Fisheries accord: a fair catch

OECD Observer

One of the first deals struck in Johannesburg during the World Summit on Sustainable Development was an agreement to do something about the precarious state of the world’s fisheries and oceans.

Hailed by negotiators as an important step toward saving fisheries resources from depletion, the agreement has nonetheless been heavily criticised, particularly by the non-governmental community.

On a general level, the WSSD Plan of Implementation provides several action points that the international or national communities can undertake, for example, signing up to the many international agreements and instruments that deal with fisheries, (e.g. UN convention on the law of the sea, UNCLOS). Nothing new, many will say, but at least it provides an improved political impetus and recognition of what is a serious and growing problem.

Perhaps the most important political commitment is that countries have signed up to restore fish stocks to sustainable levels by 2015. Some would say this is already too late. Yet change is needed that will not seriously upset the social and economic fabric of those coastal communities that depend on their fisheries.

The tools to help us solve the fishing crisis are there. Several road maps exist on possible ways to implement an effective transition to responsible and sustainable fisheries, including the important accompanying social policies. As usual, however, what is missing is not an understanding of the costs and benefits but rather the political courage to get things done. And in this regard, the outcome of the WSSD has given international organisations and the NGO community a crucial role to play in the next 10-15 years: to hold governments to the promises they made at Johannesburg.

Of the many suggested WSSD fisheries actions one stands out: namely, the elimination of subsidies that contribute to over-capacity. Over-capacity is the root of all evil in fisheries; as excess capital and manpower are tied up in fishing activities, more pressure on the resource may result and, concurrently, despite subsidies, fishing incomes will actually fall. In other words, subsidies eventually end up keeping fishers at a lower level of income than they could otherwise earn, while preventing policymakers and citizens from proper resource management. This link has to be cut if fishing communities are to expect a decent future and to be able to provide themselves with a sustainable living from the seas.

The OECD’s Committee for Fisheries will examine and advise governments on these aspects over the next two years and beyond. Once again, new policy measures are not needed; what are needed are the courage, conviction and commitment to reduce and finally eliminate the subsidies that generate over-capacity. The prize will be a return to a sustainable way of living for fishers and their communities.

See OECD (2000), Transition to Responsible Fisheries: Economic and Policy Implications, Paris.

©OECD Observer No 234, October 2002

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