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Problems of scale

Fisheries may be an ancient economic activity, but nowadays they are at the forefront of globalisation. First, there is the trade itself: a blue hake caught off the coast of New Zealand by a Japanese vessel may be processed in China before being flown to a market in London or Paris.

Fisheries form a highly sensitive sector too, with conservation pressures on fish stocks, heightened by the fact that more people around the world want to eat fish and many are prepared to pay dearly for it. The distribution of profit along the entire value chain raises questions as well. For “fin” fish such as tuna or tilapia, there is at least a US$10 dollar a kilo difference between what a consumer in a developed country pays, and what is paid to the developing country exporter. The consumer price of fillet is about 250% more than the export price. Yet value addition after the fish is exported is minimal.

All along the global supply chain, from fishers via processors to retailers, there are competing pressures. Take Darden Restaurants in the US, which sources seafood from over 30 countries. In Globalisation and Fisheries, Darden argues that to maintain per capita consumption of 7.35 kg per annum by 2025 in the US, approximately 400,000 additional tons of fish and fish products (edible weight) will be required. That’s a 15-20% increase.

Fishers work hard to meet such demand, but the downside is that the competition leads to overfishing. This affects the balance of ecosystems and aquatic life, damaging biodiversity. Reports of jellyfish infestations off Mediterranean beaches are related to a decline in tuna stocks, for instance. Such shifts also affect climate change, both through reducing the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon and via transport of fish to distant markets.

The accounts in this book present a wide range of experiences and points of view, and everyone agrees that sustainable, responsible management of fisheries is vital. But will that keep pressure on policymakers to deliver results, whether from investment, market reforms or better regulation?

Consumers are not waiting: Tesco, the UK’s biggest retailer, has recently stated that it will put new labels on every one of the 70,000 products it sells so that shoppers can compare carbon costs in the same way they can compare calorie counts. Whether this type of initiative can lead to a healthier global fisheries market remains to be seen, though it may give locally caught hake competitive appeal.

ISBN 9789264037762

©OECD Observer No 266, March 2008

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