Fish trade a success story for developing countries, but is the field level enough?
Fair safety guidelines, capacity-building programmes needed
13 February 2004, Bremen/Rome -- Since 1980, the export value of fish and fisheries products has soared from US$15 billion to $57.7 billion per year, according to FAO's Fisheries Department.
For developing countries -- whose market share of world fish exports in value terms is just over 50% -- this trade offers a vital source of income. In fact, FAO figures show that net revenues from fish trade (exports minus imports) by developing countries recently reached US$17.7 billion -- a figure larger than that earned from their exports of tea, rice, cocoa and coffee combined.
"Over one-third of fisheries production moves into international trade, and over half of this trade in value terms originates in developing countries," notes Grímur Valdimarsson, Director of FAO's Fishery Industries Division.
"This shows what developing countries are able to accomplish in international trade when given an equal opportunity," he adds.
Despite successes, some challenges remain
But FAO research also reveals that developing countries still tend to focus mainly on exports of unprocessed fish. While these exports do bring them valuable trade revenues, they could earn more by selling value-added processed fish.
And while developing countries don't face the same set of challenges exporting fish as they do when exporting agricultural commodities, there still are hurdles they must overcome.
According to Audun Lem, an FAO Fishery Industry Officer, average weighted import tariffs on fish products in developed countries run around 4.5%, but this average hides a number of tariff peaks and instances of tariff escalation for processed fish.
Tariff peaks are duties that apply to specific types of fish. Tariff escalation refers to duties that are increased depending on how much processing a commodity receives. (Under such schemes, for example, fresh shrimp shipped in bulk might face lower import tariffs than cleaned and packaged shrimp.)
"Import duties in developed country markets therefore continue to present a barrier to processing and economic development in the fishery industries in many developing countries," Mr Lem says.
Questions of safety and fairness
In addition to tariffs, "technical barriers to trade" can also make it difficult for developing countries to sell their fish products on the global market.
These can result when measures originally put in place in order to safeguard human health or to protect the environment -- requiring that tuna imports be dolphin-safe or that fish contain less than a certain percentage of a harmful substance, for instance -- are distorted. Sometimes this distortion occurs inadvertently, especially in complex trading chains. In other instances it happens as a result of political pressure to protect domestic markets.
"Requirements like these are perfectly legitimate and are most often enacted with the very important goals of protecting human health and the environment in mind," says Lahsen Ababouch, Chief of FAO's Fish Marketing and Utilization Service.
"But at the same time, these rules ought to be firmly based on solid science in order to avoid trade protectionism," he adds.
In order to reconcile these two goals, two things are needed, says FAO.
First, the standards should be developed transparently, and be based on the best available science.
Second, capacity-building and technical assistance programmes that help exporting nations acquire the skills, expertise and equipment they need in order to meet the standards are a must.
"Absolutely, we need to make sure that capture fishery and aquaculture operations don't damage the environment, and that wild fish stocks are not over-utilized. Yes, we need to ensure that fish products are safe to eat," says Mr Ababouch. "But in order to achieve these goals the international community needs to work together, and that means helping developing nations build their capacity to meet the requirements of rich ones -- and making sure those requirements are fair."
The eco-labelling option
Similar standards are being explored in various places in order to ensure that capture fisheries and aquaculture operations don't harm the environment.
Under eco-labelling systems, fish farmed or captured in accordance with certain environmental guidelines are sold with a special label. By purchasing a fish tagged with that label, consumers can be sure that it was caught or farmed in a sustainable manner.
Yet while many observers favour the idea, one key question remains: who should determine what fish are eco-friendly, and what standards should they use to do so?
And here too, developing countries caution that they require assistance in order to bring technical knowledge and infrastructure up to par.
"It's also important to keep in mind that responsibility for ensuring the safety of fish products is shared by everyone involved -- those who produce or catch the fish, those who process and package it, and those that distribute and market it," adds Mr Ababouch "This is a responsibility shared by exporting and importing countries alike."
One key ingredient to building this chain of responsibility, says FAO, is to establish systems of traceability -- a way to record how and where fish were raised or caught and how and where they were processed.
"There is a direct relationship between a traceability system and food labelling," explains Hector Lupin, an FAO Fishery Industry Officer. "With good traceability systems we can more accurately label products."
The challenge, he adds, is to ensure that traceability systems are both effective and efficient.
"They need to be simple and flexible, so that consumer protection is increased while avoiding that these systems become more trade-restrictive than is absolutely necessary," he says.
Building consensus for a fair and sustainable fish trade system
In order to encourage international cooperation on these issues, in 1985 FAO established its Sub-Committee on Fish Trade.
An advisory body of FAO Member States, the Sub-Committee meets every two years to take up policy issues related to fish trade, share information, and make recommendations to FAO regarding the agency's work in this area.
The body is meeting this week in Bremen, Germany, in a five-day working session during which a number of topics are being debated. These include options for developing fair, science-based safety-monitoring and eco-labelling systems for seafood products; improving the accuracy of catch reporting by the fishing sector; and how to help developing countries and small-scale fishermen increase their access to international markets.
On 14 February the Sub-Committee will submit a draft report to FAO recommending actions that the agency and its member countries should take in order to promote a sustainable, stronger, and more responsible global trade in fisheries products.
Once approved by FAO's governing Conference of Member States, those recommendations will then be incorporated into the work agenda of the agency's Department of Fisheries, including its programmes of technical assistance to developing countries.
But not only will the talks produce a work plan for FAO's Fisheries Department, says Greg Schneider, a U.S. delegate to the Sub-Committee elected to serve as chairperson of this year's meeting. They also help foster international consensus regarding the best way to responsibly manage fish trade, he says.
"Through this process of information sharing and policy discussions, the international community and FAO are helping shape an inclusive, forward-looking and responsible global work agenda for fish trade policy," Schneider explains.
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