Fisheries and fishing policies deeply affect the living conditions of people in many parts of the world. Since ancient times, fishing has been a very important source of food, employment and economic and social benefits, as well as a foundation for great cultures. Despite centuries-old recognition that natural common resources can be depleted, fishery resources were, until recently, treated de facto as if inexhaustible, with little regard for environmental consequences. In the face of growing international demand for fish and fish products, world fisheries became a "market-driven" and dynamically developing sector of the food industry. From the early 1970s, and with the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982, coastal states endeavoured to take advantage of new opportunities to develop their newly acquired exclusive economic zone (EEZ), investing heavily in modern fishing fleets and processing factories.
However, during this period it became globally clear that fisheries resources could no longer sustain the rapid and often uncontrolled exploitation and development, and new approaches of conservation and environmental consideration would be needed (FAO, 1993). Awareness increased rapidly with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, the Millennium Assembly of the United Nations in 2000 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002.
The need to integrate bio-ecological, socio-cultural, legal, institutional and techno-economic considerations into discussion on fisheries resources has been widely accepted. An effort is now being made to articulate the ethical dimensions of the sustainable development of fisheries as an important part of this awareness.
The degree to which fisheries act responsibly should be judged against the principles and criteria of the sustainable use of natural renewable resources and, in particular, their contribution to human and ecosystem well-being. Evidence indicates that, in many areas, fishing management is failing on both counts (Cochrane, 2000). In some cases, fish stocks have collapsed, and the majority are at the limits of their biological productivity or are severely overutilized (Garcia and Newton, 1997; FAO, 2005a). Although aggressive exploitation has, in some areas, resulted in economic benefits, conservative estimates indicate that the global system has been operating at a total deficit of US$14.5-20.0 billion per year (Milazzo, 1998). The system is, therefore, not operating in a sustainable and efficient manner. Furthermore, although largely geared towards full employment and social peace, the management of fisheries runs short of providing social benefits to the extent it could and should.
Fisheries policy and management have mainly been considered from ecological, technological and socio-economic standpoints. Some of the key issues related to human, scientific or environmental ethics have been addressed implicitly from these standpoints. In many cases, however, they have been largely ignored, e.g. in the slowly developing field of animal welfare. There is no explicit framework for dealing with ethical concerns, despite their potential significant contribution to solving the problems faced by fisheries and fishing communities.
To address the ethical issues broadly raised by FAO (2001a) in food and agriculture in the specific area of fisheries, this document will substantiate and suggest ways to implement ethical principles drawn from agreed international instruments in the management of fisheries. The document starts with a general introduction to the role and scope of ethics, exploring themes that pertain to fisheries ethics. It follows with an outline of the main ethical issues in fisheries and the moral imperatives to which they give rise. After recalling briefly the institutional foundations of fisheries policies, it presents a holistic ethical approach for addressing, in more detail, the numerous ethical issues associated with fisheries, paying special attention to the effects of fisheries management and development strategies and social policy upon people's living conditions.