Industrial fishing is fast gobbling up the world's marine resources. Worldwide concern for this humanmade catastrophe has forced nations to draw up a Code of Conduct for Responsible and Sustainable Fishing. But will this non-mandatory treaty hold out against the logic of globalised fre market philosophy? One Northern view is that though imperfect, the treaty offers us a test of paramount interest... but as we will see later, not everyone agrees
Devil in deep sea waters
IN FRANCE, We are used to thinking that the sea is infinitely generous. Proof: world fishing catches have multiplied five times over just 25 years. But now the golden stripes are fading. Fish resources have run out, catches tend to be depressed. Since the record production of 1989 - 100 million tonnes (t) - they have stagnated or, as in the Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, they have decreased. A silent tragedy which is both ecological and human.
In the '80s, we had to note that the sea was exhaustible. Today, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) Of the United Nations considers that three quarters of fishing grounds are exploited to the bitter end, perhaps over their fertility limits. In 1990, Canada banned all cod fishing till AD 2000, because the cod could not breed enough and was doomed to disappear.
Not only fished species, but even species not targeted by fisherfolk are threatened, because fishing gears are not selective enough to avoid dolphins or turtle catches. We kill 20 to 40 million fish each year. Long drift-nets used in the South Pacific Ocean for tuna fishing, trapped 23,000 cetaceans during the 1988-89 fishing season, while 44,000 albatross and petrels were killed by Japanese fishing fleets.
Some people in France realised the extent of this ecological crisis and its link with the social crisis of fishworkers. French ecologists, fishworkers and industrialists agree that overfishing is leading to a virtual fish stock collapse. Says Jean- Francois Mittaine of the Fishmeal Exporters Association, "Entire fishing stocks could be exhausted in a few years if countries do not manage fish stocks with quotas, or desist from fishing in periods when it is banned."
But industrialists hardly support control policies. Even worse, the industrialisation and internationalisation of fisheries extend beyond management policies, as they slash prices and exhaust local resources. So, fish stocks and fishworker communities suffer.
"Industrial trawlers do not respect the fishing grounds of artisanal fisherfolk," moans Arena Diagne. This Senegalese fishworker, who fights to strengthen the Senegalese artisanal fishworkers' organisation, came to France in 1989 to examine the Breton fisherfolks' organisations, "Industrial trawlers fish at night in places where we plunge our line and our nets and they destroy all of them. In May 1990, three of our fisherfolk died when their pirogue was smashed open by a trawler." The trawlers come very close to the coast, and their very fine-knit trawls destroy a lot of species - shrimps often amount for only 10 per cent of the catches.
As fish stocks exhaust, artisanat fisherfolk try to intensify their fishing and to fish in new areas. Thus, fish stocks, even in artismal fishing grounds, are over-exploited and the relationships between fishworker communities themselves become more and more conflicting. Spanish fisherfolk are in confrontation with French, Irish or Algerians, just as North American fisherfolk war the Mexicans.
The traditional Organisation of artisanal fishery cannot deal adequately with this problem, particularly because many governments prefer to invest in industrial fishery in order to export and pay their international debts off. Despite its political promises, the French government is no exception to the rule. Because of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) negotiations, because of the European Economic Community treaty, because of the liberal ideology and the policy of deregulation and because of national debt, the government liberalised trade while trying to lessen state subsidies. Breton, Normal or Basque fishworker communities are thus harshly exposed to competition.
There were 15,600 French fishing vessels of less than 50 register tonne in 1978 and only 13,400 of them in 1986. This is particularly serious because the work of one artisanal fisherperson ensures 2.5 other jobs. That is why it is now essential to negotiate a new international regulation, at least to let national social and environmental policies be possible and credible.
Since 1992, the debate has focused on an international Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries - which was finally introduced in October 1995 under the aegis of FAO. An International Code of Conduct is a corpus of recommendations that signatory countries acknowledge as necessary. It does not have force of law but the countries commit them- selves to act in accordance with these recommendations and to urge workers and firms to do so.
The proposal was in line with various previous UN conventions and treaties (See analysis: Teaching the taught) In spite of its deficiencies, this treaty represents a significant advance in international fishers' law that NGOs may use to speed up fishery reforms at local, national and regional levels.
The Code can lead to another step. It asks for artisanal and industrial fishworkers to be responsible, and for states to ensure preservation and development of bio-aquatic resources, to institute protective policies for species and ecosystems in return for fishing rights, particularly by improving fishing gears selectively and by cracking down on marine pollution.
It is hard to say how far the Code will be effective. After all, these are mere recommendations, which also respect a liberal economic framework (one article asks for free trade of fishing products). Nevertheless, the Code legitimises those principles which NGOS will be able to invoke against signatory countries, by political and legal means.
So, the Code can be an intermediate step, inadequate in itself, but a very useful move towards a more restrictive regulation. For example, one major principle in the Code is that fisherfolk and fish breeders be involved in the elaboration of policies in order to ease the implementation of the Code: a polite but firm directive to states to hold negotiations with concerned people. The second major principle specifies that states must protect the rights and living conditions of artisanal fisherfolk and all the fishworkers. The states will be hard put to adjust this requirement within the logic of the market economy.
The French artisanal fisherfolks' organisations thus supported the Code of Conduct. They were represented by the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) when discussing the Code at a FAO meeting. But the ICSF knows the Code's limitations. For example, the Code says nothing about the issue of fishing rights in high seas, which is thus rendered a free economic resource. Is this the best way to look after a common heritage? Moreover, the issue of these rights could have financed conservation policies of fish resources, but this was not discussed.
Nevertheless, the International Code of Conduct is a test of paramount importance of our ability to manage a global environmental problem which is affecting in the short-term, economically and socially, a hundred different countries, both in the North and the Third World. At the moment, this test is still far from being a success.
Teaching the taught
THIS struggle is for the future: that of ours and the fish," the
late Joyachen Antony, leader of traditional fisherfolk of Kerala,
had said way back in 1981, on the fifth day of his nirahara
satyagraha (hunger strike) demanding that monsoon trawling
be banned in the state, Uncontrolled trawling for prawns -
the 'pink gold' - had led to extensive damage to the coastal
ecosystem. Trawlers were introduced and encouraged by the
government. Therefore, it was for the government to ensure
their proper conduct.
Eight years of such persistent and militant demands by
smallscale fishworkers and four expert committees later, monsoon trawling was finally banned in Kerala in 1989.
Meanwhile, in July 1984, Joyachen and some of his colleagues
had travelled to Rome to participate in the International
Conference of Fishworkers and their Supporters (ICFWS), held
parallel to the Food and Agricultural Organization's (FAO)
World Conference on Fisheries Management and
Development. There they met their peers from maritime states
as widely separated as Chile, Canada, Norway, Senegal,
Indonesia and the Philippines. And they realised that the
world over, the problems fisherfolk face were similar: trawler
intrusions, destructive overfishing, coastal pollution, exploitation by merchants and middlemen and a poor living standard.
ICFWS demanded a greater recognition of fishworkers'
rights to a secure and just livelihood; the possibility of participating in policymaking which affected their lives; and better
resource allocation regimes to protect their access to fishing
grounds. It challenged world fishery ministers gathered at
the FAO Conference to evolve strategies for fisheries which
were just, participatory, self-reliant and sustainable, giving
centrality to the role of fishworkers. Today, the I AO Code of
Conduct for Responsible Fisheries can be taken as a late but
important first step to answer this challenge.
All about norms
The Code arises out of the Declaration of Cancun, made at the
Conference on Responsible Fishing, sponsored by the
Government of Mexico in 1992. The Code has been formulated to be consistent with the United Nations Convention on
the Law of the Seas of 1982, and taking into account the strategy endorsed by the 1984 FAO World Conference on Fisheries
Management and Development, the 1992 Rio Declaration and
the Agenda 21 of United Nations Conference on Environment
and Development. It has also taken into
careful account the just concluded UN
Conference on Straddling Stocks and
Highly Migratory Fish Stocks.
The Code sets out voluntary international standards of behaviour for
responsible practices in fisheries based
on the general principle that the right to
fish carried with it the obligation to do so
in a responsible manner. Only this can
ensure effective conservation and management of aquatic life. The Code recognises the interests of all those concerned
with fisheries, as well as the interests of
the consumers and other users.
The signatory states and all the
various interest groups have been
entreated to apply the Code. It is composed of general principles and thematic
and management articles. The management articles are very closely in line with
the treaty on straddling fish stocks, but
are devoid of the dimensions of equitable allocation and participatory management, so essential for conservation of
the coastal marine resources. The articles
on fishing operations are fairly comprehensive, covering fishing practices, gear
selectivity, energy optimisation, marine
environment, atmosphere protection
and artificial reefs and fish aggregation
The articles on aquaculture urge
states to ensure that aquaculture will not
negatively affect the livelihood of local
communities and their access to fishing
grounds. It also suggests promotion of
active participation of fishfarmers and
their communities in the development
of responsible aquaculture practices.
The articles on integration of fisheries into coastal area management permit the evolution of a
holistic ecosystem management. The articles on post-harvest
practices and trade stress upon fairness, equity and environmental concerns top priority and calls for laws and regulations
governing fish trade.
The article on fisheries research stresses upon integrated
and multi-disciplinary research and the setting up of appropriate institutional frameworks to promote this. It emphasises
that the role of traditional knowledge and technologies needs
to be investigated and strengthened.
But the Code does not deal with issues specific to women
in the fisheries. Neither does it specifically highlight the role
of fisherfolks' organisations, nor envisage any special role for
non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It is claimed that the
Code is addressed to all these sectors and that they should
actively ensure that it is implemented.
But whose code? Whose conduct is it meant to influence?
The Code was drawn up during a series of technical sessions
attended by government representatives and then submitted
for necessary finalisation to relevant FAO committees, the
Council and the Conference.
International NGOS, like Greenpeace,
World Wide Fund for Nature and
International Transportworkers Federation, participated actively at every stage
of drawing up the Code. The interests of
smallscale fishworkers were represented
directly by their national organisations
during some sessions, but largely
through the International Collective in
Support of Fishworkers - a network
which was a fallout of the ICFWS of 1984.
Consequently, though the Code is a
document largely from above, the
direct and indirect involvement of
smalIscale fishworkers in influencing
its formulation makes a role for them in
its implementation, which is both
important and possible.
FAO is also planning some meaningful follow-up to monitor the Code's
implementation. Measures are afoot to
ensure that, as a first step, the Code is
translated into as many languages as
possible and widely disseminated,
generating greater awareness among
fisherfolks' organisations. This will also
lead to international-level fishworker-
NGO-government exchange programmes
to learn about successful examples of
responsible fisheries management and
But in the final analysis, what is the
Code all about? Joyachen is history.
Many others like him the world
over, too, are dead - some sacrificing
their lives for the cause. Who, then,
will assess the implication of this first
international response to
struggle and carry it forward?
While the nation state is the custodian of the living
resources within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), its
careful stewardship can only be undertaken by those who
have a certain genuine 'connectedness' to the resource.
Only smalIscale fishworkers like Joyachen qualify for
this. They see the 'connectedness' between their future and
that of the fish.
But they hardly need a code for their conduct. They
have been responsible for generations, and they had
demanded the code for protection against other stakeholders/
claimants to marine resource. in that sense, the Code is a good
placard to be raised in the struggle for more responsible
fishing, in which the mighty are accountable for their actions
and the weak not ruined.
Moving towards responsible fisheries in the 21st century
will depend largely on the manner in which coastal smallscale
fishing communities and other fishworkers can push for a
'globalisation' of their concerns - dealing simultaneously
with the global and the local.
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