OpinionFlourishing Oceans01 Feb 2019

We are what we eat: our role in the health of global fisheries

Australia needs to look beyond its own waters to eliminate unsustainable and unethical fisheries

Fish and chips
Fish and chips is one of our most popular national dishes – but does it come at a higher cost?.

Australia is held to have some of the best managed fisheries in the world, producing internationally coveted products such as Patagonian toothfish, rock lobster, abalone and bluefin tuna for the global seafood market.

The rampant illegal fishing and labour abuses that attract headlines elsewhere are seemingly absent from our waters and fleets; a problem, certainly, but not ours.

Unfortunately, this rosy picture ignores a large and inconvenient truth – that 70 per cent of the seafood eaten in Australia isn’t caught domestically, or even by our fleets. It’s imported from elsewhere, including from countries which have fisheries rife with documented labour abuses, illegal fishing, and other related crimes.

Far from resting on our laurels, Australia needs to be looking to its neighbours and trading partners to make sure they are willing and able to adopt the same standards in their fisheries as we expect in our own. This is where teams at Minderoo are focusing our research and engagement efforts.

In 2018, Minderoo’s Walk Free initiative worked with the University of Western Australia and the Sea Around Us project to investigate the global drivers of labour abuses in fisheries. We paid a lot of attention to key policy areas that might be able to address the root causes of the problem.

This work, which we published in the high-impact journal Nature Communications, came to three main conclusions:

  1. Overfishing was a major driver of labour issues in fisheries;
  2. This was driven primarily by subsidies that keep artificially high numbers of boats at sea in regions such as Asia and West Africa; and
  3. A lack of oversight and control of ‘distant water’ fleets fishing far from home ports allows abuses to persist.

When catches and profits fall due to excessive competition, owners cut costs: they still have to fuel the boat, but maybe they don’t have to pay their crews on time (or at all)…

This year we start a new project through Minderoo’s Flourishing Ocean’s initiative: to directly quantify the state of fisheries in every country, providing a roadmap for policy makers and business leaders towards eliminating overfishing and the toll it takes on livelihoods made from the sea.

This project – the Global Fishing Index – will draw on global expertise to create a single, unified view of marine fisheries. Not only will this allow us to measure our collective progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 14.4 – to end overfishing – but it will highlight areas of the world where fishing countries and trading partners need to work together to achieve sustainability.

While countries like Australia may well find that their domestic fisheries are in the green, their trading relationships result in them being involved in regions likely to require significant development. Seafood is the most traded food commodity in the world, networking countries together in a web of interdependencies. Policies for importing nations like Australia need to be outward- not inward-facing, leveraging our experience and expertise in fisheries for the benefit of our trading partners.

As the 2020 deadline for SDG14.4 approaches, the governments of the world have two key pieces of policy in their sights: the banning of so-called ‘harmful’ subsidies that keep artificially high numbers of fishing vessels at sea, undermining sustainable fishing livelihoods; and a High Seas Treaty that could shift the balance of power in fisheries back towards the coastal economies which have been losing out to distant water fleets operating outside their national boundaries.

As well as building strength in fisheries through bilateral trade and regional forums, Australia should put its diplomatic efforts into ensuring efforts at the World Trade Organisation and United Nations yield fruit for future generations of fishers globally.