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George Kent
Professor, Department of Political Science
University of Hawaii, USA


In global fish trade, large volumes of fish are exported from poorer countries to richer countries. This trade can affect food security in different ways for different parties, depending on the particular local circumstances. In assessing the impacts of fisheries trade on food security, it is important to distinguish among the impacts on fish workers and their communities, on the general population, and on the poor, who are the most vulnerable to malnutrition. The benefits of fisheries trade are likely to be enjoyed primarily by those whose are already well off. The poor may benefit, but they may also be hurt. At times the harm may be quite direct, as when fish on which they had depended for their diet is diverted to overseas markets. At times the impacts may be indirect, as when export oriented fisheries deplete or otherwise harm fisheries that had traditionally been used to provide for local consumption. Export-oriented fisheries may divert resources such as labor and capital away from production for local consumption. Fish workers may benefit from new export oriented fisheries if they participate in them, but in some cases these workers are simply displaced from their traditional livelihoods. The human right to adequate food is now well articulated in international human rights law. Under this law, national governments and other agencies are required to respect, protect, facilitate, and fulfill the right to adequate food. This means that public agencies that oversee the management of fisheries, including fish trade, are obligated to assure that these activities contribute to the achievement of food security, especially for those who are most vulnerable to malnutrition. To this end, it would be useful for the international community to provide guidance on how this can be done. The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries could be elaborated to provide this guidance, giving particular attention to the impacts of fish trade on food security.


International trade in fish products, like other kinds of trade, is sometimes assumed to benefit all who are involved, but there are conditions in which it can have negative impacts, including increasing food insecurity. In some cases fish trade can make a substantial positive contribution to food security. The human right to adequate food, articulated with increasing clarity over the last decade, can point the way to addressing these concerns. This study examines the relationships among fish trade, food security, and the human right to adequate food. These relationships are then assessed in terms of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which sets out the prevailing normative framework for fisheries, and the World Trade Organization, which sets out the normative framework for international trade in general. Trade here is used to refer specifically to international trade.


Fisheries production from all sources reached 125 million tonnes in 1999, including about 92 million tonnes of capture fisheries and 33 millions tonnes from aquaculture. About 30 million tonnes were reduced to animal feed or oil. Thus, the availability of fish for human consumption was about 15.8 kg per capita, live weight equivalent (FAO, 2001). In 2000, total production reached a new high of 130 million tonnes, mainly reflecting enormous gains in aquaculture. China alone accounted for 69 percent of the world’s total aquaculture production. If China were to be excluded, total world production of fisheries products would remain about what it was in 1995 (FAO, 2002a). FAO describes fish trade flows as follows:

Figure 1. Trade in Fisheries Products

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food and Agriculture 2002, (Rome: FAO, 2002) at

For each year, the bar on the left represents exports, while the bar on the right represents imports. The chart shows very clearly that the developing countries are net exporters while the developed countries are net importers.

This pattern can be seen in another way in Figure 2, which shows that in 1997 developing areas accounted for 51 percent of exports, but only 17 percent of imports. The European Union, Japan, and the United States together accounted for 75 percent of imports.

Figure 2. Share (by value) of major markets in total international trade in 1997

Source: Grímur Valdimarsson and David James, “World Fisheries-Utilization of Catches”, Ocean & Coastal Management, Vol. 44 (2001), pp. 619-633.


Fisheries products constitute a major portion of the animal protein in many people’s diets. As we can see from Figure 3, fish consumption is especially high in parts of Asia.

Figure 3. The Supply of Fish and Fishery Products

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food and Agriculture 2002, (Rome: FAO, 2002) at

How are patterns of consumption of fisheries resources related to food security? The FAO uses the definition of food security adopted at the World Food Summit of 1996: Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (FIVIMS, 2002).

Food security is concerned with questions relating to the food supply. Nutrition status depends not only on suitable food but also on good basic health services and, particularly for children and the elderly, adequate care. Malnutrition generally results not from a lack of food in the community (limited availability), but from the skewed distribution of the food that is available. Some people may get too little food overall, or they may get too little diversity in their diets, and thus inadequate supplies of particular nutrients. The skew results because some people are too poor or too powerless to make an adequate claim on the food that is available (limited access). Even within the family, food supplies tend to favour those who are more powerful, particularly adult males, with the result that children may be malnourished even when household food supplies are adequate.

FAO recognizes that fish plays an important role in assuring food security, and sees that trade can be problematic: The developing countries are also taking a growing share of the international trade in fish and fishery products. This may have both benefits and drawbacks. While the exports earn them valuable foreign exchange, the diversion of fish and fish products from local communities and developing regions can deprive needy people, including children, of a traditionally cheap, but highly nutritious food (FAO, 2002b).

The possibility of diversion of fish products away from the needy is a serious matter. However, one should also give attention to the distribution of economic benefits. While “developing countries are also taking a growing share of the international trade...”, this does not necessarily mean that the poor are getting an increasingly large share of the benefits. In many cases it is rich countries, or more importantly, rich companies, that harvest the benefits, doing it through, but not for, poor countries and poor people.

There are three major issues that arise in the relationship between fisheries and food security: the nutrition status of those who work in fishing, overall fish food supplies, and fish food supplies for the poor. The emphasis here will be on the last of these.

Food Security of Fish Workers

Some people do well in fish production, processing, and marketing, but many are left behind. Many fishing families are poor and thus are at risk of malnutrition. In a study of fishing villages in West Sumatra, Indonesia, for example, it was found that more than half the children of fishing families were stunted (Gross, 1993). A study of fishing villages in India showed high levels of infant mortality (Kumary, 1991). The quality of life in many fishing communities is low. There has been little hard research on nutrition status in such communities, but there is no doubt that many suffer from poor nutrition.

In industrial fisheries many of the labourers on the boats and in the factories have very low incomes. In non-industrial fisheries, especially in coastal fishing communities, low productivity, low prices, poor environmental conditions, weak property rights and interventions by trawlers and other outsiders, combine to keep fishing people poor. This poverty of fish workers together with other associated disadvantages in both industrial and non-industrial operations makes them vulnerable to malnutrition. In fisheries as in agriculture, paradoxically, it is often those who produce food who are among the most seriously malnourished.

Fish workers can be either helped or harmed by fisheries trade. If they become involved in the export trade, they are likely to gain from it. They are likely to be hurt if export-oriented fisheries, run by others, displace them from their traditional livelihoods. The likelihood of their being hurt is likely to be much lower if they are involved in the decision-making relating to the introduction of export-oriented operations. Local fisher workers are almost inevitably hurt when imported fish displaces their products in the local marketplace.

There are low-income fish workers in rich countries as well as poor countries, and they too can be helped or hurt by fisheries trade. In the United States, for example, many people who run shrimp boats have relatively low income. With recent “dumping” of low-priced imported shrimp into USA markets, their incomes are falling even lower. In some cases they may have difficulty feeding their families.

Overall Fish Food Supplies

Fish is a significant component of the diet for many people around the world. However, it is not always possible to maintain the supply so that consumers can continue to have the amount and quality of fisheries products to which they are accustomed. Many fisheries have declined sharply or collapsed altogether in recent years, a phenomenon that is not visible in the grand totals because other fisheries have been opened or expanded. There has been widespread over-fishing in coastal and shelf areas, and also on the high seas. Fisheries are endangered not only by over-fishing but also by pollution and other environmental stresses in spawning and feeding areas along the coasts. Mangrove forests are being destroyed, and coral reefs are being mined or enveloped by sediment deposits. Overall marine production has been declining slightly, but there has been compensation in the rapid increase of inland production and aquaculture. Some of the deterioration is in quality rather than quantity, and shows up more in declining prices than in declining volumes. Excess fishing capacity, mainly in the form of large-scale vessels, has produced enormous pressure on the world’s fish stocks, resulting in commercial extinction in many cases. Coastal fisheries also are being over fished because many national governments are not controlling access to these resources adequately.

More than a third of the total world catch goes into international trade. About 70 percent of the total is for human consumption, while the rest is used for other purposes, primarily animal feed, fertilizer, and oils.

Fish food supplies to any nation or region are estimated on the basis of production of fish for food purposes from all sources (inland or marine), plus imports minus exports. On a per capita basis, people in developing nations have average supplies of about three times as much as people in developed nations.

The supply of fish available for human consumption increased to 16.38 kg per capita in 2000. However, with China excluded, the global pattern is one of reduction in supply, from 13.36 kg in 1995 to 12.75 kg in 2000 (FAO, 2002a). The growth in supply is not keeping up with the growth in demand. With demand outrunning supply, prices go up, and the increasing pressure on the resources means that often the environment is pushed to or beyond its limits of sustainable production. Future supplies are put at risk.

Under any management system, if overall supplies dwindle and prices increase, the food security of people in general will be threatened. This is already evident in nations such as India and the Philippines in which many middle class people feel they can no longer afford to have fish as part of their regular diets. These nations may foreshadow what will become a serious global problem.

In Europe there has been a tension between trade liberalization for fish, which means lowering tariff barriers for imports, and “security of supply” for the European market, which has been understood to mean higher tariffs to reduce fish imports. The call for security of supply appears to have been driven more by concern for protection of the fishing industry than for the food security of the general population (Guillotreau, 2000).

Fish Supplies for the Poor

Food insecurity is associated with difficulties in obtaining the food that people want to have or are accustomed to having. For people with abundant alternatives, the risk of having less fish or lower quality fish may be little more than an annoyance. They are not at risk of serious malnutrition. However, for poor people who are highly dependent on fish in their diets, insecurity with regard to fish food supplies may mean they are exposed to the possibility of real harm. When fish supplies are short and prices go up, poor consumers are forced to shift to inferior foods, and their already monotonous diets become even less varied, putting them at risk of missing important micronutrients. When people whose budgets are largely devoted to food face a large increase in the cost of one of their major foods, they may not become clinically malnourished, but they do become worse off economically as well as in nutritive terms. Fish used to be known as poor people’s food, but as fish supplies decline, it tends to disappear first from the plates of the poor.

Efforts that focus simply on increasing overall food supplies by increasing productivity - whether in agriculture, fishing, or aquaculture operations - are not likely to contribute to the alleviation of malnutrition. When new food supplies go to those who are better off, a nation's average per capita consumption level may increase while at the same time there is no increase in consumption by the poor. Fisheries products, like other foods, tend to move toward those who can pay for them.

While people in developed nations consume more fish than those in developing nations, they consume more of everything, so they cannot be said to depend on that fish. The importance of fish in the diet can be estimated by the extent to which it accounts for the animal protein supply, as indicated in FAO’s Food Balance Sheets. The range is great, from the Maldives in which fish provides more than 96 percent of the animal protein, to inland nations such as Afghanistan where fish is of negligible importance.

Figure 4 shows the association between average income levels, measured as gross domestic product per capita, and dependency on fish, measured as the degree to which fish constitutes a share of the animal protein supply. While poor people are not the biggest consumers of fish, they are most dependent on it. People in developing nations tend to be more dependent on fish in the diet than people in developed nations. The only developed nation for which fish provides more than 25 percent of the animal protein supply is Japan.

Figure 4. Dependence on Fish vs. Income Level

Source: George Kent, “Fisheries, Food Security, and the Poor”, Food Policy, Vol. 22, No. 5 (1997), pp. 393-404.

With so many poor people highly dependent on fish, it is a matter of serious concern when their per capita supply decreases over time. In the decade from 1978-80 to 1988-90, fish food supply per capita increased by 27.7 percent in North and Central America, and by about 23 percent in Europe and Asia. In Africa, however, the per capita supply decreased by 2.9 percent, and in South America it decreased by 7.9 percent. There were decreases in per capita supply of more than 25 percent in Benin, Burundi, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Iraq, Malaysia, Syria, Yemen, Costa Rica, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Bolivia, Colombia, Suriname, Uruguay, and Vanuatu (World Resources 1994, pp. 352-353).

Between 1961 and 1990 the fish food supply per capita declined rather steadily in Bangladesh, Jamaica, Laos, Lebanon, Mauritania, Suriname, and Zambia. Figure 5 shows how the overall fish supply per capita fell, together with falling total animal protein supply, in Bangladesh. Clearly, the declining supply of fish was not replaced with other forms of animal protein.

Figure 5. Fish and Animal Protein Supply in Bangladesh

Source: George Kent, “Fisheries, Food Security, and the Poor”, Food Policy, Vol. 22, No. 5 (1997), pp. 393-404.

The weakening of the world’s fish supplies is important for fish consumers generally, but its greatest impact is on poor consumers. There is a cruel asymmetry in the relationship between overall fish food supplies and its impact on consumers. When supplies increase, most of the benefit is likely to go to those who are well off. Supply increases may or may not benefit the poor, depending on the particular local circumstances. However, when fish food supplies decrease, harm to the poor in terms of deteriorating quantities and qualities and increasing prices is virtually inevitable. Thus, as fish food supplies begin to deteriorate, the impacts on the poor should be a matter of grave concern.

FAO has recognized the gloomy prospects:

FAO acknowledged that the impact would not be distributed uniformly:

Unfortunately, the FAO’s initial response to this fundamental problem was limited:

If the response was simply to increase production, the effort would naturally gravitate toward the most profitable products. Consider that, at the daily tuna auction in Tokyo it is not unusual to see a single giant bluefin tuna sell for $ 30 000. A few years ago, one giant sold for $ 83 500... Only a tiny percentage of the Japanese population can afford good toro, which costs about $ 75 for two bite-size pieces.. (Seabrook 1994).

Thirty thousand dollars could buy a lot of basic fish (e.g., small pelagics) to serve as food for the needy, or even the middle class, rather than for the rich. Of course that does not happen, because fisheries are managed primarily to maximize incomes to their owners. Other possible motivations such as nutritional benefits, protection and enhancement of the environment, the creation of employment opportunities, the alleviation of poverty, and other values are secondary - and understandably so. We should not be under any illusion that the major purpose of fishing (or other forms of food production, such as farming) is to meet nutritional needs.

Most fisheries development efforts focus on industrial fisheries, especially those that are export oriented. However, as the World Bank acknowledges, “small-scale fisheries provide most of the fish consumed by people in developing nations.” Moreover, the Bank points out that for each calorie of food output, coastal fishing uses only one-fifth the fuel that deep-sea fishing requires (Sfeir-Younis, 1982). Small-scale fishing also requires less capital, produces more employment opportunities per unit of capital, and yields a broader distribution of benefits than industrial fishing. Thus, if nutrition is a significant concern in fisheries management, more attention should be paid to the contribution of non-industrial operations.

Large-scale fishing operations yield large revenues, but small-scale fishing operations can yield great nutritional benefits. In some areas small-scale fishing produces more tonnage - overall, than industrial fisheries. In the Philippines, for example, municipal fishers account for 50 percent more production than commercial fishers (World Bank, 1989). The small-scale operators undoubtedly provide a much higher proportion of the fish food supply for the poor. Thus, while economic efficiency may motivate large-scale operations focused on producing for international trade, considerations of social efficiency should motivate support from national and international agencies for small-scale operations that provide fish for local communities.

Historically, most intensive aquaculture operations have served high-income consumers (Kent, 1986b). Now, however, China’s strong performance suggests that aquaculture can be turned to serve low-income consumers on a large scale. Projections for the future suggest that “aquaculture supplies a large share of the low value food fish consumed by the poor, and that investing in improving the productivity and sustainability of low value food fish aquaculture is a good way of making it more obtainable by the poor (Delgado, 2002, p.19).” However, aquaculture’s contribution to food for the poor is likely to occur primarily through production for local consumption. Since shipping is costly, export-oriented aquaculture is likely to continue to serve high-income consumers.


While the preceding section provided an overview of the relationships between fish supplies and food security, this section explores the impacts of fish trade in particular on food security. By enlarging markets, trade promotion has contributed to the expansion of overall fish food supplies. Indeed it contributes to the over-expansion of production in the sense that excessive harvesting leads to destruction of the productive environment. Here, however, we are concerned primarily with the impacts of trade on food security.

International trade in fisheries products has been growing rapidly. The growth in exports has been more rapid for the developing nations than for the developed nations. Developed nations consistently account for over 80 percent of the imports in terms of value, and close to 80 percent in terms of quantity. Much of the trade is in high-value products such as shrimp, tuna, squid, and salmon, but fishmeal is also a significant factor in international trade.

Food trade follows the pattern of international trade generally. Most trade is between richer countries. There is relatively little trade among poorer countries. In the trade between richer countries and poorer countries, on balance, the flow of food is from poor to rich. The general pattern is that the poor feed the rich (Kent, 1985; Kent, 2002). Fish trade follows the same pattern, except that a far larger share of the trade in fish goes from poor to rich than for any other major food commodity that is traded internationally (Kent, 1983; Kent, 1995). As experts have observed, “Fish and fishery products have become the most international of all foodstuffs as between 30 percent and 40 percent of fish is at present traded on the global market (Valdimarsson, 2001, p. 632).”

The developed nations import more fish than they export, while the developing nations export more than they import. This means there is a net flow from developing to developed nations. Whether this should be viewed as problematic, remains a matter for debate. As advocates of the free market would point out, the poor nations are paid for this fish, and they would not engage in this production and export unless they saw it as advantageous. More specifically, those who feel the prevailing pattern of fish trade is not problematic point out that:

Critics of the trade raise different points:

In some ways both the advocates and the critics of fish trade are correct. Increasing foreign exchange earnings is of particular interest to governments and to the richer people within poor nations. When a nation shifts to increasing export-orientation in its fishing operations, the benefits are likely to shift from poorer toward richer people within the nation. Thus, such a shift can result in a net gain of benefits to the nation as a whole, but a net loss to the poor. In principle it is possible to compensate for this negative effect with transfer payments to those who are harmed. The difficulty is that the poor, being politically weak, have limited ability to press for such transfer payments.

There are cases in which the export-orientation strongly affects food supplies for the poor, and particularly for fishing communities. Anthropologist James McGoodwin illustrates: In the rural shrimp fishing community of Pacific Mexico that I have studied for many years, for instance, late summer often finds many of the local inhabitants close to starvation. There are no agricultural harvests, and the government closes the most important inshore fishing grounds to protect juvenile shrimp for later harvest by exporters. Furthermore, nearly all the local fishers are excluded from participating in the export industry because their “artisanal” mode of production is seen as too unproductive, inefficient, and extensive (McGoodwin, 1990, p. 196).

Declines in per capita supply of fish food can be associated with increases in fisheries exports in various ways. In some cases, it could be a simple matter of redirecting products that had been consumed locally to buyers abroad who are willing to pay more for the products. Often, however, the linkages between exports and domestic supplies are more complicated than that. The export product may be a product like, say, shrimp or tuna, for which there is little demand in the exporting nation. But there may be a linkage in that producers of shrimp for export now dominate coastal areas that previously had been used as a source of locally consumed products. Or it may be that small fish that had been consumed by villagers along the coast are now being taken for use as bait or for culturing by export-oriented operations. Or it may be that the government, interested in increasing its foreign exchange, invests far more of its energy and resources into promoting export fisheries than into promoting fisheries that would supply local consumers.

Increasing exports can result in declining fish food supplies in all these ways. While export orientation can be a serious problem in particular locations, overall the evidence does not support the generalization that the developed nations of the world are draining the developing nations of their basic fish food supplies through trade. Where fish food supplies per capita are declining, it is likely to be due primarily to increases in population size or deteriorating production, not to the diversion of products that had been consumed locally. In Bangladesh, for example, while it is true that exports have been rising steadily, in 1990, Bangladesh’s fisheries exports still amounted to only about 3.3 percent of its total production. It appears that in most nations increasing exports usually come from new production, not from the diversion of fisheries products that had been consumed locally.

In the 1980s exports generally increased in Malaysia and Suriname even while total production declined, resulting in significant declines in total fish food supply (FAO, 1993b). In places like Senegal, Bangladesh, Mexico, and India, the aggregate data may suggest that exports do little harm to fish food supplies for the country as a whole, but the impact may be serious in particular locations (Kurien, 1993).

Fish trade’s effects on food security are sometimes positive and sometimes negative, depending on circumstances. A large volume of frozen small pelagics, canned fish, and other products is imported into West Africa, including Cameroon, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Zaire, some of which comes from other developing nations in Africa. Under some conditions increasing fish trade among developing nations could yield improved supplies for the poor (FAO, 1993a). However, there is always the possibility that imports into developing nations would be used to supply people of relatively high income in those nations, including visitors.

There is an unfortunate tendency to look only at broad patterns while ignoring specific situations, as illustrated by recent case studies on the relationships between agricultural trade and food security (FAO, 2000a). With highly aggregated studies that look only at broad patterns, it becomes difficult to see that particular cases or particular kinds of cases, may deviate from the dominant pattern. Instead of looking only to determine whether fish trade in general should be promoted, the policy should include provisions for assessing the likely impacts of particular proposed trade arrangements on food security and then basing decisions on that information.

There is no reason for blanket condemnation of fish trade, but by the same token the trade should not be promoted indiscriminately, without regard to its nutritional, environmental, and other impacts. Fish trade should not be maximized; rather, it should be optimized, with several sorts of value considerations taken into account. The Sub-Committee on Fish Trade of FAO’s Committee on Fisheries recognizes that trade promotion should be undertaken “bearing in mind aspects of national and regional food security.” Impacts on nutrition and food security are sometimes taken into account informally, but methods need to be designed for doing that more systematically.


The critics’ perspective is captured in part by the concept of “ecological footprint”, based on the idea that some countries make use of the environmental resources not only within their own borders but in other countries as well. In the words of Earthday Network: A nation's Ecological Footprint is a measure of the amount of productive land area needed to support that nation's consumption and waste. These calculations are based on officially published and peer-reviewed data. They show that in many countries, and for the world as a whole, the demand for nature's services ("ecological capacity") exceeds the amount of nature available. Nations that are not able to support domestic consumption with their own supply of nature are running what is called an ecological deficit. In other words, these countries are either importing ecological capacity from other places around the world, or they are taking it from future generations (Earthday, 2002).

According to their estimates, on the average people in the U.S. have an “ecological deficit” of 10.9 acres, and Japanese average 10 acres. In other words, each Japanese and U.S. citizen is estimated to consume production of 10 acres outside their own countries, placing a higher demand on global resources than any other individuals. This correlates with the fact that in 2000, Japan imported $ 46 billion and the U.S. imported $ 80 billion worth of food. The concept of the ecological footprint is a modernized version of what food analyst George Borgstrom used to describe as “ghost acreage”.

The same sort of argument could be made with respect to fisheries. The fish supply per person in developed countries is almost three times that in developing countries not because of trade but because total production by developed countries is almost three times as high per person. Thus, overall, fisheries exports play only a modest a role in distributing the world’s fisheries resources between rich and poor. However, there are other mechanisms of reallocation at work as well. For example, there is an “invisible” fish trade in the form of livestock and related products. About half the fishmeal produced in the world is exported, much of it going to developed nations to serve as livestock feed. In some cases, though, the livestock-raising process occurs in developing nations, and the finished products are exported to developed nations. Thus, fish can be transferred across borders after transformation into chicken, pork, or even mink coats. Fishmeal and oil may be transformed into other fisheries products through aquaculture operations, in which case the volume of fish exported would be much less than if the fishmeal and oil itself had been exported.

Fish production by developed countries is large partly because they draw from a disproportionately large proportion of the earth’s waters. Under the law of the sea there has been a reallocation of marine resources to the developed nations, in two stages. First, with Exclusive Economic Zones extending out to 200 nautical miles everywhere, developed nations gained larger increases in jurisdiction than developing nations. Second, developing nations, finding that they do not have the capacity to fully exploit their EEZs, license outsiders, including fleets from developed nations, to fish in their waters. When a nation licenses other nations to fish in its waters, these are recorded as catches of the nations whose flags those vessels fly. As a result there has been a significant transfer of control over fisheries resources from developing to developed nations. Foreign fleets take more than a third of the fish caught off the coast of West Africa, licensing results in the effective export, not only of fish but also of jobs.

Fisheries resources beyond the EEZs, on the high seas, are not treated as “the common heritage of all mankind”, but are appropriated by the more powerful nations, those that have the economic and technical capacities to fish in these waters (Kent, 1978).

Many of the fishing vessels that operate under licence in the EEZs of other nations, or on the high seas have the added advantage of heavy subsidies (Milazzo, 1998). As one critic has observed:

Apart from crops and livestock, fisheries sectors are usually vital for coastal developing countries but are often undermined by the subsidies paid by Western governments. European Union subsidies for the sector have led to an increase in the EU’s sophisticated, high-tech fishing fleets, to the detriment of the fisheries sectors of developing countries. Such subsidies are in contradiction with the European Union Treaty which commits the EU to achieving coherence between fisheries policies and the objectives of EU development policy, namely the eradication of poverty (Madeley, 2000, p. 19).

Trade liberalization, together with the industrialization of fisheries (Kent, 1986a), is closely associated with the privatization of what had previously been open access fisheries resources. To illustrate, the management device of “individual transferable quotas” (ITQs) has been used to systematically shift control from the poor to the rich. Consider the experience in Chile: In 2001, the Chilean government instituted a “transitory fishery law” that established individual non-transferable quotas. This law has already enabled the industrial sector to obtain the lion’s share of the quotas.

In the case of one of the largest Chilean fisheries, for horse mackerel (Trachurus murphyii), the industrial fishery sector obtains 98 percent of the global annual quota. The artisanal fishery for horse mackerel is an important source of local food security, while the industrial fishery transforms this fish into meal for animal feed (and takes a large by-catch of species important to the artisanal sector) (O’Riordan, 2002, p. 39).

This illustrates the pattern under which the demand for feed for raising livestock for the rich outweighs the needs of those who cannot make adequate demands in the marketplace to meet their own needs (Kent, 1995).

Thus we see that it is not only trade, but also the law of the sea, licensing, and other management mechanisms that contribute to assuring that people with higher incomes have a disproportionately large claim to the world’s fisheries resources. It is not only a matter of the rich outbidding the poor in the market place; it is also a matter of the rich controlling much of the supply process, including its regulation.


Food security is a basic right: access to an adequate supply of food is the most basic of human needs and rights. Ensuring that their people have enough to eat is not only the moral duty of governments; it is also in their economic and political interest. Hungry people cannot work; hungry children cannot learn. Without a well-nourished, healthy population, development is impossible (FAO, 2002c).

A rights claim of this sort might appear to be little more than a rhetorical flourish. However, as FAO recognizes (FAO, 2002d), the right to adequate food is not only a moral right, it is a clear legal right, firmly established in international human rights law, and ratified by almost every country in the world.

The articulation of the right to food in modern international human rights law arises in the context of the broader human right to an adequate standard of living. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 asserts in article 25(1) that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food...."

Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Politics Rights affirms, "Every human being has the inherent right to life". This clearly implies the right to adequate food and other necessities for sustaining life. The human right to adequate food was affirmed explicitly in two major binding international agreements. In the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which came into force in 1976), article 11 says that "The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing .....", and also recognizes "the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger... "

In the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which came into force in 1990), two articles address the issue of nutrition. Article 24 says that "States Parties recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health...(paragraph 1)" and shall take appropriate measures "to combat disease and malnutrition.. through the provision of adequate nutritious foods, clean drinking water, and health care (paragraph 2c)." Article 27 says in paragraph 3 that States Parties "shall in case of need provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing, and housing."

On May 12, 1999 the UN's Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights released its General Comment 12 on the human right to adequate food (GC12, 1999). This statement by the committee constitutes a definitive contribution to international jurisprudence. The first sentence of paragraph 6 presents the core definition: The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.

Paragraph 14 summarizes the obligations of States as follows: Every State is obliged to ensure for everyone under its jurisdiction access to the minimum essential food which is sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe, to ensure their freedom from hunger.

Paragraph 15 draws out the different kinds or levels of obligations of the state. These obligations may be sorted into categories as follows:

In the context of fisheries, this means for example, that governments must respect the human right to adequate food and thus, the food security of people involved in fisheries, people in communities affected by fishing-related operations, and consumers in general, with particular regard for those most vulnerable to malnutrition. Governments must not take any action that threatens the food security of any of those people. Governments also must protect people from violations of the human right to adequate food by other parties. For example, if trawler operations off the coast, or closing or polluting a body of water, threaten the food security of a community, the government is obligated to intervene to protect that community.

Governments are also obligated to facilitate the realization of the human right to adequate food, and in some cases to directly provide for immediate food needs for people, including people involved in fisheries or living in communities whose food security is threatened by fisheries operations. The contribution of fisheries to the realization of the human right to adequate food, especially for the needy, should be assessed not only in terms of the harms that could be averted, but also in terms of the good that could be done through appropriate fisheries management. There is a human rights obligation not only to do no harm to food security, but also to contribute toward the achievement of basic food security for all.

As indicated earlier, recent developments in the articulation of the human right to adequate food derive from the assertion of the right to an adequate standard of living in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which came into force in 1976. Article 11 of the covenant reads as follows:

The last paragraph means that countries that have ratified this covenant are obligated to consider the impacts of international trade on food security. Paragraph 2, on taking measures through international cooperation, should be read in conjunction with the article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration can be fully realized. Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights says, in its first paragraph “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.”

In describing world fish trade, The State of Food and Agriculture 2002 (FAO, 2002a) highlighted the point that “World import and export figures for fish and fishery products reveal the potential of these products for revenue generation.” One should also examine what the figures reveal about the potential impacts on food security. Fisheries management by governmental agencies at both national and international levels has been more producer oriented than consumer oriented. To the extent that its mandate is to help reduce malnutrition in the world, FAO in particular needs to give more attention to the needs of consumers, especially poor consumers. While private investors understandably assess proposed fisheries projects primarily in terms of the revenue they can generate, international agencies responsible for promoting human development should assess fisheries projects not so much in terms of the amounts of revenue they generate as in terms of the numbers of people they help to achieve food security.


The preceding section discusses human rights primarily as the articulation of norms, guiding decision-making at every level. However, it is important to understand the human rights system in terms of the institutional arrangements for assuring that decision-making bodies do in fact adhere to those norms.

In any well-developed rights system, there are three major roles to be fulfilled: the rights holders, the duty bearers, and the agents of accountability. To describe the system we need to know the identities and the functions of those who carry out these roles, and the mechanisms or structures through which these functions are to be carried out. Thus, we want to know:

The task of the agents of accountability is to make sure that those who have the duty carry out their obligations to those who have the rights.

Thus, if we want sound institutional arrangements for assuring that fish trade respects the human right to adequate food as well as all other human rights, we would need to identify and describe the relevant rights holders, duty bearers, and the agents and mechanisms of accountability.

The rights holders would be all individuals who could be affected by fish trade. They would include those involved in fish-related enterprises (production, processing, and marketing), and also consumers in the general public. Particular attention would be given to low income consumers because of their high vulnerability to food insecurity.

The duty bearers would be all agencies, governmental and nongovernmental, involved in fish trade. Primary responsibility would fall on policymakers in national governments.

The agents and mechanisms of accountability would be those bodies that oversee the duty bearers with regard to the performance of their obligations relating to human rights. Government agencies normally are the primary agents of accountability with regard to fish trade, but nongovernmental organizations like Greenpeace and Oxfam can play important roles as well. Although they do not specialize in fisheries, United Nations human rights bodies, such as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, can play roles as well.

The particular form of the agents and mechanisms of accountability may vary from country to country. In addition to this oversight at the national level, there should be agents and mechanisms of accountability at the global level. This is particularly important for fish trade, since trade is inherently international in character.

There is at present no international agency with an explicit mandate to oversee fish trade in order to assure that it is carried out in a way that meets human rights obligations. A good beginning has been made in the articulation of relevant norms, as described below, but little thought has been given to the design of institutional arrangements that would assure that those norms are respected.


In December 1995, 95 states participated in an International Conference on the Sustainable Contribution of Fisheries to Food Security held in Kyoto, Japan. The conference approved a Declaration and Plan of Action to enhance the contribution of fisheries to the human food security. The needs of the poor were mentioned, but there was little systematic attention to the differences (and linkages) between food security for the population as a whole and food security for those most vulnerable to malnutrition. To illustrate, paragraph 3 of the declaration acknowledged the “shortfall by 2010 of the supply of fish and fishery products to meet demands from an increased human population, which in turn will adversely affect world food security”. This confounds the concept of market demand for fisheries products with the concept of food needs, which is the primary concern of food security. In working to strengthen food security, whether in fisheries or in other sectors, it is important to draw a clear distinction between the two.

It appears that the primary motivation of this conference was to promote the fisheries business. References were made to the human needs for food, but with little sensitivity for the fact that, for many people, those needs cannot be translated into market demand.


Historically, fisheries management has focused on what happens in the water. Processing and marketing generally were seen as beyond the domain of fisheries management. Now, however, the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries has helped to expand the vision of fisheries management, taking into account not only production but also post-harvest practices and trade (article 11). The code was adopted by the Twenty-eighth session of the FAO Conference on October 31, 1995. It has been expanded by four International Plans of Actions and a number of Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries (FAO, 2002e).

The code also expands the vision by enlarging the variety of impacts taken into consideration. For example, there is now a strong appreciation of the importance of environmental impacts, even if that is based principally on the concern for maintaining the sustainability of production, rather than for the protection of the earth’s ecosystem as such.

The code acknowledges at the outset that “From ancient times, fishing has been a major source of food for humanity.. “. Its sixth major objective is to “promote the contribution of fisheries to food security and food quality, giving priority to the nutritional needs of local communities”. Until now, that objective has not been seriously addressed. The code recognizes that fisheries make an important contribution to the world’s food supply, but it shows little appreciation of how and where fisheries make their contribution, or how that contribution might be enhanced, especially for the needy. The section on trade says nothing about food security; perhaps because it was not appreciated that trade can have strong effects on food security. The code’s article 11, on Post-Harvest Practices and Trade, emphasizes trade liberalization in accordance with guidelines of the World Trade Organization.

The code sets out an appropriate framework for giving further attention to these issues. One could perhaps envision a new International Plan of Action or a new Technical Guideline focused on fish and food security, to include a section on the role of trade. This option will be considered after the following discussion on the WTO.


While the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries described above provides the framework for global fisheries management, it is the World Trade Organization that takes the lead responsibility at the global level for the management of international trade generally. Its primary mandate is trade liberalization, based on the steady reduction of tariffs and other barriers to trade.

Several agreements established under the WTO umbrella have some bearing on fish trade. The WTO ministerial meeting held at Doha, Qatar in November 2001 raised three issues of particular relevance to fisheries. First, the final declaration of the meeting spoke of the intention to “clarify and improve WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies”. Second, under “Market Access for Non-Agricultural Products”, which is the WTO category that covers fish trade, the declaration spoke of the need to reduce tariffs. This could be of particular importance for the export of canned and other processed products to the United States and the European Union. Third issue; multilateral environmental agreements, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), have set out specific trade obligations. In the past, the Appellate Body of the WTO upheld the United States position that it could take trade-related measures to protect turtle populations outside its national jurisdiction (Mathew, 2001). None of these initiatives reflected any serious interest in the impacts of fish trade on food security.

The relationships between the code and the WTO are yet to be fully worked out. The WTO has not yet taken a comprehensive look at fisheries in a way that is comparable to the work it did leading up to the Agreement on Agriculture. There has been some speculation that the WTO might someday have a comparable Agreement on Fisheries (Mathew, 2001), but until then we have no distinct WTO principles to guide trade in fisheries.

One can get a sense of how the WTO views food security from a recent study on WTO Agreements & Public Health done jointly by WTO and the World Health Organization (WHO, 2002). Its section on Food Security and Nutrition (pp. 124-127) adopts the definition of food security formulated at the World Food Summit of 1996, quoted above. It then draws a distinction:

National food security is the ability of a country to secure an adequate total supply of food to meet the nutritional needs of its population at all times, through domestic production, food imports and/or the temporary use of national food stocks.

Household food security is the ability of a household to security reliable access to enough food for its members at all times, through its own production (subsistence), market purchases, use of its own stocks and/or public provision.

It is not clear why the definition of national food security speaks about the ability, rather than the fact, of obtaining an adequate supply of food. At a technical level, most countries have the capacity to assure that all their people have enough food, but in many cases they do not get enough because policymakers hold other matters in higher priority. Focusing on ability overlooks the important issue of political will.

Also, as mentioned earlier, in many countries the problem is not one of total supply of food, but of the skewed distribution of the supply that is available. The total supply of food in the world is quite plentiful, but we would not on that basis suggest that all the people of the world are food secure. It would be more useful to say that national food security exists when all households, and indeed, all individuals, are food secure. This would then conform to the basic definition of food security.

Unfortunately, the WHO-WTO authors decided that because of its complexity, they would not discuss household food security, and would instead focus only on national food security. They then assert that “National food security is a concern primarily in countries which rely on imports of basic foods”. The basis for that claim is not evident. The net food-importing developing countries that they list (p. 128, note 4) are not the countries with the highest prevalence of malnutrition (FAO, 2002f). Focusing on food importing countries has the effect of dismissing the substantial levels of food insecurity in other categories of countries. Most importantly, it dismisses the plight of countries that are too poor to import. Even when the prices of their exports are stable, they tend to be low prices, especially in comparison with the prices of their imports. They often suffer from disadvantageous “terms of trade”.

They also assert that national food security “is affected primarily by a country’s ability to earn enough foreign exchange to import the food it needs”. Thus, strategies of self-sufficiency as a means to national food security are dismissed. In fact, imported food is generally (but not always) too expensive for poor people. Local production for local consumption usually is a better means for achieving food security than becoming dependent on food imports.

It is true that “Export agriculture remains a cornerstone of the economies of many developing countries and is the main source of foreign exchange for many low-income countries.” However, this may be true not because of the wisdom of this approach, but because they have no other options. Some countries have become over-dependent on the export of just one or two commodities, so that when their prices fall, their economies crash.

The report says that increasing export growth provides more foreign exchange with which to import food. It does not address the question of whether the foreign exchange would in fact be used to purchase basic foods needed by low-income people rather than purchasing other sorts of goods for middle and high-income people. And they do not discuss why a country might want to use its agricultural resources to produce for export, and then use the foreign exchange to import food, when the agricultural resources could be used to produce basic food for local consumption. There may be reasons to export, but protecting the food security of the poor is not likely to be one of them.

The WTO places its faith in trade liberalization as the means for achieving food security (Mendoza, 2002). Clearly, many critics do not agree (cf. Madeley, 2000; Oxfam, 2002; Phillips, 2001).


There is a need for clear guidelines to help assure that fish trade policies result in positive impacts on food security. This guidance could take many different forms. At the international level, one might imagine a new Fish Trade Convention, perhaps as a variation on the Grains Trade Convention of 1995. Or it might be possible to amend the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture to include fisheries. Or one might instead consider a parallel WTO Agreement on Fisheries. Or if we were very ambitious, we could talk about an entirely new global Agreement on Food Trade, possibly to be lodged in WTO, but also possibly lodged in FAO. One could also consider doing something specifically on fish trade in connection with the new voluntary guidelines on the right to adequate food that are emerging as a result of decisions taken at the World Food Summit: Five Years later (FAO, 2002g).

In the short term, perhaps the most feasible approach would be to formulate a new Technical Guideline to the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. FAO’s Sub-Committee on Fish Trade of the Committee on Fisheries acknowledged at its March 2000 meeting that there was a need to prepare new Technical Guidelines to articles 11.2 and 11.3 of the code (FAO, 2000b).

Draft guidelines were proposed, but they mentioned food security only briefly, in paragraph 77 (FAO, 2000c). The major rights and obligations mentioned were those established under the WTO (e.g., in section 11.2.1). The draft does not explicitly acknowledge human rights. However, it does say, in section 11.2.15: States, aid agencies, multilateral developments banks and other relevant international organizations should ensure that their policies and practices related to the promotion of international fish trade and export production do not result in environmental degradation or adversely impact the nutritional rights and needs of people for whom fish is critical to their health and well-being and for whom other compatible sources of food are not readily available or affordable.

This paragraph speaks only about the obligation to do no harm, and does not speak about the obligation to bring about improvements as well.

If an extension of the code were to be prepared to focus on responsible fish trade, what should it say? On the basis of the analysis offered here, it should consider the following points about fish trade generally:

The section concerned specifically with the impacts of fish trade on food security should consider these points:

The human rights dimensions could be brought out clearly by organizing the new Technical Guideline in terms of (a) clear identification of the different parties affected by fish trade, and specification of their relevant human rights, (b) clear identification of the different agencies that play a role in fish trade, with specification of the duties of different agencies with regard to the relevant human rights, and (c) clear specification of the agencies and mechanisms that will be used to hold the duty bearers accountable.

Trade is not something that should simply be maximized, as if it were an unqualified and unlimited good. Rather, trade should be optimized, with consideration given to a broad range of impacts on many different parties. Moreover, clear distinctions should be made between the roles of private parties involved in trade, and those of governmental and nongovernmental organizations that may be involved.

The primary function of public agencies is not to subsidize private interests, but to promote the full range of interests of the general public, particularly the neediest among them. Public agencies can do this by facilitating the articulation of appropriate norms for the behaviour of governmental and private parties, particular in relation to their obligations with regard to human rights.

Public agencies should also go further, beyond articulating norms, to assure that there are appropriate institutional arrangements to assure that human rights are realized. There is a clear need for institutional mechanisms of accountability at the global level to assure that fish trade makes a positive contribution to food security, especially for those who are most vulnerable.


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