Sustainable to Whom? Fisheries for Food Security in the Developing World


by Hannah Tannenbaum

It is widely accepted that fish stocks worldwide have been over-exploited, and that both commercial and small-scale fisheries face economic challenges due to the lack of certainty in stock security. While studies have focused on the environmental and economic considerations to the fishing industry, few studies have examined the social context of the industry: fisheries as a means of providing national food security. Hall et al. (2013) examined the relationship between national GDP (per capita gross domestic product) and dependence on fish for protein in diet, as well as data on wild-caught vs. imported aquaculture for those nations heavily reliant on fish. The authors found that nations that were most dependent on fish as a source of protein and food security were reliant on wild-caught species, and were mostly in the developing world. Ultimately the authors suggest that the site-specific complexity of the international fishing industry demands site-specific, comprehensive management which is inclusive of environmental, economic, and social considerations in policy.

The development of aquaculture has raised expectations that it will surpass wild-caught methods of fishing both in environmental sustainability, not affecting wild stocks, and in terms of economic security. However wild capture fisheries continue to supply the majority of international fish supply as a source of food. In order to examine the relative importance of the fisheries and examine their role as food providers for populations demanding fish for their food security, Hall et al collected publically available on production and consumption to draw conclusions.

The authors found that while overall protein consumption increased with national wealth, the proportion of protein from fish was largest for developing countries. Additionally, these developing countries obtained their fish supply predominantly from wild catch fisheries, with small-scale fisheries contributing directly to their nation of origin. It is suggested that for developing countries dependent on fish, particularly African and Small Island Nation States, aquaculture will not replace wild-caught species due to the cost of importation of farmed fish.

Most of the modern scholarship on fisheries is focused on environmental sustainability of the industry, with almost no scholarship preformed on the matter of providing reliable, nutritious food supply for developing nations. This disparity has to do with the extremely diverse and varied nature of the international fishing industry, ranging from commercial factory ships in international waters, to seasonal river fisheries in remote rural locations. International treaties on management are reflective of developed world national values of economics and environment, and not on social relationships and food considerations.

To amend this disparity, the authors posit four broad management goals that can vaguely be applied to most fishing localities: 1. Promote management by those whose values are representative of societal values 2. Promote inclusive stakeholder dialogue 3. Supplement traditional fish catch data with new information including consumer health and values, the ‘fish value chain’ and 4. Develop inter-sector support, perspectives and techniques. Additionally the authors suggest a move towards ‘sustainability science,’ through a re-consideration of the “role of power in shaping the way markets work (and for whom) and the way science informs policy.” Ultimately, the authors argue that overall fisheries management must be improved in order to ensure the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of worldwide fish production and consumption.

Hall, S. Hilborn, R. Andrew, N. et al. (2013) Innovations in Capture Fisheries are an Imperative for Nutritional Security in the Developing World. PNAS 110, 8393-8398.

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