July 10, 2007
National and intergovernmental regulation of fisheries has not prevented many failures of fisheries management around the world. New approaches to improving the environmental sustainability of fisheries have included the certification of fisheries harvested by sustainable means, and the ecolabelling of fish and seafood products from certified fisheries. The intention is to use the power of markets as an incentive to induce more sustainable fisheries. To date, only a relatively small number of fisheries have been certified, and these have been predominantly in developed countries. Critiques from developing countries of ecolabelling, as currently formulated, focus on five general areas: a) legitimacy and credibility; b) a mismatch between certification requirements and the reality of tropical small-scale fisheries; c) potential distortions to existing practices and livelihoods; d) equity and feasibility; and e) perceived barriers to trade.This paper reviews these developing country concerns on the basis of already certified fisheries, and on experiences from forestry, aquaculture and the aquarium industry, and also examines precedents and trends in international environmental and trade issues. It suggests that ecolabelling as currently practiced is unlikely to be widely adopted in Asian countries. Certification may have sporadic success in some eco-conscious, or niche, markets but it is unlikely to stimulate global improvement of fisheries management.The paper argues that to avoid the controversy that accompanies ecolabelling, the focus should be on revision of national fisheries management and not on an ad hoc approach to individual fisheries. Improvements in fisheries management, the equitable treatment of fishing sub-sectors and stakeholders within management schemes, and the prospect of reaping increased value-added from fisheries all require government acceptance of needs and actions. Governments should be encouraged to enter into broad coalitions to improve aspects of fisheries management, and to enhance efforts to develop locally relevant indicator systems for fisheries and for the ecosystem approach. Governments of developing countries must also first address the difficult questions of access to and tenure arrangements for their fisheries, as these are essential prerequisites for successful certification and product labeling. They will also need to legislate on the form and conduct of the postharvest chain and product control, as, in export markets, these are outside the control ofthe fishing communities. International agreement and clarity on trade, environmental (and health) standards affecting fisheries will augment national efforts. Advocacy coalitions that include governments, rather than extraterritorial imposition of labelling schemes, are required.