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Q&A: International trade in fish products expanding
Complex, globe-spanning seafood industry offers poor countries opportunities
22 May 2008, Rome - In this Q&A interview, Grimur Valdimarsson, Director of FAO's Fish Products and Industries Division, talks about international trade in fish products, the global seafood industry, and what they mean for developing countries and the environment.

What are the big trends in the international fish trade?

Well, it’s growing strongly, reflecting rising consumption in all world regions with global consumption now at an all time high of 17,4 kg/capita. In 2006, around 37% of all fish caught or farmed was traded internationally, with a global export value of US$86 billion.

Large retail stores are becoming major players. Through innovations in logistics and supply management they’ve been able to reduce costs, and competition at the retail level has translated that into lower prices. Retail chain expansion has increased the availability of products to consumers, stimulating consumption.

At the same time, bigger retailers means fewer potential buyers. The resulting increase in buyer power is an issue for smaller producers in developing countries. FAO has a number of activities supporting this sector in entering into international marketing channels.

Big retailers are shaping the industry in other ways – for example setting tough standards related to quality and the environmental impacts of the fish they buy, which has placed new demands on producers and exporters.

There’s actually a bit of confusion swirling around such standards – there are quite a few, some from industry, others from third-party certifying agencies, others from governments – and interest is growing in the idea of somehow reconciling them and coming up with one manageable and fair international standard.

Globalization has completely changed what kind of fish is being consumed, who eats it, and where it comes from, hasn’t it?

Yes. In developed countries people are eating more fish because awareness of its presumed health benefits has spread. This extra demand is being met by supplies from abroad. In developing countries where 80 percent of total production takes place, aquaculture has risen to become the fastest growing food production sector in the world. This enables consumers to buy wholesome, nutritional and safe fisheries products at affordable prices. Prices have also come down compared to earlier decades, despite some recent increases due to rising energy and feed costs.

And a greater variety of fish is being consumed. Fisheries production chains now span the globe and are more sophisticated than ever before –you can go to your local supermarket in the morning and buy a fresh, high-quality fillet that’s come in from someplace far off overseas overnight.

From where?

By and large, from the developing world, which accounted for half of all fish exports (value) in 2006. Conversely, developed countries accounted for 62 percent of all fish imports, looking at weight. In value terms, the overall value of fish imports in 2006 was US$90 billion, and developed countries accounted for 80% of that because they’re particularly importing higher value products like shrimp or salmon.

This trade involves significant benefits for poor countries – their net export revenues from fish trade currently run around US$25 billion. This means jobs and income – not only in the fishing and aquaculture sector but in fish preparation and processing, or supply and transport or other related sectors – and is also a source of revenues for governments. So in addition to making crucial contributions to nutrition and protein intake in the developing world, fisheries and aquaculture boosting food security there in this way, too.

What about concerns regarding wild fish stocks. Can they support this level of activity?

No, not all of them. Some stocks can produce more fish. Others are producing at the level they should be and should not be fished more. Still others are overfished and harvesting there should be curtailed or stopped.

Increased demand for fish to supply international markets can sometimes result in excessive fishing pressure, potentially leading to the over-exploitation and wasteful use of some fish stocks and thereby exacerbating the consequences of ineffective fisheries management regions. This can impact on food security, especially where there is a high dependence on fish in the diet.

So it’s a question of good management. With responsible and rational management, fisheries -- and aquaculture -- can continue to make their contributions to trade, supporting livelihoods, reducing poverty, improving nutrition and strengthening food security. We have to remember that fisheries management is more than just about fish; it is about people as well, their livelihoods and their incentives to fish.

What does responsible management look like?

At FAO we think that we have a pretty good blueprint for it in our Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. We'd like to see countries do more to more vigorously incorporate the tenets of the Code into their fishing and aquaculture practices.

We've also been working on a set of technical guidelines for responsible fish trade which we are hoping to see countries endorse at the upcoming meeting of our COFI Sub-Committee in Fish Trade in June (see link to right). And these will become part of the Code of Conduct. The basic idea is that international trade in fish should not compromise the sustainable development of fisheries and the responsible utilization of living aquatic resources. The goal is healthy, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture which are capable of supplying fish to the world population and supporting this important trade sector.

At the same time, FAO’s also been working a great deal on the issue of certification of fish products and standards for eco-labels – and on helping countries improve management and trade responsibly -- so that developing countries can continue to participate in international trade of fish.

For more on FAO’s work on these issues, see the links at the upper right.


George Kourous
Media Relations, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53168
(+39) 348 141 6802

Photo: ©FAO/G. Bizzarri

Properly managed, fish exports help support livelihoods and can boost food security in developing countries.


Documents from upcoming meeting of the COFI Sub-Committee on Fish Trade

Fact sheet on the global fish trade

Photo: ©FAO/G. Napolitano

FAO's Grimur Valdimarsson.

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Q&A: International trade in fish products expanding
Complex, globe-spanning seafood industry offers poor countries opportunities
22 May 2008 - In this Q&A interview FAO expert Grimur Valdimarsson talks about international trade in fish products, the global seafood industry, and what they mean for developing countries and the environment.
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