New Internationalist

Behind The Label

July 2000

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Fish / LABELS

Cast out: fishers want to be part of any eco-labelling initiatives.
CHRIS MARTIN / STILL PICTURES

[image, unknown]

Are eco-labels the answer to
sustainable fishing? Writing
from India, John Kurien calls
for quite a different approach.

The mid-1990s slump in world fisheries has prompted several strange industry responses. One was to fish harder and hope for the bumper harvest that would wipe out all losses. Another was to source new markets that provide higher returns. Neither of these stopped the plateau in fish catches and returns. It was in this context that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was born in 1996.

The MSC is an independent, not-for-profit, international body based in London. With an unwavering faith in the magical power of market mechanisms, its end objective is to create market-led economic incentives which it hopes will create sustainable fishing. The main instrument to achieve this is an eco-label - Fish Forever - on the final fish product. Consumers in the First World will identify this label as a certificate that the fish in the package was harvested in an environmentally friendly manner. These modified purchase practices, it is hoped, will send the message back to fishers that it pays to use sustainable fishing methods.

Modified purchase practices, it is hoped, will send the message back to fishers that it pays to use sustainable fishing methods

The MSC is a case of one giant riding atop another. It was set up as a joint venture between Unilever, one of the world's largest multinational corporations with a huge interest in the retail fish trade, and the World Wildlife Fund, one of the world's largest nature conservation organizations. Four years down the line, governments and many stakeholders in fisheries are watching with interest the directions being taken by this new initiative. Will it make waves in the water or sink for lack of balance?

Marketing the old as new
The trading of fish is as old as Asia. Although the dispersed millions involved in fisheries did so for a livelihood, once a fishworker netted more than a few fish, she or he had a 'surplus' to be bartered. So, fish was traded right from the beginning. Relatively labour-intensive, fishing soon accounted for substantial domestic nutrition. Today Asian fishers account for half the global trade in fish.

But to suggest that the market can provide the solution to all the problems faced by the fishery is quite another proposition. Intervention by powerful Northern enterprises, who can modulate markets using 'environmental' considerations, can have far-reaching benefits and also pitfalls.

In most Third World countries, markets are created for society and not the other way around. The MSC initiative subscribes to the view that 'free markets' will replace regulation by democratic institutions and wishes this norm to attain worldwide applicability. This is a threatening scenario for the countries containing the majority of the world's population. In democratic institutions the initial endowments of the participants are the same - everybody has one vote. Market institutions, on the other hand, are not such levellers. They function on votes that are expressed only in money terms - effective purchasing power - which, as we all know, are hardly distributed equally on the basis of the world's population.

Thus, those like the MSC who recommend 'free markets as the means to efficiency' forget that for this theory to work in reality economic power needs to be fairly equally distributed among all the participants. Blind faith in the almighty market to correct all economic and environmental ills is a far cry from the realities which people experience in the Third World.

We also need to recall exactly how unsustainable fishing technologies produced a decline in fish catches and habitat. Third World economies moved to unsustainable fishing practices as a result of the technologies introduced into the tropical coastal seas from the North. Development aid projects funded the transition to Western innovations such as trawling the seabottom and fishing with huge indiscriminate purse-seine nets in preference to the more seasonal, selective and 'passive techniques' used by artisanal fishers that were considered to be 'inefficient'. The new technology came to be controlled by a rising class of entrepreneurs who viewed the sea as an open-access terrain. The output of species like shrimp, cuttlefish and tuna - commandeered by market demand in the US, Western Europe and Japan - increased sharply. Meanwhile, these techniques damaged the overall tropical water ecosystem and ruined the institution of community control over fishery resources.

For over two decades, small-scale fishworkers in many Asian countries have been opposed to large-scale fishing and their environmental and social consequences. They have also sought to re-establish their own control over coastal resources.

At best, it will initiate a process where the rich attempt to bequeath the fishery resources of the world to their rich grandchildren

On the face of it, the MSC's motivation to 'ensure long-term viability of global fish populations and the health of the marine ecosystems on which they depend' need not be against fisher interests. But contradictions will soon arise due to the power that buyers will be able to exercise in dictating terms of harvesting and price levels. In Third World countries this is the major realm of exploitation of small-scale fishworkers - merchants and intermediaries interlock the credit and the output markets. Without addressing this issue, the nature of the trade linkages for supply of 'sustainably harvested' fish could be totally determined from outside the South. This would create a complete loss of autonomy for small fishers. Even if their harvest were covered by MSC eco-labels, the consumer price premiums for this might not translate into higher incomes for the dispersed fishers.

Faceless trademarks
If eco-labelling is to translate into strong impulses for sustainable fishing it needs to be undertaken with the tacit co-operation of people who fish or their organizations - not through the lower-level functionaries of the international fish-marketing chain. Without addressing the issue of access and property rights to the coastal seas, product labels alone will be non-starters for achieving sustainability.

The MSC initiative, by virtue of the fact that it is designed and funded by such a large fish-buyer as Unilever will obviously be anathema to such links and concerns. In fact, the MSC initiative may increase Unilever's influence over the fishers leading to the near wipeout of all small-scale commerce which does not fall in line with the product differentiation process sought by the company in the name of eco-labels. With this achieved, Unilever will retain a quasi-monopoly control over a larger segment of the market. It can then set the environmental standards it likes and also dictate the prices it wants, both at the consumer and the producer end.

Additionally, through the MSC initiative Unilever will have enormous control over information on fish-harvesting practices and the effects of this on the ocean environment. It can use this information to its sole advantage. It is likely this will further sully the minds of First World consumers - they would be led to believe by the MSC initiative that buying Unilever brands is the sure way to save the fish and oceans. It provides First World consumers with the easy option of buying eco-labelled products marketed by multinationals, without the participation and sanction of the distant producer. This is but a sophisticated technique of product and market differentiation masquerading as creating sustainable fishing. At best it will initiate a process where the rich attempt to bequeath the fishery resources of the world to their rich grandchildren.

It is often said with confidence that 'where industry and market lead, governments will likely follow.' But four years down the line the MSC initiative is still only making a start. Both First and Third World governments are watching with circumspection. The MSC has received about 100 endorsements from a variety of organizations. Of the over 80 are from the First World (over half from Britain). The only Third World endorsements come from Hong Kong, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Ecuador - hardly representative of the maritime countries of the developing world.

Using their heads - Indian fishers seek to produce fairly-traded fish.
NEIL COOPER / PANOS PICTURES

Moving forward by going back
The only way for fishworkers in the Third World to stall this momentum is to take on the initiative of sustainable harvesting methods as their own, at their own pace and on their own terms. To some extent this implies 'going back' to some of their time-tested methods of fish harvesting which exhibited great ecological sophistication.

These measures need to be backed by consumers in the First World who must exercise their economic votes not only through the market but also through national democratic institutions and international organizations such as the UN and the World Trade Organization. At both the Third and First World ends, pressure needs to be exerted to ensure government involvement in fostering these transitions. It cannot be 'left to the market'.

This is but a sophisticated technique of product and market differentiation masquerading as creating sustainable fishing

Instead fishers and Northern non-government organizations are beginning to think about tying fishers, traders, processors and distributors together with fair trade. An initial attempt on these lines has been tried recently by the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS), a network of small-scale fishers' village co-operatives in collaboration with German non-government organizations. This partnership aims to improve the living and working conditions of fishworkers through better economic incentives by establishing as direct a link as possible between fishers and the final consumers in Germany.

Four sets of criteria have been established to determine requirements for participation by a fishworkers' association. First, it should be an independent, democratic and transparent association upholding core International Labour Organization standards. Secondly, it should be an association of fishers who operate low-energy-use-fishing craft using passive fishing techniques. Thirdly, the sales to the North should not threaten the nutritional security at the place of origin or displace women from local fish marketing. Finally, only 15 per cent of the total fish landed by the members of the association would be bought to fairly trade to Europe. A beginning has been made at the Bremen Fish Fair in March 2000. The partners hope to link up with consumer movements in the major fish-importing markets which are not merely concerned with trade per se but also with reassessing lifestyles and their own patterns of consumption.

Thousands of such collaborations could materialize and democratize the market. Sustainable trade will only become a reality when environmentally-aware harvesting is linked to fair trade and sustainable consumption. The MSC initiative, based on the idea that the invisible finger of the market will guide trade, is inferior to active participation of many hands in creating a more equitable alternative. Then those who labour at sea, those who consume the fruits of this labour and the agencies that arrange the tie-up can promise more than a label - they will have achieved the fairly traded fish.

John Kurien is an activist-researcher and leading expert on fisheries with the
Centre for Development Studies at Trivandrum in the southern Indian state of Kerala.


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Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 325 This feature was published in the July 2000 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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