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An ethical analysis of fisheries

Ethical reasoning

The issues affecting fisheries briefly outlined in the second section show that the world is faced with a complex and urgent set of problems calling for options and decisions, the moral imperatives of which should be carefully considered in an ethical approach to fisheries. Although moral considerations are only one of the set of considerations leading to the selection of solutions, moral solutions are of a nature that sets them apart from those proposed from purely bio-ecological, economic and technological standpoints because:

Ethically responsible decision-making requires the use of the best available knowledge and an awareness of relevant uncertainties and risk. Uncertainties and risk are cross-cutting issues that apply to both human and ecosystem welfare. They relate to uncertainties in our knowledge, requiring further study. They also relate to the inherent variability of the system under study, where there may be chaotic behaviour or multiple states of equilibrium - which may always remain difficult to predict. In both cases, an ethical scheme must be adopted to manage uncertainties and risk (FAO/WHO, 2003).

In an ethical approach to fisheries, a change in policy or the introduction of a technological innovation or new management strategy will not be evaluated only in terms of efficiency in reaching conventional objectives. It will: (i) be broader in scope; (ii) identify the substantial moral factors and values involved; and (iii) establish the procedure for moral dialogue, complementing conventional analysis with the explicit consideration of human welfare, freedom and justice.

Ethics and economics

Until recently, fisheries were, as are most other natural resources, analysed with the tools of ecology and economics. In such analysis, performance criteria are related to ecological conservation or preservation as well as the instrumental maximization of narrowly defined self-interests, efficiency and economic growth. With these analytical tools, many of the moral aspects of fisheries are difficult to analyse. Economic analysis, for example, does not emphasize the importance of the main ethical notions of welfare, freedom and justice. The same can be said about classical ecological analysis, though both assume that, in the long term, economic and ecological rationality join in providing optimal social welfare. Both tend to "miss" the transitional problems emerging from the implementation of change.

Conventional analyses would be usefully complemented by an ethical analysis of the implications of that change. Implications could be related, for instance, to the risks people face in terms of household sustainability, food security and alternative employment, as well as the provision of public goods (health care facilities, schools, etc.) and other needs critical to maintaining a decent quality of life. Such social issues and benefits can be appreciated better when related to the basic moral interests constituting human well-being.

There are at least two components to a holistic ethical analysis of fisheries: (i) to establish what aspects of well-being to focus on in a given institutional setting; and (ii) to examine what institutional factors may frustrate the achievement of basic well-being for the people and communities and environments concerned. An ethical analysis of fisheries must complement, feed into and serve as a corrective to the dominant economic analyses of fisheries and fishing policies. In this context, drawing upon the capability approach (Sen, 1985; Nussbaum and Sen, 1993), the following premises are most significant:

Human versus ecosystem well-being: species introduction in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea, a low-income, food-deficit country, is famous for its rain forests and aquatic resources. About 80 percent of its population depends on inland resources, including fishery resources. Its freshwater biodiversity is comparatively low, with many unfilled niches. In 1991, the government, the United Nations Development Programme and FAO sought to fill these niches to increase food production. They introduced eleven new species to the Sepik and Ramu river catchments. It was recognized from the onset that these introductions could adversely impact local aquatic biodiversity. Therefore, environmental impact assessments were made, and an international advisory body was established to oversee the implementation of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) codes of practice on species introductions.

The project was successful at establishing populations of most of the introduced fishes and at increasing fish production and availability in many areas within the catchments. Problems were encountered because of lack of local knowledge about processing some of the new species (with negative consequences to their trade). Communities felt that they had not been sufficiently consulted in the planning process, and inadequate attention had been given to technology transfer.

From an ethical standpoint, vulnerable people with limited resources and negligible political representation were provided with more food and economic opportunity - at the price, however, of changing the local biodiversity and ecosystem. Although environmental concerns were addressed by an international advisory committee and impact assessments, the project could have been improved from the procedural perspective by increasing the involvement of local communities in the early planning stages and by consulting with them on the social and cultural aspects of the fishery. The Government of Papua New Guinea and FAO are now planning follow-up activities that will incorporate these lessons learned.

Source: FAO, 1997; Kolkolo, 2003.

Ethics of restricted access

A major moral imperative in fisheries is to ensure resource conservation


A major moral imperative in fisheries is to avoid overexploitation and ensure resource conservation in a just and sustainable manner, enhancing people's well-being. The first part of this principle is generally accepted. Controversies abound, however, about the most effective way of achieving a balance between the imperatives of sustainability and justice (equity) and the goal of economic efficiency. The discussion has largely involved how to restrict access (and allocate resources), focusing, inter alia, on the nature of entitlements, the criteria for allocation, the positive impact on fishing capacity reduction, rent creation and the improved economic situation (of the holders of access rights). Ethical issues such as human welfare, social justice (exclusion) and freedom are superficially addressed or completely missed. This section briefly addresses the ethical implications of restricted access (see Boxes, pp. 20, 22).

The theme of regulation of access to fishing resources straddles both ethics and economics and is well suited to illustrating that, as stated earlier, ethical reasoning is holistic in nature. The essence of this reasoning is to emphasize broader informational foundations against which alternative systems of regulation can be judged in terms of their effect on the ecosystem and human well-being.

The main moral justification of restricted access is that it secures conservation and economic rationality, improving overall benefits to the holder of the right and to society (through internalization of costs). It is widely agreed that the attribution of long-term entitlements through fishing rights increases incentives for responsibility and management performance in the short term and long term. The implication is that stewardship and ownership, rights and responsibilities, conservation and allocation go hand in hand in a successful allocation policy (Garcia and Boncoeur, 2004).

Efficiency versus social justice: the Icelandic experience

Until 1976, Icelandic fishery resources were exploited essentially through international and open-access fisheries. The extension of the jurisdiction of Iceland to 200 miles excluded foreign fleets from the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). There were signs of overexploitation, overcapitalization and excessive fishing, despite efforts to impose total allowable catches and quotas (on herring) in force since the late 1960s.

With few exceptions, individual transferable quotas (ITQs) were allocated on the basis of fishing history and catch during the three years preceding the introduction of the quotas (in 1984). Starting in 1990, a uniform system of ITQs in practically all fisheries was progressively superimposed on the earlier management system of protection of juveniles (through gear, area and fish-size restrictions) still largely in place.

The main rationale for ITQs, based on economic theory, is that the creation of private property through harvesting rights generates efficiency, even though that claim has been questioned on more general macroeconomic grounds. A number of issues have been raised, however, regarding wealth distribution and, in particular:

  • fairness of the allocations decided in close cooperation between the government, vessel owners and fishers, but allegedly excluding other social groups with interests in the system, such as workers in the fishery industry and other people in the communities that rely on fisheries;

  • desirability of the socio-economic consequences to the communities, as the transferability of quotas to those who can most afford them has upset fishing communities, eroding livelihoods and forcing people to leave;

  • exclusion of social groups relying on fishing for their livelihoods, particularly small vessel owners who do not meet allocation criteria, as well as other community groups from outside the fishing industry who were not involved in the initial allocation;

  • sharing of rent;

  • impact on fishing labour, e.g. on vessels affected by quota reductions or for crews "forced" by vessel owners to share the cost of the quota.

    Source: FAO, 2001c.

When establishing property ownership over a common resource, the main ethical issue relates both to the way of deciding who gets access and who does not and to how the interests of freedom of access can be balanced with justice of restriction through the distribution of benefits. Within the so-called "libertarian tradition" (Schmidtz, 1990), the justification for property and ownership is that when individuals own their powers (self-ownership), they can exchange them on the market, exercising such powers and owning whatever flows from this exercise. Accordingly, as stated in the so-called "Coase Theorem", resources ownership, with an effective system of exchange and an affordable conflict resolution mechanism, should ensure an optimal economic outcome (Coase, 1960).

The libertarian position ignores, however, that a meaningful exercise of individual powers takes place in a social context, such as traditional fishing communities, with its complex web of manifold human efforts. An allocation policy that focuses on individual self-owned powers can result in injustice to fishing communities. Indeed, the Coase Theorem stresses that ownership does not guarantee equity, recognizing that it does not deal with the moral dimension of the distribution of social benefits and human well-being.

There are several distinct ways to limit access, running the gamut from individual transferable quotas to communal rights. Under certain conditions, some societal groups may benefit disproportionately while others are left out in a state of utmost scarcity (exclusion) and destitution. This disparity is not a result of overexploitation and lack of material resources, but because of a humanly designed institutional framework with inequitable outcomes.

The issues at stake include: (i) the delegation of state entitlements (sovereign rights) in the EEZ; (ii) the possible existence of traditional (informal) rights established through years or decades of use (usufruct); (iii) the social structure and power system within which the traditional and new allocations take place; (iv) the existence, or lack, of consensus on these allocations.

One of the most widely discussed and analysed forms of individual property rights in fisheries is that of individual transferable quotas (ITQs). From an ethical point of view, it is possible to design and implement an ITQ system in a number of ways, and several choices allow for tailoring the system to the resources, conditions and socio-economic context. Theoretically, the strongest or most efficient property rights arrangements (leading to maximum long-term economic productivity) would be those with the fewest constraints on the operation of markets. But there may be an imperative to attend to the needs of specially disadvantaged or vulnerable groups or to achieve particular social or demographic objectives of a moral nature. For that purpose, less-than-"maximum" economic efficiency may be necessary. Examples include: (i) limitations on ownership transfers to regulate the concentration of quota ownership; (ii) authorization to lease (but not sell) the user right to avoid displacement of disadvantaged groups; (iii) restriction of foreign ownership.

Efficiency versus social costs and equity: the Tasmanian experience

In the mid-1980s, Tasmania, Australia, was faced with the problem of overfishing. A new management regime was progressively established based on access rights and the allocation of shares of a total allowable catch (TAC). The regime was extended to cover, successively, the abalone, rock lobster, giant crab and jack mackerel fisheries. Individual allocations were granted to existing participants. The allocation criteria varied among different fisheries, but the policy goals were to limit catches, provide equitable access to existing fishers and improve the industry's capability to plan. Important benefits generated were: (i) improved control and flexibility of operations; (ii) higher catch rates for recreational fisheries; and (iii) improved conservation as compliance with TACs increased.

Local fishers' communities have had concerns that they have continued to express in the subsequent two decades, e.g. about the declines in local crew employment and the concentration of benefits from the fisheries. The latter concern has particularly been expressed by those supporting the principle of equal allocation. Others have argued that the size of initial allocations should recognize the past catch history of fishers.

The new regime created social costs in the immediate years following the changes. Some fishers left the industry. They claimed that they had been forced to do so when their entitlements became uneconomically small as their quotas were reduced to reflect the lower TACs needed for resource conservation. This trend generated divisions within the industry and associated communities.

Two decades later, the conspicuously large incomes of remaining quota holders (a result of the success of the new management regime) and the lack of a requirement for the industry to pay resource rents continue to be matters of argument.

Source: FAO, 2001d.

An ethical analysis must address the effects of access restriction not only on individuals but also on regional communities and on the whole society. The design of an institutional arrangement to restrict access in a sector must be sensitive to differences between fisheries and fishing communities, ensuring that the unavoidable competition is fair.

In relation to access to capital, for example, industrial fisheries have access to low-interest institutional credit and subsidized development loans, while small-scale fishers have access only to informal credit from intermediaries or family members - and that at much higher interest rates. Institutional support is therefore skewed towards large-scale fishers.

The justification given for such an arrangement is that large-scale fishers are more efficient and contribute more to economic growth, allowing for economies of scale in the provision of infrastructure. This narrowly defined view of efficiency is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion for a policy. Justice (equity) is also a key consideration for sustainability, and self-determination is one of the means to ensure it. The Boxes accompanying this discussion provide examples of conflict between efficiency and social costs and justice.

Ethics, institutions and decisions

One of the most important challenges faced by the management of modern fisheries is to ensure that new institutional mechanisms introduced and decisions taken to implement the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries do not increase the inequities and asymmetries that are already in place or create new ones that further compromise the livelihoods of vulnerable segments of the sector or of society. As the process of transition towards responsible fisheries develops, in a context of reduced alternative opportunities, concern is growing about potential socially unjust consequences. These may result from new institutions in an arena characterized by asymmetries (e.g. in access to markets and capital) and sharp differences (e.g. between types and scales of fishing and fishing communities). The outcome of the change process is conditioned by the institutional environment. People can find themselves in destitution as a result of new institutions (such as rights, processes or policies) designed by other people, rather than of any inherent limitations of nature, inadequate informal norms or entrenched social practices.

Therefore, it is an important part of an ethical analysis to evaluate the extent to which, in the process of elaboration and implementation of new instruments, organizations, systems of rights, etc., some people or social groups could find themselves victims of unjust domination or of undue discrimination. It is important to devise a reasonable decision procedure that is sufficiently strong to determine the manner in which competing interests should be considered (Rawls, 1951). Such an ethical analysis could be rationalized through the use of an ethical matrix (Mepham, 2000) (see Table, page 24).

Ethics and cross-connections

Transboundary impacts and other cross-connections, particularly when they are not immediately obvious, may raise ethical issues. For example, industrial vessels trying to cope with a shortage of resources may progressively encroach on inshore areas previously exploited by or reserved for traditional fishers. In doing so, they take resources away, damaging productive habitats, destroying fishing gear and causing accidents. The result can be an added economic burden to poor communities (to replace the gear). Other consequences can be the loss of livelihood and the substantial increase of risk to human lives. Moreover, large-scale fishers might bid-up the prices of fishing inputs, and their massive landings might depress fish prices. This scenario could increase the profits of the providers of the inputs and reduce prices for the consumers of the fish. However, it could also increase the costs to, and decrease the revenues of, small-scale fishers, reducing their competitiveness and potentially marginalizing or displacing the least efficient of them.

Ethical matrix for the ethical analysis of fisheries[9]

Objectives related to:





The ecosystem

Ecosystem integrity; habitat and biodiversity protection

Maintenance of capacity to change; resilience

Stewardship and interests represented by human institutions

Fish stocks

Stock and genetic conservation; animal welfare

No barriers to migration

Fair conditions for reproduction


Economic viability; sustainable development; safety on board

Conditional freedom to act

Cross-sectoral equity (in taxes and law); access to tribunals

Fishers and their communities

Adequate income and working conditions; poverty eradication; cultural diversity

Freedom to change or not; empowerment; cultural identity

Fair treatment in trade and law; equitable access to resources; compensation

Other stakeholders

No or reduced externalities from fishing

Freedom to compete

Equitable share of resources; dispute resolution


Safe, nutritious, affordable food; societal efficiency

Availability of choice (e.g. labelling)

Equitable access to food; no barriers to trade; cross-sectoral equity


Availability of alternative policy choices

Capacity to decide; free participation in public deliberation

Transparency; accountability; liability; public oversight

There are great differences in the way in which economic, commercial, social and political factors interact across countries and regions and globally, and these interactions may have unfortunate consequences. For example, modern fishing technology, trade globalization, increasing urbanization and industrialization of fisheries have resulted in a shift of power and influence from small-scale to large-scale fishers - and from fishers to retailers (Friis, 1996). This power shift has been coupled with a widespread overutilization of resources and an extension of the overcapacity syndrome from the developed world to the developing world. There have certainly been positive impacts on both worlds, but for small-scale rural fishers in many regions, there have often been very adverse consequences. The causes of local overexploitation and economic and social hardship can, therefore, lie outside the fishing communities, in the domestic and international structure of power. This issue calls for a strengthening of mechanisms to balance interests and resolve conflicts at both the local and global levels.

Industrialization and globalization may raise ethical issues in fisheries


An ethical analysis of fisheries must explicitly ask whether a process of marginalization is facilitated - or even driven - by the environment of the fisheries. Unfriendly environments might be characterized by an unfavourable national policy on coastal development, a distorted capital market, or unfair international trade regulations or practices. An analysis could ask whether the market is distorted - especially capital markets with uneven access to credit and subsidies. It should ask whether care has been taken to ensure alternative employment opportunities for displaced fishers.

Increased competition and marginalization may be the result of globalization and technological progress, as well as changes in: (i) trade patterns; (ii) institutions (e.g. fishing rights); (iii) conditions of access to financial resources; etc. Because they are often less organized, less politically influential, less visible, less economically resilient and more geographically dispersed or isolated, small-scale fisheries find it increasingly difficult to compete with large-scale ones. Hence, it has been a matter of priority for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to strengthen the small-scale subsector's representation and to further its cohesion by promoting public deliberation and more-effective participation in decision-making.

Information, dialogue and ethical policy-making

It has been argued that, if there are differences in people's access to basic (public) goods and services as a result of systematic inequalities in the distribution of capital assets or the access to markets, there is a case for special attention to the claims of the poor (Dasgupta, 2001; Rawls, 1971). Ensuring the adequacy of a policy in that regard is a challenge. Public awareness, people's participation and negotiation are central to the equity issue. The wide availability of quality information and effective dialogue are parts of the solution.

Quality information that is easily accessible and effective dialogue help ensure equity


Free and high-quality information should be openly conveyed to stakeholders (including the public at large) to enhance their contribution and improve accountability. It should lead to more-comprehensive policies and more-reliable action by fishery management authorities. The importance of information-sharing and of a transparent policy-making mechanism, as well as free and independent media, cannot be overstressed. An ethical analysis of fisheries requires a broader informational foundation than does traditional economic analysis, particularly in the social and ecological domains. The problems this raises in terms of information shortage and resulting uncertainty and risk are similar to those discussed in relation to the transition from a conventional to an ecosystem approach to fisheries (FAO, 2003a; FAO, 2003b). In both cases, depending on the level of risk, a precautionary approach should be adopted.

Open and free discussion is an essential component of a policy-development process for ensuring that policies and practices are acceptable to the people whom they will affect. A public discourse free from domination (Habermas, 1990) requires that, avoiding fraud and deception, the people concerned:

If these procedural conditions are met, participants can critically discuss existing policies and distinguish between those that serve narrow, selfish interests and those that serve general public interests. Public fora where people can voice their concerns directly or through NGOs or the media are important, as the outcome of the dialogues, being public, is more likely to be implemented. The implication is that existing policy set-ups should be critically analysed from a procedural perspective: Would they be accepted in a free discussion by the people concerned?

[9] The matrix shows the components of the fishery sector (row headers) and the three basic principles of ethics (column headers). The content of the cells is only indicative and should be developed case by case.

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