Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Main ethical issues in fisheries

The principal ethical issues in fisheries relate broadly to human and ecosystem well-being (see Box, below). This section provides a short overview of some of the most important ones: poverty; the right to food; and overfishing and ecosystem degradation. These sector-specific issues include a number of subsidiary ones, e.g. the equity of fish distribution; the real or perceived dangers of genetic modification (FAO/WHO, 2003); and the catching and discarding of unwanted species, including emblematic species.

Problems are compounded by contextual changes related, for example, to climate change or globalization. The latter is a complex, multidimensional and pervasive process characterized, inter alia, by the increasing integration of economies around the world through trade and financial flows. It raises a number of ethical issues relating to, inter alia: (i) the risk of losing cultural identity and diversity in fishing communities; (ii) the risk of further degradation of biodiversity and fishery resources; (iii) the difficulty of trying to satisfy a broader range of stakeholders explicitly; and (iv) the negative consequences on efforts to reduce poverty, increase food security and guarantee justice and social peace from: the widening gap between most and least endowed; the concentration of economic power in large-scale fishing corporations; and the removal of trade barriers. These and other ethical issues of importance to fisheries will be addressed specifically in future FAO publications.

Dimensions of the ethics of fisheries




Ecosystem well-being

Fish stocks



Responsible fisheries, sustainable development


Safety on board, freedom and well-being, just access

Fishing communities

Eradication of poverty, cultural diversity

Other stakeholders

Cross-sectoral equity, societal efficiency


Right to food, food safety


Transparent policies, public deliberation


Fisheries constitute an important source of livelihood for millions of people. Nearly 35 million fishers are directly engaged in fishing and fish farming as a full-time (i.e. where fishers receive 90 percent or more of their livelihood from fishing) or part-time occupation (FAO, 2002). Fishers are particularly concentrated in developing countries, where about 95 percent of the world's fishers live, and in Asia as a whole, where approximately 85 percent reside. Fisheries policies that erode the economic foundations of fishers' communities will be more consequential in remote and rural areas of developing countries, where vastly more people rely on fisheries and where many fewer alternative sources of livelihood exist.

In many highly populated Asian countries, artisanal fishing families are among the most socially, economically and politically disadvantaged segments of the population and maintain a status comparable to that of landless labourers or marginal farmers. Deprivation is so severe that the basic needs of life are hardly met at the minimum level necessary for survival. Malnutrition is common, infant mortality is high, and chronic sickness and disease result in very low life expectancies. Conditions are similar in several areas of Africa and Latin America. However, small-scale fishing families are generally better off on these continents, even if the average income levels in small-scale fisheries are often below the official poverty lines.

According to FAO estimates, the number of poor small-scale fishers and related employees in marine and inland capture fisheries is 5.8 million, representing 20 percent of the world's 29 million fishers, and they earn less than US$1 a day.
There may be as many as 17.3 million income-poor people in related upstream and downstream activities, e.g. boat-building, marketing and processing. These figures suggest an overall estimate of 23 million income-poor people, plus their household dependents, who rely on small-scale fisheries for their livelihoods (FAO, 2002).

Small-scale fisheries often find themselves in growing competition with industrial fisheries for space, resources, inputs (labour and finances) and markets, with a strong impact on incomes distribution. The suppliers of fishing inputs may become better off, as may the consumers of fish. Small-scale fishers, on the other hand, may become increasingly uncompetitive and may eventually find their sources of livelihood severely compromised. In South and Southeast Asia, the fishing industry has been increasingly overtaken by large companies. As a result, fisheries employment opportunities have been shifted to urban areas, and opportunities in rural areas have declined, e.g. for the women who traditionally play important roles in processing, marketing and distributing the catch. This has resulted in a feeling of "hopelessness and despair or feelings of anger" among fishers, particularly small-scale fishers (Chong, 1994).

The right to food

Fish is a major source of both livelihood and nutrition for millions of the world's poorest people

FAO/21700/K. PRATT

A renewed focus on the right to food has been one of the constructive responses to the state of poverty in the world. As a response to persistent and widespread hunger, the 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action reaffirmed the right of everyone to adequate food and the fundamental right to be free from hunger, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[3] of the United Nations General Assembly and in other relevant international and regional instruments. They urged that particular attention be paid to the implementation and full and progressive realization of these rights as a means of achieving food security for all. In 2002, FAO established an Intergovernmental Working Group for the elaboration of a set of guidelines on the right to food. In 2004, the FAO Council adopted the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security.

Fish is a major source of both livelihood and nutrition for millions of the world's poorest people. In 2001, more than 48 percent of the world population (close to 3 billion people) obtained 15-25 percent of their proteins from fisheries, and more than 400 million people received more than 50 percent of their proteins from fisheries (FAO, 2004). The latter include the poorest people in coastal rural areas and small island developing states for whom a decrease in fish catch often means an immediate loss in sources of food and calorie intake.

In many parts of the world, traditional ways of ensuring the right to adequate food have been affected and often eroded, inter alia, by the weakening of social and cultural ties, caused by the break-up of traditional family units; accelerated urbanization; and the globalization of markets, information and culture. Technological developments, as well as changes in trade and markets, have radically altered, and internationalized, many aspects of local fisheries. These changes have certainly resulted in economic benefits for a large number of people and, in some instances, in a more efficient use of the resource. But they have also brought about a shift from highly dispersed, largely rural, labour-intensive small-scale fishing operations to centralized, urban or peri-urban, capital-intensive industrial fisheries. This shift has also affected sectors such as fish processing, distribution and marketing and amplified negative consequences to employment, income and food security of the rural poor.

During the past two decades, technology and trade have not only changed many traditional forms of production, processing and distribution, but they have also created conflicts over resource access and use. The significant increase in the volume of international fish trade is raising concern for poor people and the aquatic environment. Gains in productivity and efficiency at local levels, alone, cannot solve the problem of the poor; significant improvements to governance, as well as trade and market policies, are also needed.

The changing state of fisheries resources, the economic climate and environmental conditions have resulted in fluctuations in fish supply and demand, but fisheries and aquaculture continue to be a significant source of food, employment and revenue for many countries and communities.[4]

Overfishing and ecosystem degradation

Sustainable fisheries must coexist with healthy ecosystems

FAO/17361/K. DUNN

The decline in fish stocks poses a disturbing, and potentially dangerous, threat to life in the ocean. Biodiversity is threatened by unsustainable fisheries and increasing pollution. Entire ecosystems may be degraded, and even destroyed, by human intervention. Depletion of fish stocks results in a decrease in food supply from the sea, economic loss, hardship to fishers and disruption of traditional ways of life. Overfishing thus threatens the ecosystem, the sustainable use of fishing grounds and the livelihood of fishing communities.

FAO indicates that about 50 percent of global marine fisheries resources are fully exploited, 25 percent are overexploited, and about 25 percent could, as it seems, support higher rates of exploitation (FAO, 2005a). According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, 76 stocks were determined to be overfished in waters of the United States of America (NMFS, 2004). On a global level, in addition to what is harvested, during the past decade, over 7 million tonnes of fish - about 8 percent of the global catch - have been killed and discarded yearly by fishers using insufficiently selective gear (FAO, 2005b).

It should be noted that ethical issues related to the ecosystem are considered here mainly in relation to its sustainable use by present and future generations and not in relation to any intrinsic value of the ecosystem. This study does not, for example, consider in any way issues that might arise from the ethics of animal welfare.[5]

Moral imperatives

The state of world fisheries presents us with pressing ecological, economic, social and political challenges with significant ethical implications. For example, the depletion of a nation's fishery resources represents a moral failure by society to maintain the natural environment and its productivity. It compromises food security, threatening vulnerable communities in particular, and reduces the livelihood opportunities of future generations. The contamination, by pollution, of an otherwise extremely healthy source of food, reducing food safety and threatening human health, is another indication of moral failure in relation to both present and future generations.

Re-establishing the sustainability of fisheries requires, inter alia, that the right of access to resources be limited. However, changes in ownership and access to fishing stocks take place in the context of dominant special interests. These interests may breed social injustice and compromise the livelihoods of traditional fishers and fishing communities, if not undermine the fundamental right to determine one's life.

A key theme of an ethical analysis of fisheries will concern the moral consequences of a system of restricted access for fishers and fishing communities. More generally, a systematic integration of the ethical dimension into the analysis of the fisheries situation will require a general understanding of ethics and a specific analysis of fisheries ethics, e.g. as reflected in the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

It bears mention that the implementation of moral principles is culture-dependent. While many of the basic concepts are essentially axioms, global, generalized prescriptions can only be developed through intensive mechanisms of consultation aimed at identifying the widest common base possible. The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries emerged from a large participatory international process and contains, de facto, a number of agreed global ethical principles for fisheries.

[2] Article 25(1)
[3] Article 11
[4] This is illustrated by the fact that, since the mid-1990s, the reported capture fisheries production has remained relatively stable, at around 90-95 million tonnes per year. Most of the total production increase during this period has come from aquaculture (FAO, 2002).
[5] Discussion on animal welfare is fairly developed with respect to domestic pet animals (e.g. dogs and cats) and is slowly emerging in relation to animal farming and slaughtering, as well as wild animal conservation (e.g. in reserves, parks, zoos). It is beginning to be considered in relation to farmed fish and experimental protocols (e.g. fish tagging), but relevant discussion is sparse for capture fisheries. Animal welfare, which will probably play a larger role in ethical discussion in the future, is not considered further in the study.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page