (critical limits) to be set for five of the most important species and potential toxicity to be set for another 15 species (regardless of their weight). This information was included in regulations.

Fish inspection was made functionally independent of capture and production and included the control of artisanal and recreational fishing. A new regulation was introduced in May 1996.

A targeted information campaign was conducted in the locations and during the periods of the year in which the problem is more acute.

The industry incorporated this knowledge in their HACCP plans and this led to a drastic reduction in the number of outbreaks caused by industrially processed fish. The total number of ciguatera outbreaks has decreased steadily from 1997 and, in 1999, the minimum level so far - 47 cases - was recorded. Most of these outbreaks were caused by unauthorized capture that resulted in the consumption of fish from ciguatera-endemic areas.

The case of ciguatera control in Cuba is revealing because it shows that application of the HACCP system at the industry level, even if effective, may not be enough to decrease the number of outbreaks associated with a given hazard. It was necessary to enforce policy decisions, including timely communication to places where the population was at risk. It also proved necessary to conduct more in-depth hazard analysis than that ordinarily required for HACCP purposes.

Source: Based on data from the Cuban Ministry of Public Health and Ministry of Fishery Industries (FAO/MIP Workshop on Quantitative Risk Assessment in the Fishery Industry, Havana, March 2000).



Some 200 different types of illness have been identified as being transmitted by food. In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States estimated the following numbers of cases of food-borne disease in the United States:6

These data represent one of the best existing estimates of the impact of food-borne diseases on a developed country. Similar figures (adjusted by the number of inhabitants) could be expected to be found in other developed countries.

Humans have suffered from illnesses transmitted by food throughout the ages. However, in the early 1980s professionals concerned with food safety in developed countries observed what seemed to be a significant increase in the number of disease outbreaks linked to food. This was perplexing, given that an increasing proportion of foods were being - and continue to be - produced under stringent hygienic conditions. Possible reasons for such a "food safety paradox" are:

In poorer areas of developing countries, poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and inadequate public facilities are likely to compound the situation. Although the lack of data makes it impossible to provide quantitative estimates of the situation in developing countries, it seems reasonable to expect that cases of food-borne disease in general are at least as frequent as they are in developed countries and, in most developing countries, probably far more frequent. In poor areas, newborn babies, small children, the elderly, the undernourished and the immune-deficient are the categories most exposed to food-borne diseases. A study conducted in the United Republic of Tanzania from 1992 to 19987 indicates that food-borne and water-borne disease is probably one of the four major causes of adult death in the locations studied.

Food-derived illnesses can have several types of cause, including specific toxic substances, pathogenic micro-organisms and parasites that can develop and/or be conveyed by foods. Some toxic substances (biotoxins) may develop naturally in the environment, while others are human-generated contaminants (chemicals). Some pathogenic micro-organisms are part of the normal flora (e.g. of fish) and some are contaminants.

Fish, as is true of any other food, can cause health problems. It can be contaminated at any time from the moment of capture until it is eaten. Contamination may occur because pathogenic micro-organisms form part of the normal flora of the fish. In other cases, toxic substances are introduced through cross-contamination, recontamination or faulty handling and processing.

The extent to which fish products are a source of food-borne diseases is a function of general food habits, the frequency of fish consumption and the type of products and species consumed. Sometimes, a set of unfavourable circumstances combine to create extremely hazardous health situations. For instance, a recent study conducted by FAO in the village of Xai Udom (Vientiane, the Lao People's Democratic Republic) showed that 67.3 percent of the population was infected by parasites and many villagers were infected by more than one type. The prevailing parasite (affecting 42.1 percent of the population) was liver fluke (Opistorchis viverrini), transmitted through the consumption of raw fish, which is the host to an intermediate form of this parasite. Large numbers of people die from a form of liver cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) that it causes.

A study published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1995 estimated that about 39 million people worldwide were infested with parasites transmitted by the ingestion of raw or improperly cooked freshwater fish and crustaceans. Almost all of these people - about 38 million - lived in Asia, with the remainder living in Europe and Latin America. In Asia, the problem is concentrated in Southeast Asia and China. Data from Africa were not included in the study, but this type of parasitic infestation is known to occur on that continent in, inter alia, Cameroon, Egypt and Nigeria.

Parasitic infestation through the ingestion of fish is only one of the many possible causes of disease, but there is a shortage of reliable information about many of the others. There is a clear need for more information regarding illnesses caused by fish and other foods in developing countries.


When the trend of increasing outbreaks of food-related diseases was first identified in the early 1980s, food and fish inspection services in developed countries increased end product sampling. This translated into an increased number of samples of finished foods being analysed and a growing number of inspectors. The effort did not halt the trend of more frequent outbreaks of food-related diseases, however, showing that dependence on end product sampling alone was an inadequate response to the problem.

By the end of the 1980s, it had become clear to public health authorities in developed countries that a new system was necessary. The system had to address all the relevant hazards in food production and had, therefore, to be incorporated into the harvesting, processing and distribution of fish products. This would require its use on board fishing vessels and by aquaculturists, as well as in fish processing factories, the vehicles used to transport fish and storage and retailing areas. The system that was developed is called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. In the HACCP system,8 each substance, micro-organism or condition of food that can cause disease is called a "hazard". Initially, the system gained credibility through its proven efficiency in controlling the hazard created by Clostridium botulinum, a common toxinogenic bacterium, in low-acid canned foods. By applying the HACCP principle, processors were consistently able to ensure adequate timing and temperature control during retorting and improved seaming of cans. This, in turn, virtually eliminated the bacterium from canned foods.


By the beginning of the 1990s, a number of food processing companies, including fish processors, in developed countries were already applying the HACCP system on a voluntary basis. They were soon followed by intermediate and even small food processing companies. Canada was the first country to depart from the traditional approach of fish inspection when it introduced the Quality Management Programme (QMP), a set of regulations that proved to be very similar to those constituting the HACCP system. Eventually, several governments decided to make the HACCP system compulsory.

Regulatory agencies in the European Community (EC) and the United States made fish and fishery products the first category of foods in the food industry to be subject to mandatory application of HACCP systems. The EC issued the first regulation for fish products, "laying down the health conditions for the production and the placing on the market of fishery products", in 1991. In May 1994, the EC adopted an additional regulation which made it mandatory to impose more exact rules for the application of "own health checks".9 The United States' HACCP-based regulation, Procedures for the Safe and Sanitary Processing and Importing of Fish and Fishery Products - Final Rule, was published on 18 December 1995 and entered into force one year later. Other developed and developing countries soon followed these initiatives.

In 1997, the HACCP system was incorporated into the WHO/FAO Codex Alimentarius in the form of a general guideline.10 This makes the HACCP system the basic reference for international trade disputes under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. However, the inclusion of the HACCP system as a general guideline for the Codex Alimentarius does not make all HACCP systems identical. For instance, the United States' HACCP regulations apply to processors, while the EC regulations apply to the whole production chain, from handling fish on board fishing vessels to retailing of fish. In both cases, the HACCP system is therefore very closely linked to the individual food safety and hygiene regulation framework.

BOX 10
The economics of fish safety

The economics of regulatory HACCP systems can be seen from two different point of view, that of the government and consumers and that of the producers. From the viewpoint of government and consumers, the introduction of the HACCP system can be justified in economic terms owing to the possible reduction of illness or death caused by food poisoning, which implies a possible reduction in public and private health costs, insurance costs and lost workdays. In 1993, it was estimated that the total cost of food-borne illnesses caused by the seven major pathogens was between US$5.6 billion and US$9.4 billion per year in the United States alone.

From the point of view of the producers, the application of HACCP systems implies an investment. Some of the initial costs are linked to refitting plants, rearranging processing lines, buying new utensils, purchasing and installing measurement instruments, training and monitoring of processing activities. The actual figures that are found in practice vary from a few thousand United States dollars, for plants that are already very near to HACCP control requirements, to millions of dollars for large plants that have had to undergo significant refitting. In some cases, it was deemed more convenient to construct a new plant rather than refit an old one, or reduce the level of risk by changing the final product (e.g. from cooked to frozen or fresh product) in order to reduce the level of investments. In even more extreme cases, producers decided to cease production.

During the execution of the FAO/Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) project GCP/INT/609/DEN, a number of plants in developing countries agreed to be monitored to check the effect of HACCP implementation. The plants concerned produced fresh and frozen hake fillets, salted and ripened anchovy, cooked crab meat and cooked lobster tail. They were located in Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador and Uruguay. In all cases losses from rejections decreased which, in turn, allowed the plants to recover their investments over periods that ranged from a few months to a few years. In general, the more demanding (risky) the product, the larger the economic gain.

For instance, an Ecuadorian company exporting cooked crab meat managed to reduce internal and external rejections from 4.75 percent of the total production in weight from before the HACCP system was implemented (1997) to 0.81 percent with the system in operation (1998). The company had invested around US$40 000 to implement its HACCP system and, given its level of production (126 tonnes of final product per year), the investment was recuperated within six months.

Over the last ten years, both the fishing industry and the fish and food inspection services in many developing countries have made a very determined effort to adapt processing and inspection methodologies that satisfy HACCP requirements. Many countries have been successful. Among the countries that were authorized to export fish and fishery products to the EC in mid-1999, 50 operate in full accordance with the EC's HACCP-based regulations.11 Of these 50 countries, 37 are in Africa, Asia and the Pacific or Latin America and the Caribbean, most received technical assistance from FAO which, during the period 1995 to 1999, organized (mainly through extrabudgetary funding received from Denmark) 44 workshops and trained more than 1 300 professionals from industry and government in HACCP principles.

However, not all developing countries were able to make the necessary initial investments. Sometimes credit for this purpose was scarce or non-existent and, as a result, some countries suffered a drastic reduction in the number of establishments authorized to export to EC markets. Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau became extreme examples of this in mid-2000, when the EC banned all imports of fish from these countries.

BOX 11
Factors affecting the concept of
property rights in fisheries management

Rights-based fisheries management systems and the property rights conferred by them are a function of the legislative, legal, economic, social, cultural, biological and political institutions that shape the environment in which they occur. For example, the legal system of a country will have a direct effect on what entitlements can be conferred under property rights in fisheries. In many instances, fisheries rights do not convey actual ownership of the resources themselves to individuals. For example, in the United States and Australia, natural resources such as fisheries are, respectively, the public's and the Crown's resources, and property rights in fisheries are defined in terms of an individual's right to try to harvest or otherwise use fisheries resources. In other countries, such as in Japan and Taiwan Province of China, there are instances where the property rights for fisheries resources belong to local communities.


It is generally agreed that the HACCP system is an improvement on traditional fish inspection and that its use will lead to reduced numbers of food-borne diseases. However, so far little information to prove this point is available. For instance, in a recent report,12 the CDC stated that "new estimates provide a snapshot of the problem and do not measure trends and do not indicate that the problem is getting better or worse".

The HACCP system is likely to evolve. Developed countries are beginning to introduce a regulatory scheme called risk policy into their food industries. The policy is based on quantitative risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.13 Risk policy requires additional epidemiological data and studies.

Since there is no possibility of achieving zero risk, the specific relevant hazards to be included in an HACCP system need to be identified. The severity of the hazard therefore needs to be determined. One way of measuring severity is to obtain epidemiology data and establish the ratio between the number of deaths caused by an illness and the total number of diagnosed cases of that illness. Clearly, the first hazards to be controlled through the HACCP system and risk policy should be those that cause illnesses that can lead to death. Listeria monocytogenes and Escherichia coli O157:H7 are clear examples of this type of hazard. However, control of only these hazards is not enough, and governments usually rule that relevant hazards also include micro-organisms, chemicals and conditions known to impair human health, temporally or permanently, or cause injury.

Most developing countries do not have useful data about the relevant hazards linked to various food products. Access to better and more refined data would certainly provide a valuable insight into the problem, but the lack of data is not an excuse for failing to take preventive action. In particular, a developing country's lack of information about a possible hazard that is well known in other countries cannot be taken as evidence of that hazard's absence.

Only few developing countries have decided to make the HACCP system obligatory for fish products sold and consumed in internal markets. This may reflect the fact that some people in developing countries see HACCP systems mainly as non-tariff barriers erected by developed countries and submit to them only so that they can export their products to industrial economies. Developing countries that extend the HACCP system to their internal market should expect to reap public health benefits (see Box 9). In fact, HACCP systems could have an enormous impact on fish (and food) safety in developing countries.

The benefits of the HACCP system in developing - and developed - countries are not all linked exclusively to improved public health. Private entrepreneurs would also reap direct benefits because, in order to apply the HACCP, it is first necessary to ensure basic hygiene for all of the activities related to fish production and to improve knowledge of the overall process. FAO's experience in this field has shown that the introduction of the HACCP system has helped entrepreneurs to improve their profits (see Box 10). The investments made to introduce the system are recovered through declining rejection rates and fine-tuning of the production process.

The HACCP system contributes to better quality, because safety is an indispensable requirement for quality. For conceptual and regulatory reasons, the fishing industry separates safety and quality, but in-plant safety and quality go together. Implementation of the HACCP system requires an improved understanding of all aspects of the processes that lead to the final product, and this knowledge can be used immediately to reduce costs and improve overall product quality. The introduction of HACCP principles is shaping the fishing industry of tomorrow.

BOX 12
Property rights and conflict minimization

Most conflicts over fisheries resources arise when the resource is (or is perceived to be) so scarce that sharing it becomes difficult. When rights, particularly those relating to participants' activities regarding their own portions of a stock, are well defined, understood and observed, allocation conflicts tend to be minimized. However, when rights to the use of a stock are not well defined, understood or upheld, divergent assumptions about what the rights may convey often result in conflicts over scarce fisheries resources.

Fisheries resources are becoming increasingly scarce, so conflicts over the allocation and sharing of these resources are likely to become more frequent, unless there are mechanisms that allocate resources explicitly. Conflicts can be minimized by clarifying the property rights conferred by the management of a fishery, following risk-based decision strategies and using conflict mitigation processes.



Since the 1950s, economists concerned with the management of capture fisheries have been aware that the rules for access to resources create incentives and participatory responses, and that these rules and incentives can have a fundamental effect on the long-term status of fisheries. In most fisheries, ineffective strategies for regulating access can lead to situations where the level of fishing effort wastes society's resources and overexploits species.

There is a growing realization that part of the remedy to this management problem lies in designing appropriate access rights to wild stocks, and fishery administrators are now increasingly considering how to provide explicit rights of various sorts to fisheries participants. This process is sometimes referred to as "applying rights-based fisheries management", but the precise meaning of this term and of the concept of assigning "property rights" is often unclear.

The basic concept of property and the rights associated with property is a simple one. So-called "property rights" are bundles of entitlements that confer both privileges and responsibilities. The establishment of property rights in fisheries management therefore involves the definition and specification of the entitlements, privileges and responsibilities created by all the various types of fisheries management. However, it is not uncommon to hear about a lack of clearly defined property rights in fisheries management, and it is quite accurate to note that "property rights, like the dorsal fins on different fishes, come in many different shapes and sizes".14

To complicate the matter further, references to rights-based management systems can be references to just about anything along the very broad spectrum of different types of fisheries management systems. Rights-based fisheries management systems may be based on the use of input controls or on the use of output controls. Some property rights are created by licensing and other forms of access limitation systems. Some are created by fisheries management systems and specify the use of fisheries resources for particular communities (community development quotas [CDQs]), in particular areas or territories (territorial use rights in fisheries [TURFS]) and of particular stocks (stock use rights in fisheries [SURFS]). Other property rights are created by individual quota (IQ), individual fishing quota (IFQ), individual transferable share quota (ITSQ) and individual transferable quota (ITQ) systems.

Ultimately, the basic issues of property rights systems in fisheries management are related to an understanding of:


In very general terms, there are three basic ways in which the difficulties of understanding, discussing and applying property rights in fisheries management can be mitigated, if not overcome.

First, one of the major sources of confusion when discussing the matter of property rights and fisheries management is miscommunication. Difficulties frequently arise simply because the term "property rights" means different things to different people and can refer to vastly diverse bundles of entitlements, privileges and responsibilities, each of which will produce very different incentives and, hence, management outcomes. It is important to have a very clear definition of exactly what the property rights in question are, even though this information is not typically part of discussions on the use of property rights in fisheries management.

Before any possible solutions can be developed, the property rights (and their associated issues) that are part of fisheries management need to be defined, and this depends on describing the following attributes of the property rights granted or assigned by a fisheries management strategy or plan:15

Second, there needs to be recognition and acceptance of the fact that, just as for any other management situation, there is no single fisheries management strategy that will solve all fisheries problems. When working to find solutions, fisheries management requires the most appropriate combination of the available management tools and the rights associated with them. This is another simple point that is often overlooked.

Third, as part of the design process of a management strategy, and before work starts on the design of a particular regulatory solution to the rights-related issues of a fishery, managers and participants need to give explicit descriptions of:16

Possible regulatory solutions can then be constructed on the basis of the nature of the property rights that can be conferred (i.e. their exclusivity, durability, security, transferability, divisibility and flexibility). The management solutions that are created in this way are likely to reflect either:

This approach to the issue of property rights in fisheries leads to the following basic questions:

When is it useful to take property rights systems into consideration? What sorts of sociological, biological and economic conditions will shape property rights? What institutions, administrative conditions and legal needs (instruments, legislative practices, etc.) are useful?

Who holds and who should hold property rights? What are the requisite legal bases for property rights? If property rights are changed, who should receive the new rights? Are there advantages in defining communal property rights? How are different scales of fishing activities accommodated? How do different property rights systems of management accommodate indigenous or other user groups?

How can property rights systems improve the incentives for economic efficiency, stewardship, conservation and profitability? Where and how do the incentives created by different types of property rights become apparent? What sorts of distributional implications are there? What sorts of operational requirements do different types of property rights management strategies require in terms of research, enforcement, administration and actual fishing operations?

The solution to the issue of property rights in fisheries management requires a return to the fundamental elements on which all fisheries management systems are based, allowing for the comparative assessment of the management options offered by different types of property rights. Although there is little need for new fisheries management tools, current use of the available tools must be improved so that they can impart incentives more vigorously.

BOX 13
IUU fishing in
the CCAMLR region

The term "IUU fishing" is new to the fisheries literature. It first emerged during recent sessions of CCAMLR, where it evolved from discussions concerning fishing activities that are illegal and/or not compliant with CCAMLR on the part of Parties (illegal and unreported) and non-Parties (illegal and unregulated) in the Convention1 area. The first formal mention of IUU fishing on a CCAMLR meeting agenda occurred in 1997.

The IUU fishing problem in CCAMLR waters has not been confined to the vessels of non-contracting parties. In some instances, vessels flagged to CCAMLR member countries have been involved in IUU fishing. To date, the measures adopted by CCAMLR in seeking to address the IUU problem have not included elements related to the control of nationals, or the control of flag vessels, by members of the Commission.

The scale of IUU fishing that has taken place in CCAMLR toothfish fisheries is unlikely to be repeated in many other fisheries. In 1997/98, CCAMLR estimated that the toothfish catches from IUU operations were in the order of 33 583 tonnes or more. This figure was estimated to represent in excess of 50 percent of the total global catch of the species. Estimates for 1998/99 suggest that the IUU catch has decreased but is still at least 10 773 tonnes and, when compared with the 17 435 tonnes reported for this species in CCAMLR waters, it still represents a significant proportion of the toothfish product on the market.

A number of factors have influenced the high levels of IUU fishing in the CCAMLR toothfish fisheries. Two of the more significant points are:

    • The product is highly sought after in the international market, thus offering the potential for significant monetary gain to participants in the IUU fishery.
    • The isolated location of the fisheries is such that the deployment of surveillance and enforcement resources is extremely expensive, making it unlikely that an offending vessel will be caught while fishing illegally.

One of the impacts of the combination of these two factors has been to limit the effectiveness of more traditional MCS tools in addressing the IUU problem in CCAMLR toothfish fisheries. As a result, CCAMLR has introduced a series of measures in its attempt to address the IUU problem. The most recent mechanism adopted by the Commission has been the introduction of the Catch Document Scheme for Dissostichus species. The purposes of the scheme are to monitor international trade in toothfish products, identify the origin of toothfish products entering the markets of contracting parties, determine whether such products were caught in CCAMLR waters and, if so, whether they were taken in a manner consistent with CCAMLR conservation measures. Since 7 May 2000, CCAMLR contracting parties have been required to ensure that any toothfish product landed in their ports, transshipped to their vessels or imported into their markets is accompanied by a valid catch document.

1 The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources was signed in May 1980 and entered into force in April 1981.
G. Bryden, Chairman of the Standing
Committee on Observation and Inspection, CCAMLR.


Over the last decade, there has been considerable international interest in the issues of property rights in fisheries management. The property rights associated with fisheries that extend beyond or occur outside national jurisdictions are being clarified by a rapidly growing set of international memoranda and agreements. In addition, international organizations are increasingly interested in how different types of rights-based fisheries management systems can affect the conservation and sustainable use of fisheries.

The ongoing maturation of the concepts embodied in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, coupled with conflicts over the issue of who has the rights to catch fish in situations where stocks cross national jurisdictions and/or national and international areas,20 has led to the development of the following agreements, which clarify and define more precisely various aspects of property rights in fisheries:

In 1993, the FAO Compliance Agreement21 was adopted to strengthen the exclusivity of the property rights of those fishing on the high seas. The Agreement focused on which vessels had the authority to fish on the high seas, and it also underlined the responsibilities of fisheries management authorities in controlling such activity.

Two years later, the adoption of the UN Fish Stocks Agreement22 extended the definition of property rights relating to the fishing of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks by strengthening both the flag state's responsibilities associated with the right of exploiting such stocks and the enforceability and security of the privileges conferred by those rights with provisions on compliance and enforcement.

Currently, the development of an international plan of action to deal with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing will serve to define more clearly and enforce the property rights to harvest fish on the high seas. Various types of property rights systems continue to be discussed in more general terms at such meetings as:

While such institutions as the United Nations and the World Bank are addressing issues arising from the conservation of marine biodiversity, there is increasing interest in examining fisheries management tools and their property rights characteristics to see if these are of use in effecting ecologically sustainable development.

At the regional level, discussions regarding the use of property rights in fisheries management have been benefiting from both the growing recognition that the use of ITQs is only one of a range of relevant types of rights-based fisheries management and the realization that adjustment programmes need to be coupled with new management strategies if their results are to be consolidated. One example of this was the 1999 Concerted Action on Economics and the Common Fisheries Policy workshop on the Definition and Allocation of Use Rights in European Fisheries, funded by the EC and its Agriculture and Fisheries Programme (FAIR).23 This workshop was followed by another, held in Bergen, Norway in October 2000, focusing on specific rights-based solutions to EC fisheries management problems.

At the national level, interest in the use of property rights is continuing to develop, albeit cautiously. Politicians are aware that there are potentially significant political ramifications when property rights are made increasingly specific and when allocation issues have to be addressed explicitly. For example, in Iceland, allocation issues have inspired first political and then legal battles to challenge the implementation of ITQ programmes. In Australia, recent efforts to discuss and implement fisheries management systems based on clearly specified property rights such as ITQs have been stalled in the political arenas of several states, while fishers are making increasing demands on fisheries management agencies for clarification of their commercial fishing rights and mechanisms that allocate fisheries resources in ways that are defensible and predictable.

Since 1998, governments and the industry in some Latin American countries have been debating the merits of introducing more clearly defined rights for those involved in industrial pelagic fisheries (in Chile and Peru) and groundfish fisheries (in Uruguay and Argentina). So far, however, it is not clear that agreements on how to proceed will emerge.

In contrast, the characteristics of the rights held by artisanal fishers in Latin America are gradually becoming more clearly and exclusively defined.24 Although generally applied to situations where there are stocks of fish dwelling on the bottom or in other localized and non-migratory areas (including relatively small bodies of freshwater), these arrangements have given rights-holders the legal wherewithal to exclude those who do not have rights in such fisheries. For example, in 1998 Peru began to provide artisanal fishers' organizations with exclusive rights in some inshore marine resources, and in Ecuador fishers have received exclusive rights to enhance and exploit fisheries in some inland waters. In Brazil, moves to allocate exclusive fishing rights - and management obligations - to local communities are currently under way. In Chile, Mexico and Cuba, similar programmes have been under way for some time and are now relatively well established.

Although there has not yet been any systematic assessment of all the economic and other impacts of such issues as the assignment of rights to fishers and the state of stocks, some potentially positive outcomes have already been recorded. Initial regional assessments indicate that, for many communities, the assignment of rights has meant that wild resources have recovered, the prices received by fishers have improved (sometimes because fishers have become involved in processing and marketing) and fishers' organizations have been able to grow stronger through the accumulation of capital.


It is clear that open access utilization of such natural resources as fisheries is not sustainable. It is also clear that current approaches to controlling and regulating the use of fisheries resources do not necessarily lead to sustainable use, and in addition often create incentives that work against management objectives.

Around the world, in artisanal and industrial fisheries, both large- and small-scale, the increasing scarcity of resources is driving stakeholders to demand greater clarification of their property rights in fisheries. As increasing numbers of people exploit fisheries resources (often using better technology than was available in the past) there is an ever-growing need to examine the advantages and limitations of the existing role of property rights in fisheries management and to consider strategies that are based on more clearly defined rights.

At all levels, political and administrative interest regarding property rights and fisheries management, and the opportunities created by the spectrum of rights that may be conferred, will continue to grow, particularly as fisheries resources come under even greater pressure and the linkages between well-specified property rights and fisheries management become more widely understood. This interest is likely to be coupled with a growing use of capacity adjustment programmes as mechanisms for shifting fisheries management systems towards the use of more clearly defined and specified property rights.

In the future, all those involved with fisheries and their management will give greater consideration to the property rights - entitlements, privileges, responsibilities and incentives - that are conferred by different types of fisheries management strategies.



Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is found in all capture fisheries, irrespective of the location, species targeted, fishing gears employed or level and intensity of exploitation (see Box 13). IUU fishing occurs in small-scale and industrial fisheries, inland and marine fisheries, and fisheries in zones of national jurisdiction as well as those on the high seas. IUU fishing is not confined to high seas fisheries, to particular groups of fishers or to specific fisheries. Regional fisheries management organizations see cases of IUU fishing by both contracting and non-contracting parties and by vessels from countries with open registers.

IUU fishing is not a new phenomenon. It has been a source of concern for resource custodians ever since fishing communities first started to implement measures to conserve fish stocks. In societies where indigenous resource-use practices continue (e.g. Melanesian communities in the South Pacific Islands), infringements of these practices by fishers carrying out IUU fishing often carry substantial social and economic sanctions.

Efforts are under way to assess how serious and widespread IUU fishing is, but no complete and comprehensive picture of the situation has yet emerged. FAO has been informed that, in some important fisheries, IUU fishing accounts for up to 30 percent of total catches, and in one instance it has been indicated that IUU catches could be as high as three times the permitted catch level. Many of the world's regional fisheries management organizations have taken steps to address the problem. Where IUU fishing is common, it has major consequences for national and regional scientific assessments and, in turn, for the determination of catch levels and other management measures adopted and implemented by national administrations and regional fisheries management organizations.

The international community has identified IUU fishing as a major fisheries management issue because of its far-reaching consequences for the long-term sustainable management of fisheries resources; when IUU fishing is unchecked, the system on which fisheries management decisions are based becomes fundamentally flawed. This situation leads to a failure to achieve fisheries management goals and the loss of both short- and long-term social and economic opportunities (see Box 13). In extreme cases, IUU fishing can lead to the collapse of a fishery or seriously affect efforts to rebuild fish stocks that have been depleted.

IUU fishing has many facets and motivations, although the most obvious underlying incentives are economic in nature. Other factors that may encourage IUU fishing include the existence of excess fleet capacity, the provision of government subsidies (where they maintain or increase capacity), strong market demand for particular products, weak national fishery administration (including inadequate reporting systems), poor regional fisheries management and ineffective MCS, including a lack of VMS.


To combat IUU fishing, concerted international cooperation is required, and this depends on the collaboration of all states, irrespective of whether their primary roles are as coastal states, flag states, port states or fish-importing countries. A clear focus on the issues that contribute to IUU fishing and a common international resolve to address them in a timely and realistic manner should enable progress to be made towards greatly reducing or eliminating IUU fishing.

In zones of national jurisdiction where IUU fishing is practised by both authorized and unauthorized fishers, national administrations need to strengthen, inter alia, licensing procedures; conservation and management measures; data reporting, collection and analysis; and MCS. An international plan of action to combat IUU fishing will be helpful. Such a plan, if comprehensively developed and effectively implemented, should reduce, if not eliminate, the incidence of IUU fishing. Based on recent international discussions of this issue, it seems likely that an international plan of action to address this type of fishing would promote, inter alia, the following short- and long-term measures:


During 1999 and 2000, IUU fishing has been addressed in several important international fora.26 FAO was given a clear mandate at the 23rd Session of its Committee on Fisheries (COFI) and the 1999 FAO Ministerial Meeting on the Implementation of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries to develop a voluntary international plan of action to combat IUU fishing within the framework of the Code.27

Development of the plan of action has followed a two-step approach:


Regional fisheries management organizations are taking steps to combat IUU fishing. Action has already been taken by the:

Other regional fisheries management organizations are in the process of assessing and addressing IUU fishing.

Members of regional fisheries management organizations will have to decide how to enhance flag state control and how to improve cooperation with port states. Non-parties to regional fisheries management organizations will be urged to take steps to control their vessels so that they do not engage in activities that undermine the work of regional fisheries management organizations. As a result, it will become of primary importance that these organizations try to accommodate new entrants. The establishment of a joint FAO/IMO ad hoc working group is expected to lay the groundwork for cooperative action on IUU fishing between the two organizations, in response to calls that they should collaborate to find solutions to the problem.

FAO will to continue its cooperation with regional fisheries management organizations and to facilitate cooperation among these organizations. A manifestation of this collaboration is FAO's annual consolidated reporting to the United Nations General Assembly on the activities of regional fisheries management organizations and the biennial meeting it holds with other interested parties to address matters of mutual concern.



Widespread concern about the sustainability of present uses of natural renewable resources led to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, and to the adoption of its Agenda 21. The event reflected a global consensus for more ecosystem-based sustainable development across all sectors of human activity, as a means of improving the human welfare of present generations without sacrificing that of the future. It called for a substantial shift in governance, improved scientific support to decision-making and a substantial increase in strategic information.

Simultaneously, UNCED recognized the cost and scarcity of such information and, therefore, the high degree of uncertainty about the functions and state of productive ecosystems as well as the resulting risk for the resources and the people dependent on them for a living.

The combination of these requirements presents a formidable challenge for modern fisheries governance. The capacity of fishery managers and industry to comply with the requirements will condition the views of an increasingly aware society on the future role of fisheries in global sustainable development and food security.


In order to assist fisheries policy-makers and managers, allow monitoring and performance assessment and facilitate people's participation, Chapter 40 of Agenda 21, Information for decision-making, calls for
"a harmonized development of sustainable development indicators at the national, regional and global levels, and for incorporation of a suitable set of these indicators in common, regularly updated, and widely accessible reports and databases, for use at the international level, subject to national sovereignty considerations" (Paragraph 40.7).
In 1995, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) followed up and approved a work programme aimed
at making such indicators available to decision-makers at the national level by the year 2000.

In addition, Principle 15 of UNCED's Rio Declaration states that "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall be not used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." The General Principles and Article 6.5 of the Code followed this up by prescribing a precautionary approach to all fisheries in all aquatic systems, regardless of their jurisdictional nature.


During the last few years, considerable effort has been devoted to elaborating frameworks for the development of sustainability indicators and procedures for their integration with the precautionary approach. The following is a review of the progress made.

indicators for the main dimensions of sustainable development




Harvest and harvest value
Fisheries contribution to GDP
Value of fisheries exports  (compared with value of total  exports)
Investment in fishing fleets and  processing facilities


Fishing traditions/culture
Gender distribution in decision- making


Catch structure
Relative abundance of target species
Exploitation rate
Direct effects of fishing gear on non-target species
Indirect effects of fishing: trophic structure3
Direct effects of gear on habitats
Change in area and quality of important or critical habitats


Compliance regime
Property rights
Transparency and participation

Indicators of sustainable development. Since 1995, CSD has promoted, inter alia, the exchange of information among interested actors; identification, testing and evaluation of relevant indicators; training and capacity building; and the development of frameworks for sustainability indicators. Taking the lead in the development of sectoral indicators in fisheries, FAO, in collaboration with the Government of Australia, reviewed the issue and drew up technical guidelines for the development and use of indicators for the sustainable development of marine capture fisheries.28 It is recognized that the adoption and reporting of sustainable development indicators are practicable and cost-effective means of tracking progress towards sustainable development (e.g. in the implementation of the Code); detecting potential problems in good time; learning by comparing performances among different fisheries; and, as a consequence, optimizing policies and fisheries management.

Several complementary frameworks have been proposed for the design, organization and reporting of sustainable development indicators, such as the pressure-state-response (PSR) framework. In the case of fisheries, the Code provides an alternative framework. When indicators have been established for similar frameworks, they can be shared at the relevant national, regional and global levels. To that effect, similar concepts, definitions and processes need to be agreed and implemented when comparable systems of indicators that follow minimum standard requirements are being developed.

In general, indicators should reflect the state of the system and its outcomes in relation to societal goals and objectives, the long-term sustainability of the fishery, the ecosystem supporting it and the generation of net benefits to fishers and society.

Indicators of sustainability should reflect the well-being of (or the problems related to) the resource and human components of the system, as well as the progress (or lack of it) towards the objective of sustainable development (Figure 22). Indicator-based systems are becoming a useful complement to conventional management support systems, as well as a promising way of monitoring and managing fisheries subsectors, or the sector as a whole, offering an alternative to the fishery-by-fishery approach.

The selection of appropriate geographic units for the reporting of indicators is critical and, while recognizing national and subnational jurisdictions, should reflect the geographic location of the ecological processes that define aquatic ecosystem boundaries. While commitments have been made for national reporting, it might sometimes be appropriate to aggregate reports at a subnational level (e.g. by fisheries or by small districts within the same nation) or multinational level (e.g. for transboundary stocks).

There are many ways of representing the interdependent components of a fishery or of a fishery sector in a sustainable development reference system. The minimum critical components are the ecosystem, the economy, society and governance. The ecosystem comprises the fishery resources that support the fishery as well as other aspects of the ecosystem that control the productivity of the resource, including dependent and associated species. The economy reflects the results - expressed in terms of benefits and costs - that are derived from the use of the ecosystem. The benefits and costs are experienced by consumers, producers and society at large. Short- and long-term equity is included. The society component of the system consists of non-monetary costs and benefits, which are important elements of human welfare. Governance includes the institutions as well as the rules governing the system. Indicators should reflect the performance of the system in each of these components.

Ideally, indicators for each component should be developed by identifying objectives that are relative to that component, by specifying a conceptual or numerical "model" of the available scientific understanding; and determining indicators of performance that relate to the objectives for which information is available or can easily be collected. Indicators can be very numerous and need careful selection (Table 4). They must be scientifically validated as really reflecting the changes that they imply; based on the "best scientific information available", as required by UNCLOS; easy to develop and cost-effective; and easily understood by the target audience.

The value of indicators must be interpreted in relation to target, limit or threshold reference values (or reference points) derived in various ways, even when there is a shortage of data. The target reference values define desirable states of the system and good performance. Limits indicate undesirable states of the system and bad performance. Thresholds identify situations in which action, possibly pre-agreed, should be taken. Together, these reference points give an indication of societal value judgements regarding the indicators. For example, an indicator of biomass below the limit level may be considered as illustrating a "bad" situation. An indicator of biomass at the maximum sustainable yield level may be considered as "good".

Collaborating nations that share a resource should strive to establish some common indicators for each component of a system and, possibly, common evaluation criteria. This will make it easier to assess the status of fishery resources within the ecosystem and to establish costs and income for which there are generally agreed objectives and methodologies. It may, however, be less practical for social components, for which it is difficult to make generalizations.

Simple representations of a fishery system in relation to the dimensions of sustainable development are proposed in the relevant FAO guidelines and by Garcia and Staples.29 The kite diagram is one such representation in which each dimension (e.g. spawning biomass and revenues) is represented by one of the axes. Each axis is appropriately scaled and there are established societal evaluation criteria to qualify the various levels on each scale (e.g. bad, mediocre, acceptable, good). In Figure 23, the position of the fishery is shown by a white polygon. The degree of shading represents value judgements, from bad (black) to good (clear). Thus, the fishery illustrated in Figure 23 is satisfactory in so far as it creates a high number of jobs and adequate revenues, although its spawning biomass is inadequate in size and its nursery areas are threatened. A complete system of sustainable development indicators should include mechanisms for effective communication among fisheries stakeholders, those responsible for governance and the general public. A number of visual reporting methods would greatly enhance communication in this regard. The system of indicators should be reviewed regularly in order to provide the necessary incentives to maintain and improve it.

Although the indicators should be easy to understand, they can still be misinterpreted or misused (as can any statistical data). Authoritative interpretation and reporting by an expert group, collaborating with industry and stakeholders, will guard against this, and nations and international organizations should convene such groups of experts to evaluate and interpret indicators every few years. Policy-makers will then be able to act in response to whatever the indicators show.

The precautionary approach. Before integrating the precautionary approach into the Code and promoting its application in the UN Fish Stocks Agreement,30 FAO reviewed its implications for fisheries.31 In collaboration with Sweden, the Organization also developed technical guidelines for the precautionary approach to capture fisheries and species introductions, in support of implementation of the Code.32

There is considerable uncertainty about the data, parameters and processes involved in fisheries. The situation is aggravated by natural variability, climate change and the need to consider fisheries within their respective ecosystems. Fisheries management has always had a number of "precautionary" elements that make it possible to take action in response to risk to the resources before enough scientific data are available to guide decision-making. Unfortunately, over the last half-century, these elements have been either scarcely used or poorly enforced. The precautionary approach recognizes that: all fishing activities have significant impacts; the impacts of fisheries should not be considered negligible unless proved to be so; the complex and changing fisheries system will never be perfectly understood, which means that scientific advice to management is always affected by uncertainty; management decision processes and the sector's compliance have their own uncertainties, so fisheries' impacts on the system are difficult to predict accurately; and the consequences of management errors may take a long time to put right.

As a consequence of these factors, and of the fact that the nature of fisheries is such that management decisions have to be made on the basis of incomplete knowledge, the approach requires, inter alia, that: a level of precaution commensurate to the risk be applied at all times to all fisheries and that it be applied systematically, i.e. across all research, management and fishing operations; potentially irreversible changes be avoided
(to maintain options for future generations); undesirable outcomes be anticipated, and measures taken to reduce their likelihood; corrective measures be applied immediately and become effective within an acceptable time frame; priority be given to conserving the productive capacity of the resource; precautionary limits be put on fishing capacity when resource productivity is highly uncertain; all fishing activities be subjected to prior authorization and periodic review; the burden of proof be appropriately (realistically) placed; standards of proof that are commensurate with the potential risk to the resource be established; and a comprehensive legal and institutional management framework be used.

The precautionary approach has now been widely adopted by a number of fishery bodies, including CCAMLR, the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), the International Whaling Commission (IWC), NAFO, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO), ICCAT, the Multilateral High-Level Conference on the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific and the Southeast Atlantic Fisheries Organization (SEAFO). The implementation of the approach is actively discussed in others, including the Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission (APFIC), the Western Central Atlantic Fishery Commission (WECAFC) and the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), and is advancing rapidly in ICES. The approach has also been indirectly applied by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in relation to the southern bluefin tuna cases. It is also advancing rapidly in a number of countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa.

Merging both concepts. The precautionary approach is based on a range of key indicators of the state of the critical components of the fishery system (e.g. spawning stock size, fishing pressure, critical habitats) that are similar to those recommended as sustainability indicators. It also requires determination of the related target, limit and threshold reference points (taking into account the uncertainty inherent in their estimations). As a consequence, recent developments in fisheries have led to a merging of the concepts related to indicators of sustainable development with those related to the precautionary approach. This represents a valuable and original advance in the field of natural resources management.

Thus, mixed frameworks (although not explicitly identified as such) are now being considered by ICES (which is leading the movement), NAFO and ICCAT. The approach consists in formally reporting the indicators of fishing mortality and reproductive biomass on a graph that represents the limit, threshold and target reference points as well as including areas corresponding to overfishing, target and buffer or precautionary situations. On such a graph, the agreed harvest control rules can also be reported, indicating what action is to be taken (in terms of fishing mortality) for observed levels of spawning biomass (Figure 24).

As illustrated in Figure 24, the precautionary approach, as it is currently applied, is essentially based on biological considerations. Despite this shortcoming, the approach can be very useful for comparative purposes, as it allows many stocks to be represented on a single graph. Figure 25 illustrates this point, showing the position of a number of North Atlantic stocks in 1970. The mapping of this information on similar graphs over a period of several years provides a useful way of following trends in the resources of a region.


While the development of sustainability indicators in fisheries has only just started and the application of the precautionary approach has largely been confined to biological elements, a combination of the two concepts and their active implementation by regional fishery bodies represents a major advance in the global fisheries management landscape, with potentially significant implications for the resources and the sector. The outcomes of ongoing efforts have been as follows: determination of limit reference points that represent biological constraints and minimum requirements for sustainability; determination of thresholds (or buffers) to ensure that the limits are not accidentally violated; improved methodology for assessing uncertainty and the risk attached to it; elaboration and evaluation of precautionary harvest control rules and assessment of their effectiveness; and elaboration of strategies, plans and special control rules for the rebuilding of overfished stocks.

In addition, these efforts have led to the incorporation of uncertainty about the state of stocks into management scenarios; improved communication between scientists and managers regarding explicit uncertainty considerations and their impacts; more explicit statements of objectives on the part of policy-makers as a basis for establishing target reference points; development, adoption and implementation of precautionary fisheries management plans; and implementation of recovery plans for depleted resources.

Increased effort is needed to build on the progress already made. As the matter is of the utmost importance, it seems likely that additional resources will be assigned and used for the identification, analysis, systematic organization and formal adoption of a limited number of reference points covering the ecosystem, economic, institutional and other social aspects; further identification of sources of uncertainty and their impact in terms of risk to the fishery system, including its human component; explicit linking of reference points to the objectives of fisheries management and development policies, as well as to the constraints imposed by ecosystems and the need for human well-being; appropriate representation of reference points as a means of conveying the issues, trade-offs, alternatives, etc. to managers, industry and the public; and systematic analysis of the ability of management strategies and processes to operate with uncertainty.



In addition to the concern expressed about individual stocks, there is increasing interest in ecosystems and the impact that fishing may be having on their structure and function. There is little information at either the regional or global level on the relationship between the state of marine ecosystems and fishing. However, broad indicators of change are available from reported capture fisheries landings in the major fishing areas. These can indicate changes, although it is usually difficult to separate changes in exploitation patterns from changes in the underlying ecosystem.

Trophic index. One concern is that fishing may cause large (and valuable) predatory fish to be replaced by other species lower down the food web.33 This may not only affect the value of fisheries, but may cause significant problems in the structure and function of marine ecosystems. For example, some species may cease to be controlled by predators after those predators have been reduced by fishing. The potential effect of such ecosystem disruption can be seen when new species are introduced into environments where there are none of the predators that usually control them. A spectacular example occurred in the Black Sea, where the ctenophore (jellyfish) Mnemiopsis leidyi, which was first found there in 1982, had increased to average abundance levels of 1 to 5 kg/m2 wet weight by 1991/92. It has subsequently decreased in numbers but remains common, and it has permanently changed the structure of the Black Sea marine ecosystem. Although ecosystems are generally robust, there is a fear that this sort of secondary effect could also be triggered by overfishing.

One way to detect changes is to study the ratio of landings of predatory fish (piscivores) to landings of fish that feed on plankton (planktivores). As predatory fish are removed from the population, the proportion of plankton feeders in catches may grow, suggesting increased relative abundance and, perhaps, some underlying change in the ecology.

There are no clear overall trends in the piscivore-planktivore ratio for most regions. Landing statistics vary significantly because of changing vessel activities and fishing patterns, and other environmental factors may well play a role. For example, although the Mediterranean and Black Seas are heavily exploited, there has been significant nutrient pollution, which may have influenced the relative abundance levels of piscivores and zooplankton feeders.34 An area where there is particular cause for concern is the Northeast Atlantic (Figure 26), which has been heavily exploited over a long period and has some of the most reliable statistics available. These indicate a long-term trend towards a greater ratio of plankton-feeding fish in landings which may represent a structural shift in the underlying ecosystem, caused by chronic heavy fishing.

Landings composition index. In statistics regarding landings as a whole, the species yielding the most abundant catches tend to dominate. This is not necessarily a clear reflection of the underlying impact of changes on the ecosystem, as some rarer species may have critical ecological roles. Furthermore, it is difficult to interpret the meaning of an array of landings data by species, and more useful to use indices that summarize landings composition.

Landings composition can be summarized by two indices, the landings volume averaged over categories and a measure of the variation in landings among categories - the variance. The variance is the average of the squared difference between the overall average landing and the actual landings in each case. These calculations are carried out on the logarithm of landings, because the landings composition follows the log-normal frequency distribution.

The log-normal frequency has been found to describe a wide variety of distributions, such as income distribution in some countries, distribution of sizes of rocks when they are crushed and, most important, species abundance in ecological communities.35 In landings statistics, the log-normal distribution captures the fact that only a few species are very abundant in the statistics and the large majority of categories have far smaller annual landings. A log-normal distribution fitted to landings statistics can be defined by two values, the mean and the standard deviation, which can be used as indices of the changing exploitation pattern. The distribution has the additional advantage that it can account for some of the landings that were not reported, particularly in the early years.36 However, interpretation requires care as the values are given on the log scale. For example, an increase in the variation would increase the perceived arithmetic average even when the log average remains constant.

The indices are related to the way in which exploitation of the ecosystem can develop. The level of landings across all categories can change among individual categories equally or differentially. An equal increase implies a proportional increase in the total harvest of all species and would produce an increase in the mean landings. The landings variance can change for a number of reasons. Developing fisheries for only a few of many species would change the variation in landings, but would have less effect on the mean. As a fishery develops, both the mean and the variance in landings can be expected to increase as all the fisheries in a region, particularly the more valuable ones, are exploited more heavily. Overfishing may then cause the landings of some stocks to decline, thereby decreasing the average landings. However, declines in landings of categories that are below the average will increase the variance, whereas declines in landings for categories that are above the average will decrease it. It can be seen that the indices do not directly represent simple causes.

Most regions, notably the Northern, Central and Southeast Atlantic and the Northern Pacific, show a negative trend in average landings; that is, the average reported landings are broadly in decline across categories. Most other areas show no significant change, with the exception of the Western Central and Southeast Pacific and the Eastern Indian Oceans, where average landings are increasing (Figure 27). This occurs when fishing pressure increases across all exploited groups, and reflects the proportional change that can be attributed to all categories.

In terms of variation of landings among species, all areas show some increase over time (Figure 28). This represents changes in landings quantities, which are not the same across categories. In particular, increasing variation among species suggests relatively greater landings of the most abundant species and increasing numbers of smaller landings. However, changes in landings may also be due to improved reporting as well as to underlying changes in the ecosystem and fishing activities.

In the case of the North and South Atlantic and the Western Central and Southern Pacific Oceans, the increase in variation is not significant. In these cases, the range of exploitation appears to be stabilizing, perhaps because these regions are approaching full ecosystem exploitation. However, reporting will play a part, at least in the case of the Western Central Pacific which classifies the majority of its very diverse catch as "marine fish".

Nevertheless, the broader pattern of increasing variation probably reflects an increasing concentration on the largest stocks, as well as an increased variety of resources being exploited. Two major driving forces are the expansion of markets for larger quantities of a wider range of fishery products and the increase in prices of previously neglected species. These phenomena are mainly the result of the emergence of new markets for fish, including previously discarded species, the separation of species that were previously lumped together and the development of new stocks.

The state of ecosystem exploitation by region. As exploitation of an ecosystem develops, it can be expected that new species will be added to the landings and that the levels of landings will increase across all categories, with catches of some of the more abundant and valuable species increasing relatively more rapidly. This would be shown on the indices as a positive relationship over time between the average landings and the variance in landings per category as the fisheries of the region expand to utilize more and more categories within the ecosystem.
As more species are included in the landings, the variation in landings among categories will increasingly tend to match the underlying variation in species abundance and the potential for further diversification will decline. This will tend to produce a negative relationship between average landings and landings variation, as fisheries are unable to increase the two simultaneously. For example, directing capacity away from a fully or overexploited very abundant species to a number of less abundant species may make landings among categories more similar (decreasing variation) while raising the average individual category landings.

For most areas there is a negative relation between variation and mean landings, suggesting that the potential for expanding landings in these regions is limited. The Northeast and Eastern Central Atlantic, where much of the Northeast Atlantic's excess capacity is being diverted, show this pattern (Figure 29). An exception to the general rule is the Eastern Indian Ocean, where both the variation and the amount of the harvest appear to be increasing. The Eastern Indian and the Western Central Pacific Oceans represent the most biologically diverse regions. Trends between the mean and the variance do not necessarily represent time trends, although trends over time will have an effect (Figures 27 and 28).


Given the diversity of ecosystems within each region, is not possible to describe the state of ecosystems at the regional level with any certainty. The statistics show that marine ecosystems have come under increasing pressure, the full consequences of which are unknown. Improved monitoring through fishery-independent indices and research on the impacts of fisheries on fish communities would both go some way towards identifying, preventing and solving the problems.

Marine reserves represent an important tool to be used in conjunction with other appropriate management measures, not just for protecting many ecosystems and leaving proportions of them intact, but also for providing a baseline state for monitoring. To be effective, reserves have to cover a relatively large proportion of the ecosystem at the regional level. At present, marine reserves are frequently proposed to protect particular stocks or periods of their life cycle, rather than to offer general protection for the ecosystem.
A more general approach coordinated at the regional level would probably be required if wider benefits are to be acquired, particularly for pelagic ecosystems.

In protecting the ecosystem, the most important course of action is to protect the various parts that make it up - the individual stocks. When the abundance of individual species is maintained, the ecosystem derives protection. However, because individual stock assessments do not take account of interactions among species, recommendations on exploitation levels
may have to become more cautious as increasing numbers of species become
fully exploited.


With the possible exception of the Eastern Indian Ocean and the Western Central Pacific, the indicators show fully exploited ecosystems with little room for manoeuvre in all areas. However, if one area were to be singled out for particular concern, based on the available indices it would be the Northeast Atlantic (Figures 27, 28 and 29). Several indices suggest that this ecosystem has been shifted away from its unexploited state, giving cause for concern that continued heavy fishing may lead to more widespread problems.



"We have no problem with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as long as they are proved to be safe to human beings and have no negative impact on the environment. That is a very clear position."

Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General
7 March 2000

Genetic modification of aquatic species has the potential to increase, greatly, both the quantity and the quality of products from aquaculture. Traditional animal breeding, chromosome-set manipulation and hybridization have already made significant contributions to aquaculture production, and their contributions are expected to increase as aquatic species become more domesticated and as breeding and genetic technology continue to improve.

Although such techniques all involve genetic modification, GMOs are defined by international agreements and much national legislation in a very narrow sense as being essentially transgenic organisms, i.e. organisms that have had foreign genes inserted into their cells (Box 14).

Several useful genes that can be transferred into different aquatic species have been identified (Table 5). Among the genes identified are those that produce:

Some genes can create a "loss of function". For example, they can block the release of gonadotropin, thereby delaying or reducing reproduction. Other genes that are useful in basic research and genetic marking have been identified and transferred into the fish that are used in laboratory studies, such as the medaka and platyfish.

Experimental and pilot projects on transgenic organisms have demonstrated that growth rates can be improved dramatically; and other commercially important traits, such as disease resistance and increased environmental tolerance, can also be improved. Although no transgenic aquatic species are yet available to the consumer, transgenic fish may well be on the market within the next few years. There is concern in aquaculture, as in other food-producing sectors, that transgenic technology poses new risks and must therefore be carefully monitored and regulated to ensure that the environment and human health are not endangered. A contrasting opinion is that GMOs are not substantially different from other genetically improved or domesticated species, that they will not survive well in the wild should they escape and, therefore, that they need no additional testing or oversight.

Issues regarding environmental and human health safety must be addressed if this technology is to fulfil its potential. Other areas that need to be considered include intellectual property protection, trade and ethics. Key questions are: To what degree are GMOs different from organisms that have not been genetically modified? What, if any, additional regulations, safeguards, testing or monitoring need to be put in place?

Environmental issues. Environmental issues centre on the import and release into the environment of GMOs. GMOs may either be introduced into the environment on purpose, as in stock enhancement programmes, or accidentally through escape from aquaculture. Even in contained aquaculture facilities there is a high probability that organisms will escape. In Norway, escaped farmed salmon make up about 30 percent of the salmon in rivers and outnumber the resident salmon in many inland streams.37 There is currently concern that GMOs will either have an adverse impact on local biodiversity through increased predatory or competitive ability, or that they will breed with related species and disrupt the local genetic diversity. The proponents of GMOs maintain that these organisms will be very domesticated, will have very low fitness in the wild and, therefore, will not compete successfully with wild fish.

However, the low fitness of GMOs in the wild is a genetic concern if they breed with local stocks. Local stocks have adapted to the local environment, whereas GMOs have adapted to the farm environment, so breeding between GMOs and resident organisms would mix the different sets of genes, thus changing the local diversity. Work that concerned mainly salmonids (non-transgenic salmons) suggested that the mixing of farmed and wild genes usually has an adverse effect on wild stocks, but real examples of damage are few and it is difficult to attribute adverse impacts on wild stocks to genetic causes alone when habitat degradation, overfishing, etc. are also influencing them.

The issue is whether GMOs can interbreed with local stocks, how fit their offspring will be in the wild and, hence, what their real impact on local genetic diversity will be. Evidence indicates that many aquaculture species escape and are capable of establishing reproducing populations even when they are genetically improved and have moved into new areas, as in the case of farmed Atlantic salmon escaping and reproducing in British Colombia.

Som aquatic GMOS (transgenic species) being tested for use in aquaculture


Foreign gene

Desired effect and comments


Atlantic salmon

AFP salmon GH

Cold tolerance
Increased growth and feed efficiency

United States, Canada
United States, Canada

Coho salmon

Chinook salmon

After 1 year, 10- to 30-fold growth increase


Chinook salmon

AFP salmon GH

Increased growth and feed efficiency

New Zealand

Rainbow trout

AFP salmon GH

Increased growth and feed efficiency

United States, Canada

Cutthroat trout

Chinook salmon

Increased growth



AFP salmon GH

Increased growth and feed efficiency; stable inheritance

Canada, United Kingdom


Tilapia GH

Increased growth and stable inheritance



Modified tilapia insulin-producing gene

Production of human insulin for diabetics



Rainbow trout lysosome gene and flounder pleurocidin gene

Disease resistance, still in development

United States, Canada

Striped bass

Insect genes

Disease resistance, still in early stages of research

United States

Mud loach

Mud loach GH + mud loach and mouse promoter genes

Increased growth and feed efficiency;  2- to 30-fold increase in growth; inheritable transgene

China, Korea, Rep.

Channel catfish


33% growth improvement in culture conditions

United States

Common carp

Salmon and human GH

150% growth improvement in culture conditions; improved disease resistance; tolerance of low oxygen level

China, United States

Indian Major carps

Human GH

Increased growth




Increased growth



Coho salmon GH + various promoters

Increased growth

United States


Coho salmon GH + various promoters

Increased growth

United States

Fish to other life forms


Salmon calcitonin- producing gene

Calcitonin production to control calcium loss from bones

United Kingdom

Strawberry and potatoes


Increased cold tolerance

United Kingdom, Canada

Note: The development of transgenic organisms requires the insertion of the gene of interest and a promoter, which is the switch that controls expression of the gene.
AFP = anti-freeze protein gene (Arctic flatfish).
GH = growth hormone gene.

Human health issues. Although most fishery resource managers agree that environmental issues are of primary importance, the human health concerns associated with GMOs probably receive the most attention worldwide, probably as a result of news about crops. Crops have been genetically modified to contain pesticides, herbicides and general antibiotics, and there are fears that these toxins could affect people.

There have also been instances in crops where the foreign gene has caused allergic reactions; for example, a gene from a Brazil nut was placed in soybean and people who were allergic to Brazil nuts reacted to the soybean. In the fisheries sector, the most common gene construct involves a growth hormone gene (Table 5) and not the herbicides or pesticides used in plants. Many of the GMOs being tested for use in aquaculture only produce more of their own growth hormone.

Thus, from the human health perspective the risks with the present use of the technology are clearly circumscribed and minor. One area of potential concern is the future development of disease resistance. A theoretical possibility is that, if a GMO is more disease-resistant, it may become a host for new pathogens, some of which may be transmissible or pathogenic to humans.

BOX 14

The development of a common nomenclature is crucial in establishing legislation and policy for the responsible use of GMOs. However, this is proving to be a formidable task. The tendency in international legal bodies and industry is to restrict use of the term GMO to transgenic species, whereas some voluntary instruments adopt a wider definition that includes other genetic modifications such as hybridization, chromosome manipulations, sex reversal and selective breeding. The following are some of the definitions of GMOs that are currently in use.

ICES.1 "An organism in which the genetic material has been altered anthropogenically by means of gene or cell technologies. Such technologies include isolation, characterization and modification of genes and their introduction into living cells or viruses of DNA, as well as techniques for the production involving cells with new combinations of genetic material by the fusion of two or more cells."

USDA. The United States Department of Agriculture states that its Performance Standards (which are voluntary) on conducting research on GMOs apply to the following organisms:

    1. "Deliberate Gene Changes - including changes in genes, transposable elements, non-coding DNA (including regulatory sequences), synthetic DNA sequences and mitochondrial DNA;
    2. Deliberate Chromosome Manipulations - including manipulation of chromosome numbers and chromosome fragments; and
    3. Deliberate Interspecific Hybridization (except for non-applicable species discussed below) - referring to human-induced hybridization between taxonomically distinct species."

To clarify further, USDA states that non-applicable organisms are intraspecific, selectively bred species and widespread and well-known interspecific hybrids that do not cause adverse ecological effects.

Convention on Biological Diversity. In the language of the Convention on Biological Diversity, GMOs have become living modified organisms (LMOs). "Living modified organism" means any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology. "Living organism" means any biological entity capable of transferring or replicating genetic material, including sterile organisms, viruses and viroids. "Modern biotechnology" means the application of: i) in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant DNA and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; ii) fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection.

EC.2 "An organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. ... Genetically modified micro-organisms are organisms in which genetic material has been purposely altered through genetic engineering in a way that does not occur naturally."

1 ICES. 1995. ICES Code of Practice on the
Introductions and Transfers of Marine Organisms - 1994. ICES Cooperative Research Report No. 204.
2 EEC. 1990. Official Journal of the European Communities, 117, 8 May 1990.

Trade. The WTO agreements contain components that apply to GMOs (e.g. the removal of trade barriers, the requirements for intellectual property protection and labelling requirements).

Although no aquatic GMOs are traded, genetically modified soybean is an ingredient of shrimp and other animal feeds that are traded globally. The EC and Japan have labelling requirements for this feed, and the feed industry is studying the worldwide reaction to the labelling and may look for soybean replacements for feeds.

Intellectual property protection. The research, development and production of reliable GMOs and the environmental and human health monitoring infrastructure that should be installed have financial implications for biotechnology companies promoting the use of GMOs. One mechanism to help recover these costs is through intellectual property rights, for example patents that protect the inventors and developers of a product. Article 27(3)(b) of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) allows for the patenting of life forms. The United States Patent Office has granted patents on transgenic salmon and abalone. However, worldwide patenting laws are extremely complex and sometimes even contradictory; WTO and some countries allow the patenting of living organisms, but the EC does not. Many groups have moral objections to the patenting of life (see the paragraph on Ethics) and innovations that are contrary to public morality cannot be patented.

Labelling. Europe and the United States are in conflict over the labelling of genetically modified crops. Some countries maintain that labelling is impractical and would, in any case, be ambiguous while others think that it is necessary for informed consumer choice and to prevent a public relations disaster. A major issue in labelling is that of "substantially equivalent" which means that, if the GMO or product is equivalent to the non-GMO counterpart, no extra labelling is needed. How to assess equivalence, how much information should go on to a label and how the authenticity of labels can be established will be difficult matters to resolve.

Ethics. The field of ethics is extremely broad and ethics issues are often discussed under different terminology. For example, some aspects of "responsible fisheries" could also be referred to as "ethical fisheries". Ethical questions with regard to aquatic GMOs usually focus on whether humans have the right to modify natural creations. The Prince of Wales (UK) stated that "[genetic modification] takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone". Yet humans have been modifying plants, animals and the habitats they live in for millennia. The development of agriculture has been proposed as one of the most significant aspects of civilization in that it provided the time and resources that allowed humans to feed more people and left them free to develop fine arts and science. Other ethical dimensions include autonomy and the right to information. Again, from the crop sector it appears that a main cause of concern are multinational agribusinesses, which are seen as taking control away from farmers and withholding information from consumers. These issues are less important in fisheries at present, mainly because no fisheries GMOs are available to consumers.

Public perceptions. Although no genetically modified fish, shellfish or seaweed are available to consumers, the issue permeates the popular media and is a topic of discussion in nearly every general meeting on aquaculture development. This is because the public perceives that there is a problem, and policy-makers and NGOs strive to address the issues their publics find important. Because this is such an emotive issue, much of the news and research reports are presented by special interest groups in ways that suit their particular agendas; industry claims that the technology has been carefully tested and is safe, while opponents forecast environmental and health disasters.

The use of GMOs needs to be evaluated objectively and rationally. Recently, scientific papers that deal with GMOs have been capturing headlines in major newspapers throughout the world. Unfortunately the journalists and interest groups concerned have not managed to report the science completely or accurately. This has been the case in respect of genetically modified salmon. Although there are theoretical causes for concern, there are no real data to support the recent claim that genetically modified salmon are extremely dangerous to the environment. On the other hand, although fish that have not been genetically modified and that have escaped from culture facilities or been introduced into environments outside their native range have already caused environmental damage and are a clear and present danger, they have not received nearly so much press coverage.


International legislation, guidelines and codes of conduct for the sustainable use and conservation of aquatic genetic diversity have been, and continue to be, established. These represent a valuable first step in the responsible use of GMOs. Performance standards for conducting safe research on GMOs have been established by the United States Department of Agriculture.38 It has been recognized that GMOs share many of the same traits as alien species and alien genotypes.

Management and risk management should therefore follow the methodology, established by such groups as ICES39 and the European Inland Fishery Advisory Committee, for the transfer of marine organisms from one aquatic environment to another.

Concerning human health, the EC and the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) play leading roles in the enhancement of food safety. Codex standards, guidelines and other recommendations on food safety considerations, descriptions of essential food hygiene and quality characteristics, labelling, methods of analysis and sampling and systems for inspection and certification are not binding on Member Nations, but are a point of reference.

There are also technical solutions to the problem of environmental impact. The production of sterile GMOs would reduce their impact on native genetic diversity by making breeding impossible should they escape into the wild. Commercial developers of GMOs have stated that, once approved for grow-out, only sterile fish will be used in production. Sterility has been achieved easily by chromosome-set manipulation in many species, although the technique is not always successful. Genetic engineering itself may provide sterility by inserting loss of function genes.

The adoption of closed systems and the location of farms in areas that are not environmentally sensitive would be other ways of lessening the impact of GMOs. Commercial promoters of GMOs believe that, through increased production efficiency, farms that have closed systems and are located away from certain areas (e.g. the coast) would be profitable.

Solutions to the problem of using GMOs will only come from addressing all sides of this complex issue. Technically, there must be good scientific backup with adequate testing and monitoring to reduce the uncertainties of environmental impact. The non-technical issues will be equally important and include being aware of the perceptions of consumers and civil society, acknowledging that these groups know and understand very little about how their food is produced, and taking steps to educate the general public. A group of aquaculture geneticists established a key component in the Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific (NACA)/FAO Bangkok Strategy for Aquaculture Development in the Third Millennium, which gave high priority to "encouraging public awareness and providing information to consumers on the application of genetics".


It seems likely that aquatic GMOs will soon be available for sale to consumers. A private company, operating in the United States and Canada, is leading the drive to commercialize genetically modified salmon and has requested approval for distribution from the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The commercial distribution of genetically modified salmon has provoked expressions of concern about the potential lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms, but these have been countered by claims that groups such as USFDA do have adequate testing and regulatory procedures in place.

Regarding food safety, at its 23rd Session (July 1999), CAC established an Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Codex Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology. Its objective is to develop standards, guidelines or recommendations for foods derived from biotechnology or traits introduced into food by biotechnology, on the basis of scientific evidence, risk analysis and other factors that are relevant to the health of consumers and the promotion of fair trade practices.

The most significant international action regarding GMOs is the establishment of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a legally binding agreement under the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect the environment against risks posed by the transboundary transport of LMOs, which are similar to GMOs. Under this agreement, governments can decide whether or not to accept genetically modified commodities, and commodities that may contain GMOs must be clearly labelled. When genetically modified organisms such as live fish are released into the environment, advanced informed agreement procedures must be followed, requiring that exporters provide detailed information to each importing country in advance of the first shipment and that importers authorize shipments. Pharmaceuticals produced by genetic engineering are not covered by the protocols, however. The relationship between protocols that can restrict trade and existing WTO agreements that aim for liberalized trade need to be refined.

Recently, a framework for addressing ethical issues was proposed by the FAO Committee on Ethics in Food and Agriculture. It includes basic elements on:

The ethical dimension of GMOs in food and agricultural development is being addressed by the relevant subcommittee through the preparation of documents and other media.40


Globally, more than a dozen transgenic fish are being developed for aquaculture - and more are in the early stages of development or being used in basic research into gene action, physiology and development. Development of aquatic GMOs is carried out primarily in developed countries (Table 5, p. 73). However, developing countries have also produced transgenic fish such as carp, mud loach and tilapia. In spite of this activity, there are no confirmed reports of transgenic fish being released into commercial culture conditions or into the environment. No transgenic fish are available to the consumer.

The use of gene-transfer technology in molluscs and crustaceans lags behind its use in fishes. Molluscs such as oysters have been genetically improved through the use of chromosome manipulation and conventional selective breeding. Genetic improvement of crustaceans is still hampered by difficulties in closing the life cycle of many important species, such as the tiger prawn.



The idea that ecolabelling would lead to improved management of marine capture fisheries is of recent origin. It was first publicly promoted by Unilever PLC/NV and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) at their Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) initiative in early 1996.

The usefulness of ecolabelling in creating a market-based incentive for environment-friendly production was recognized about two decades ago when the first ecolabelled products were put on sale in Germany in the late 1970s. Since then, and especially during the 1990s, ecolabelling schemes have been developed in most industrialized countries for a wide range of products and sectors. In recent years, they have been gaining importance in a number of developing countries, including Brazil, India, Indonesia and Thailand. The concept was globally endorsed in 1992 at UNCED, where governments agreed to "encourage expansion of environmental labelling and other environmentally related product information programmes designed to assist consumers to make informed choices".41

Despite the international community's general acceptance of product ecolabelling, the approach has caused controversy in several international fora, including the WTO Sub-Committee on Trade and Environment and FAO's COFI. General concerns about ecolabelling are its potential to act as a barrier to trade and its coherence, or lack of it, with international trade rules. More specific concerns arise when applying ecolabelling to products from marine capture fisheries because these have special characteristics.

Definitions. OECD has defined environmental labelling as the "voluntary granting of labels by a private or public body in order to inform consumers and thereby promote consumer products which are determined to be environmentally more friendly than other functionally and competitively similar products".42 A distinction is usually made between labels assigned on the basis of product life cycle criteria and so-called "single issue labels", and the latter are often excluded from ecolabelling programmes. This is in accordance with the general principles adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)43 which prescribe, inter alia, that "the development of environmental labels and declarations shall take into consideration all relevant aspects of the life cycle of the product".44 The product life cycle approach is followed by many ecolabelling programmes, including the EC Flower, the Nordic Green Swan and United States Green Seal ecolabel award schemes.

While no explicit definition has been adopted by either WTO or FAO, an implicitly wide definition of ecolabelling has been used in past debates at sessions of WTO's Committee on Trade and the Environment (WTO/CTE) and COFI. This broader definition encompasses product labelling that conveys any type of environmental information. However, as the central concerns of primary resource-based industries include sustainable use of the exploited natural resources and the conservation of habitats and related ecosystems, future ecolabelling in fisheries is likely to focus on these aspects and not encompass all of the other environmental impacts (e.g. energy use) that are assessed for most of the industrial products for which a life cycle approach is used.


Ecolabelling is a market-based economic instrument that seeks to direct consumers' purchasing behaviour so that they take account of product attributes other than price. Such attributes can relate to economic and social objectives (fair trade;45 support to small-scale fishers; discouragement of child labour) in addition to environmental and ecological ones. Consumers' preferences are expected to result in price and/or market share differentials between products with ecolabels and those that either do not qualify for them or whose producers have not sought to obtain them. Potential price and/or market share differentials provide the economic incentive for firms to seek certification of their product(s).

The label helps consumers to distinguish a product according to desirable attributes without requiring them to have the detailed technical knowledge and overview of production processes and methods that underlie the certification criteria and certification itself. The label is a cost-effective way of supplying consumers with relevant product information that may influence their purchasing and consumption decisions.46

Consumers' product choices and their willingness to pay a higher price for an ecolabelled product will depend on their general capacity to address, and willingness to respond to, environmental concerns through purchasing behaviour, and on their level of awareness and understanding of the specific objectives pursued through the labelling scheme.47 While there is considerable evidence that consumers' responsiveness to environmental product attributes varies among countries as well as within them (among different strata of the population), there is still a scarcity of reliable data on the gains in market shares and prices of ecolabelled products compared with non-labelled products. Northern European and North American consumers with good incomes and a high level of education have a moderate, and sometimes, strong, tendency to choose an ecolabelled product over a non-labelled one, even when the former costs slightly - but not much - more. There is evidence that ecolabels covering product attributes that relate not only to lower environmental impacts, but also to assumed higher product quality in terms of nutritional and/or health benefits, can realize significant price premiums and show strong growth in market shares, although such products are still operating from a small base. This applies to organic food products, for example.

Consumer confidence and trust are essential for a successful ecolabelling programme. If the purchase of ecolabelled products is to be sustained, consumers need to be confident that the scheme's objectives are being reached. If consumers feel misled or become confused by a large variety of competing ecolabelling schemes within the same product group, they are likely to return to cheaper non-labelled products. Certification criteria that are clear and precise and a certification procedure that is independent and verifiable ensure that the label conveys accurate and sufficient information. Third-party certification through private or public certifying agents whose qualification and independence have been established would ensure the reliability and accountability of the programme and consumers' confidence in it. The international harmonization of criteria and standards can prevent the consumer confusion that could arise with multiple, competing ecolabelling schemes based on different, and perhaps deceptive, criteria and standards.48

All ecolabelling schemes require a stringent chain of custody, so that the product can be traced throughout the full production, distribution and marketing chain down to the retail level. This presents particular difficulties in marine fisheries, where fleets are often away from port for considerable periods, may fish several different species in one trip and may transship and/or transform products for different markets at sea. Although these difficulties can be overcome, the costs associated with performing fisheries tasks within a system that includes proper inspection and control procedures can be a problem.

The feasibility of achieving fisheries management objectives through ecolabelling schemes depends on certain requirements being met. The economic incentive created by the labelling scheme needs to be sufficiently high to encourage the fishery management authority and participants in the fishery to seek certification and cover the related fisheries management and labelling costs. However, the fact that many of the fisheries that are currently biologically and/or economically overexploited could produce high economic returns if they were managed on sound economic and biological principles, suggests that economic incentives may not be the most important constraint to realizing effective fisheries management. Instead, political and social considerations are likely to be important reasons why many marine fisheries will remain poorly managed. Nevertheless, the public relations, awareness creation and educational activities that may accompany an ecolabelling programme could eventually also make a difference in the political arena, and contribute to the kind of political will that is needed if society and politicians are to shoulder the short-term costs of fisheries management for the longer-term good.

There is no guarantee that the widespread adoption of ecolabelling programmes for marine fisheries would result in the better management of global fisheries in toto. At present, only a small fraction of global fish consumers (most of them living in Europe and North America) are likely to be responsive to ecolabels. Most of the future growth in global fish demand, however, will be in Asia, Latin America and Africa. The private sector is likely to react by directing to ecosensitive markets only those products that can be certified at a low cost, while other products will be directed to markets that are not ecosensitive. It cannot be guaranteed therefore, that when a particular fishery fulfils the certification criteria, excess fishing capacity will not be redirected to other uncertified fisheries. This could increase the pressure on some fish stocks in favour of those for which certification is profitably applied. Such negative spillover effects are not unique to ecolabelling schemes and can arise from any fisheries management approach that does not encompass specific measures to avoid the undesirable transfer of excess fishing capacity.

Although some of the best managed marine fisheries are currently found in developing countries, in general these countries face greater difficulties in achieving effective fisheries management and, therefore, in participating in ecolabelling programmes than industrialized countries do. The reasons for this are manifold and include the preponderance of small-scale and artisanal fisheries, where management is more complex because of the large number of participants and their lack of alternative remunerative employment opportunities; the multispecies characteristics of tropical fisheries; a lack of the financial resources needed to retire significant amounts of excess fishing capacity; and the limited technical and managerial capacities of government agencies, many of which face reductions in their budgetary allocations. Consequently, technical and financial support would be needed to facilitate the participation of developing countries, as well as of several countries in transition, in ecolabelling programmes.

Ecolabelling and international fish trade. Fish and fishery products are among the most widely traded natural resource-based goods. About 37 percent of global fisheries production enters international trade. For many developing countries, foreign exchange revenues from fish exports make a major contribution to the balance of payments and are thus of strategic macroeconomic importance. In the three major global fish importers (Japan, the EC and the United States), the processing, wholesaling and retailing of imported fish are of considerable economic significance, and they satisfy the consumer demand that is not met by domestic production.

The large and increasing trade of global fisheries production and the fact that much of the trade flow is from developing to industrialized countries indicate the potential of ecolabelling as both an incentive to improved fisheries management and a barrier to trade. Currently, much of the ecologically aware consumer demand is concentrated in the main fish-importing countries, with the exception of China which has become a major fish importer only in recent years.

There is no unanimous view on how international trade rules, including the WTO Agreements, can be interpreted by and applied to ecolabelling schemes. One area of divergent opinions is the extent to which WTO rules encompass production processes and methods that are not product-related. Another area of concern, which is not exclusively or specifically addressed by ecolabelling, is the establishment procedures and characteristics of international standards.49


In October 1998, FAO convened a Technical Consultation on the Feasibility of Developing Non-discriminatory Technical Guidelines for Ecolabelling of Products from Marine Capture Fisheries. Although this consultation did not reach an agreement on how practical and feasible it would be for FAO to draft technical guidelines for the ecolabelling of marine fisheries products, it did identify a number of principles that should be observed by ecolabelling schemes. They should:

There are no a priori criteria that can be considered essential or that can be applied automatically to products derived from fisheries. Within any labelling scheme, the criteria will reflect a compromise between the demands of the consumers and the capabilities and willingness of the producers and intermediates to meet those demands. Hence, in principle, labelling schemes in fisheries could aim to encompass all or any subset of the environmental, biological, social, political or economic issues that characterize a fisheries venture.

The set of criteria applied in any ecolabelling scheme should be developed jointly by representatives of the different interested parties, including the producers, processors, retailers and consumers. In fisheries, criteria related to the sustainable use of the exploited natural resources are of central concern, but social and economic criteria might also be considered. Criteria should be developed in a participatory and transparent process, and those selected should be "practical, viable and verifiable".50 Practicality and verifiability are very important requirements in assessing fisheries, where high levels of uncertainty, arising from poor understanding of important ecosystem principles in aquatic systems and difficulties of measuring what is happening in the sea, commonly prevent the totally objective interpretation of the status of stocks and ecosystems. This may prove to be a substantial obstacle to the widespread application of ecolabelling schemes in marine capture fisheries.51

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an independent, international non-profit body, created by WWF and the large fish retailer Unilever to promote sustainable and responsible fisheries and fishing practices worldwide. In collaboration with a selected group of parties that have interests and experience in fisheries issues, MSC has established a broad set of Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fisheries.52 Fisheries meeting these standards will be eligible for certification by independent certifying bodies accredited by MSC. On a voluntary basis, fishing companies and organizations are expected to contact certifiers in order to have a certification procedure carried out. Currently, two fisheries - the Thames Herring Fishery (total annual production of about 150 tonnes) and the Western Australia Rock Lobster Fishery (with an annual production of about 10 000 tonnes this is Australia's most valuable single fishery, contributing approximately 20 percent to the total value of national fisheries) - have been certified and awarded the Fish Forever MSC ecolabel. The United States Alaska salmon fishery is likely to be certified soon, and initial assessments are under way for some crustacean fisheries in Southeast Asia and Central America and a tuna fishery in the Pacific.

The Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) is an international non-profit organization that brings together representatives of the aquarium industry, hobbyists, conservation organizations, government agencies and public aquariums. MAC aims to conserve coral reefs by creating standards and educating and certifying those engaged in the collection and care of ornamental marine life, from the reef to the aquarium. It is working to establish standards for best practices in the supply of marine aquarium organisms; an independent system to certify compliance with these standards; and increased consumer demand and confidence for certified organisms, practices and industry participants.53

The Responsible Fisheries Society (RFS) of the United States and the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), which also has its headquarters in the United States, have announced a joint ecolabelling scheme to recognize industry's commitment and participation in responsible fisheries and aquaculture. The new ecolabel will be offered to industry members who endorse the Principles for Responsible Fisheries of RFS or the Principles for Responsible Aquaculture of GAA and incorporate these principles into their business. The RFS and GAA programmes are open to all segments of the industry (e.g. producer, importer, distributor, retailer or restaurant operator) and require the preparation of reports or plans that document implementation of the RFS/GAA principles. The RFS programme targets all types of United States domestic seafood products while GAA focuses principally on farm-raised shrimp and operates on a worldwide basis. GAA evaluates shrimp farms on the basis of a system of self-assessment questionnaires. RFS is considering developing a third-party certification system.54

Following an initiative by the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM) in August 1996, a Nordic project group was established to review criteria for sustainable production of fish and fish products. The work of this group led to a number of related initiatives by NCM and, in 1999, its Senior Officials for Fishery Affairs created a Nordic Technical Working Group on Ecolabelling Criteria. The participants in this group are drawn from Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden and include observers from the European Commission.

The Technical Working Group concluded that, in the marine capture fisheries of the Northeast Atlantic, state authorities ought to establish ecolabelling criteria, which can then be used by private bodies and NGOs to ecolabel fish products. Ecolabelling is seen as voluntary and consumer-driven. The Technical Working Group emphasized that the process should be transparent, be based on scientific findings and use verifiable criteria. The essential elements are a fisheries management plan, the availability of regular scientific advice, the establishment of pre-agreed management actions to adopt when precautionary reference points are approached, efficient monitoring and control systems, the absence of destructive fishing practices, a minimum of discards, and consideration of ecosystem issues. The procedure should assure the consumer that ecolabelled products derive from stocks that are harvested in a sustainable way and that the fish processing methods used do not have serious ecosystem effects.

BOX 15
Labelling for origin and species

The labelling of fisheries products by country of origin and species is not a counterproposal to ecolabelling or an alternative to it. Rather, it is an independent way of providing minimal information where none currently exists. The importance of identifying the origin of fishery products was highlighted in the Code. Article 11.1.11. states that "States should ensure that international and domestic trade in fish and fishery products accords with sound conservation and management practices through improving the identification of the origin of fish and fishery products treated". From January 2002, labelling for origin and species will become mandatory in the EC for fish and fishery products offered for retail sale to final consumers.1

Identification of the origin of fisheries products can provide a way of weeding out those products that are deemed to be caught illegally or caught in a fashion that undermines national or international management efforts. For example, in recognition of the problem of trade in unreported, illegally harvested Patagonian toothfish, the Parties to the 1980 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources have drafted a catch certification scheme for toothfish. The idea is that international trade in illegally caught Patagonian toothfish would be restricted by requiring that imports be accompanied by a valid certificate of origin.2

Similarly, ICCAT introduced a Bluefin Tuna Statistical Document Programme for frozen bluefin (1992) and fresh bluefin (1993). The aim of the programme was to increase the accuracy of bluefin statistics and track unreported fish caught by non-members and fleets flying flags of convenience. The programme obliged all contracting parties to require that all imported bluefin tuna be accompanied by an ICCAT Bluefin Statistical document that details the name of the exporter and importer, the area of harvest, etc.3

1 According to Article 4 of Council Regulation (EC) No. 104/2000, labelling is r equired to indicate: (a) the commercial designation of the species, (b) the production method (caught at sea or in inland waters or farmed), and (c) the catch area.
2 CCAMLR Newsletter, December 1998. Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.
3 WTO. 1998. Communication from the Secretariat of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. Committee on Trade and Environment, WT/CTE/W/87. Geneva.
Source: Based on C. Deere. 1999. Ecolabelling and sustainable fisheries. Washington, DC-Rome, IUCN/FAO.


Ecolabelling is a new concept in capture fisheries and there is no empirical evidence as yet about its future ability to make a significant contribution to improving the management of the world's aquatic resources. As has been observed in the forestry sector, it is likely that ecolabelling will first be applied to those fisheries that are already fairly well managed or that could achieve good management at a comparatively low cost. Such fisheries are currently primarily found in industrialized countries, but not in great numbers, and there are important exceptions in developing countries. For example, Namibia's fisheries and national economy could eventually benefit greatly if higher sale prices were realized from ecolabelled fish and fishery products. Once the success of pilot ecolabelling schemes has been established, these could provoke significant interest among governments and industry and could create the kind of political will that is needed to attain effective fisheries management, often in the face of economically and socially difficult adjustment.

The financial and technical resources needed for these adjustments may be beyond the means of several developing countries, and the international community may be called on to provide assistance and fulfil the commitments made in various international instruments, including the Code, the WTO Agreements and Agenda 21. However, such assistance would be needed irrespective of whether or not ecolabelling were considered as part of improved fisheries management.

There is increasing acceptance on the part of those who are familiar with ecolabelling that such labels should not be used to discriminate against those who cannot, in the short term, afford to develop and implement the management practices needed for sustainable fisheries management. It is also realized, not least among the promoters of ecolabelling, that it would be to the detriment of all schemes if a large number of competing ecolabelling schemes were to develop. This would undermine one of the principle objectives of ecolabelling, namely to give consumers more information that is relevant for their product choice. Success hinges on respecting this principle. It therefore seems plausible that governments, industry and consumers should promote international collaboration in order to agree on basic principles for the introduction and use of ecolabels in fisheries and aquaculture. 

1United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1998.
ILO. 1998. Yearbook of Labour Statistics, 1998. Geneva.
IMO. MSC/Circ.539/Add.2 and FSI 6/6/1.
IMO. FSI 7/6/2.
5 ILO. 1999. Report on safety and health in the fishing industry. Geneva.
6 P.S. Mead, L. Slutsker, V. Dietz, L.F. McCaig, J.S. Bresee, C. Shapiro, P.M. Griffin and R.V. Tauxe. 1999. Food-related illness and death in the United States (review). Emerging Infectious Diseases, 5: 607-25. Available at:
7 P.W. Setel and Y. Hemed. 2000. Cause-specific adult mortality: evidence from community-based surveillance - selected sites, Tanzania, 1992-1998, p. 416-419. Atlanta, Georgia, USA, CDC.
8 FAO. 1997. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) System and Guidelines for its Application. Annex to CAC/RCP 1-1969, Rev. 3. Available at:
9 EC regulations do not use the term "HACCP". Instead they refer to "own health checks".
10 See op. cit., footnote 8, p. 48.
11 List No. 1. Commission Decision 97/296/EC.
12 Op. cit., footnote 6, p. 47.
13 According to the Codex Alimentarius, risk is "A function of the probability of an adverse health effect and the severity of that effect, consequential to a hazard(s) in food".
14 D.E. Lane. 1999. Applications of rights-based fisheries: experiences and consequences. In A. Hatcher and K. Robinson, eds. The definition and allocation of use rights in European fisheries. Proceedings of the second Concerted Action Workshop on Economics and the Common Fisheries Policy, Brest, France, 5-7 May 1999. University of Portsmouth: Centre for the Econom-ics and Management of Aquatic Resources (CEMARE) Miscellaneous Publications No. 46, p. 19. Portsmouth, UK.
15 Anthony Scott described his characterization of the elements of property rights in a keynote address, entitled Moving
through the narrows: from open access to ITQs and self-government, at the Fremantle conference FishRights99, Use of Property Rights in Fisheries Management. Available at:
16 L.G. Anderson. 1992. Consideration of the potential use of individual transferable quotas in US fisheries overview docu-ment. The National ITQ Study Report Volume 1. Washington, DC, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
17 Preferably, the management unit is the fish stock throughout its range, but this may not always be possible. When the management unit is not the stock throughout its range, it becomes critical that other uses of the stock are accounted for.
18 If total allowable catches (TACs) cannot be quantitatively determined and/or set, it is still important to try to set them qualitatively in order to help guide regulatory decision-making and compare the incentives created by different TACs.
19 Focusing attention on individual allocations, regardless of whether they are explicit or implicit, helps to identify possible regulatory options and their impact on participants' behaviour.
20 For example, Canada's enforcement actions against Spanish vessels fishing for Greenland halibut in 1995.
21 The Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas was adopted by the FAO Conference in November 1993 but has not yet entered into force.
22 The Agreement on the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 Relating to the Conservation and Manage-ment of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks was adopted and opened for signature in 1995.
23 The Concerted Action Workshops Series is being organized by CEMARE. Held in Brest, France, from 5 to 7 May 1999, the meeting focused explicitly on The Definition and Allocation of Use Rights in European Fisheries.
24 Workshop on the Management and Allocation of Fishery Resources to Artisanal Fishers in Latin America, Valparaiso, Chile, 25-28 April 2000.
25 See footnotes 22 and 21, p. 55.
26 The 23rd Session of COFI in February 1999; the FAO Ministerial Meeting on Fisheries in March 1999; the 7th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development in April 1999; the 116th Session of the FAO Council in June 1999; the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Fisheries Working Group in July 1999; the 54th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in November 1999; the 8th Session of the IMO Sub-Committee on Flag State Implementation in January 2000; the Chilean International Conference on Monitoring, Control and Surveillance in January 2000; the 44th Session of the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee in March 2000; the 72nd Session of the Maritime Safety Committee in May 2000; and the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea in May 2000.
27 In February 2000, FAO reported to the 24th Session of COFI on progress achieved in fulfilling the mandate provided concerning IUU fishing, and in particular the request to develop an international plan of action to combat IUU fishing. Given the urgency of the IUU fishing problem and the strong international focus on the issue, FAO anticipates that it will be possible to provide COFI with a draft plan of action for consideration and possible adoption in 2001.
28 FAO. 1996. The precautionary approach to fisheries and its implications for fishery research, technology and management: an updated review, by S.M. Garcia. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper No. 350/2, p. 1-75. Rome; FAO. 1999. Indicators for sustainable development of marine capture fisheries. FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries No. 8, Rome; S.M Garcia and D. Staples. 2000. Sustainability reference systems and indicators for responsible marine capture fisheries: a review of concepts and elements for a set of guidelines. Marine and Freshwater Research.
29 Garcia and Staples, op. cit., footnote 28, p. 61.
30 See footnote 22, p. 55.
31 S.M. Garcia. 1994. The precautionary principle: its implications in capture fisheries management. Ocean and Coastal Management, 22: 99-125.
32 FAO. 1996. Precautionary approach to capture fisheries and species introductions. FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries No. 2. 54 pp.
33 D. Pauly, V. Christensen, J. Dalsgaard, R. Froese and F. Torres Jr. 1998. Fishing down marine food webs. Science, 279: 860-863.
34 For a discussion of this and other aspects of trophic changes, see J.F. Caddy and L. Garibaldi. Apparent changes in the trophic composition of world marine harvests: the perspective from the FAO capture database. Ocean and Coastal Management, 43 (8-9): 615-655.
35 For a discussion of models, see A.E. Magurran. 1988. Ecological diversity and its measurement. Princeton, New Jersey, USA, Princeton University Press. 179 pp.
36 This is achieved by fitting the truncated log-normal, which allows for the absence of reports on the smallest landings.
37 D. Gausen and V. Moen. 1991. Large-scale escapes of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) into Norwegian rivers threaten natural populations. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science, 48: 426-428.
38 Available at:
39 ICES. 1995. ICES Code of Practice on the Introductions and Transfers of Marine Organisms - 1994. ICES Cooperative Research Report No. 204.
40 FAO. GMOs, the consumer, food safety and the environment. Rome (in preparation).
41 UNCED. Agenda 21, Paragraph 4.21.
42 OECD. 1991. Environmental labelling in OECD countries, by J. Salzman. OECD Report No. 1. Paris.
43 ISO, established as an NGO in 1947, is a federation of national standards bodies from about 100 countries. Its mission is to promote the development of worldwide standardization and related activities with a view to facilitating the international exchange of goods and services and to developing cooperation in the spheres of intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activity. Additional information is available at:
44 ISO. 1998. Environmental labels and declarations: general principles. Principle 5. ISO 14020. Geneva.
45 The German company Fair Trade e.V. launched a fair-traded fish initiative at the Bremen 2000 Seafood Fair. It aims at improving the living and working conditions of artisanal fisheries workers in developing countries and is based on partnership between associations of marine fisheries workers and Fair Trade. Criteria for participation include practising fisheries activities that adhere to ILO's core labour standards, are small-scale labour-intensive and environmentally friendly and have no negative impacts on local fish supplies and traditional marketing and processing practices. For details, see S. Mathew. 2000. Sustainable development and social well-being: which approach for fish trade? In Bridges, April 2000, p. 11-12. International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), Geneva.
46 The theoretical aspects of product labelling are based on the economics of information. For a discussion of this, see C. R. Wessells. Ecolabelling of products from marine capture fisheries: technical and institutional aspects and trade implications. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper (in preparation).
47 The findings of a recent sample survey among United States consumers suggest that current awareness and understanding of the sustainability issues in fisheries are still limited and that preferences for ecolabelled seafood are likely to differ by species, geographic region, consumer group and, perhaps, certifying agency. See C.R. Wessells, R.J. Johnston and H. Donath. 1999. Assessing consumer preferences for ecolabelled seafood: the influence of species, certifier and household attributes. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 81(5): 1084-1089.
48 The problems arising from multiple labelling schemes and how to resolve them in the case of banana production and trade have recently been the subject of useful discussions in FAO. For details, see FAO. 2000. Report of the Ad Hoc Expert Meeting on Socially and Environmentally Responsible Banana Production and Trade. Rome, 22-24 March 2000. Available at:
49 For details on ecolabelling and international trade rules see, for example, C. Deere. 1999. Ecolabelling and sustainable fisheries. Washington, DC-Rome, IUCN/FAO; and A.E. Appleton. 1997. Environmental labelling programmes: trade law impli-cations. The Hague, Netherlands, Kluwer Law International.
50 FAO. 1998. Report of the technical consultation on the feasibility of developing non-discriminatory technical guidelines for ecolabelling of products from marine capture fisheries, 21-23 October 1998. Rome. FAO Fisheries Report No. 594. 29 pp.
51 Certification criteria for ecolabelled marine fishery products are discussed more fully in K. Cochrane and R. Willmann. Ecolabelling in fisheries management. In Proceedings of the 2000 Conference on Current Fisheries Issues, 16-17 March 2000, Rome. FAO and the Centre of Ocean Law and Policy, University of Virginia, United States (in preparation).
52 According to MSC "A sustainable fishery is defined, for the purposes of MSC certification, as one that is conducted in such a way that: it can be continued indefinitely at a reasonable level; it maintains and seeks to maximize ecological health and abundance; it maintains the diversity, structure and function of the ecosystems on which it depends as well as the quality of its habitat, minimizing the adverse effects that it causes; it is managed and operated in a responsible manner, in conformity with local, national and international laws and regulations; it maintains present and future economic and social options and benefits; and it is conducted in a socially and economically fair and responsible manner". See
53 For more information, see
54 For more information, see and www.

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