Interviews,  Issue XXI, Jan 2021

Transparency in the Sustainable Management of the Fisheries Sector

Do we have to worry about the future of fisheries?

Unfortunately, yes. It might be different for certain species or certain regions, but from a global perspective we do need to worry. Climate change, pollution and overexploitation are all taking a heavy toll on our fisheries. Catching fish is not inherently bad, but over decades we have been catching fish much faster than stocks can replenish. According to the latest report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is unlikely that the target we set ourselves as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, to end overfishing by 2020, will be achieved.

Can you briefly tell us about the work of FiTI and its purpose?

That same report I just mentioned also provides some encouraging news: where fisheries are properly managed, stocks remain on healthy levels or are recovering. Governments have a key role to play here, as they are tasked to manage fisheries on behalf of its citizens and future generations. But the question is, how do we know whether the sector is managed in a sustainable way? This is not as easy to answer as one may think. Many governments are not disclosing even basic information on their fisheries sector, such as laws, permits, access agreements, stock assessments, financial contributions, catch data, and subsidies. Fisheries is one of the most non-transparent sectors globally.
That’s where the Fisheries Transparency Initiative, or FiTI, comes in. The FiTI is a global multi-stakeholder partnership that seeks to increase transparency for a more sustainable management of marine fisheries. At the heart of the initiative is the FiTI Standard, a globally recognised framework that defines for the first-time what information on marine fisheries should be published online by public authorities. Such information is not only critical when formulating and implementing national policies. It also deepens the understanding of the important nature of the fisheries sectors, as well as the challenges that exist.

How is transparency linked to the sustainable management of the sector?

There are many aspects, so allow me to state just a few. The most obvious is that governments need reliable, complete, and up-to-date information to manage our marine fisheries efficiently and sustainably, and we, as citizens, require that information in the public domain to exercise our right to do oversight. But the lack of information can also marginalize many groups in the fishing industry (often the most vulnerable), and the entire sector may be given less visibility in national debates than it deserves.
The lack of transparency also provides a breeding ground for corruption and other illicit activities, such as illegal fishing. And we have seen this in many other areas globally, in the absence of credible data, misinformation and rumours spread.
And finally, even the data that is published today is often incomplete, dated, or too complicated. You should not need a doctoral degree to understand what is going on in your fisheries sector.

You just mentioned the aspect of corruption. What are the main corruption issues in the fisheries industry?

There is no doubt that corruption is a serious matter in fisheries, one that undermines sincere efforts to sustain fish populations and biodiversity. I would say there are several factors that make fisheries particularly vulnerable. First, global interlinked value chains, where often multiple jurisdictions are passed through before fish ends up on a plate. Then we have high competition, with around 3,7 million fishing vessels in the world, twice as many as in 1950. And with more vessels intensifying their efforts to catch fish, the resources itself becomes scarcer, as now almost 35% of marine fish stocks are fished at unsustainable levels.
But another factor that is often overlooked is a so called “out of sight/out of mind mentality”. Unlike in other natural resource sectors, you do not see easily how fisheries are doing. Activities happen under water or often beyond the horizon. Therefore, we often witness a situation where as long as there is still fish on the plate, people do not worry about the status of the sector. And without a sense of urgency, the demands for transparency, accountability and participation are low.

Why is the FiTI setup as a multi-stakeholder initiative?

Over the past two decades we have seen an enormous amount of collective action initiatives for international development. This is based primarily on the commonly accepted understanding that complex and interlinked, global challenges – such as countering corruption, but also sustainable fisheries – cannot be tackled by unilateral actions alone, but rather through collaborative partnerships involving multiple actors.
To give you a concrete example: what was needed to increase transparency in fisheries was a global framework that was acceptable to all concerned stakeholders – government, industrial and artisanal fisheries, civil society – despite their different positions, experiences, resources. Developing the FiTI Standard with just one group would have certainly been faster, but would have not given it the wide acceptance it now enjoys. Therefore, the FiTI applies its multi-stakeholder principle not only at the international level, through a Multi-Stakeholder Board, but also in the countries we work, through National Multi-Stakeholder Groups.

As Executive Director of FiTI, how do you see the future of the fisheries industry?

Transparency is often defined as a coin with two sides. On the supply side, I want to see governments and the industry moving from a more passive, reactive approach – where information is only published once it is requested – to a more proactive “open by default” approach. But at the same time, we need to see a much strong demand for credible, timely and accessible information from the other side. Only then can we move into an area where the fisheries sector gets the appreciation it deserves.

Thank you for taking time to share with us your experience and knowledge!