Towards sustainable fish food and trade in the face of climate change

16 March 2015

How might climate change impact fisheries production and trade? This article offers a preliminary view of what is known and suggests areas for further research. 

The UN Zero Hunger Challenge aims at providing adequate food for all, making all food systems sustainable, increasing smallholder productivity and income, and eliminating food waste. The capture fisheries and aquaculture sectors are especially important for achieving this challenge as they provide a world average 16.7 percent of animal protein intake.

In certain regions, namely in the low income food deficit countries (LIFDC), fish contribute on average 25 percent to animal protein intake, and in excess of 50 percent in some small island developing states (SIDS) as well as in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Gambia, Ghana, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka.

Trends in fisheries and aquaculture

Like other industries the fisheries and aquaculture sectors face many hurdles to attaining development goals. These include the challenges of managing common pool resources and rising global demand. Add to this chronic overcapacity, harmful practices, increasing incidences of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing – which negatively impact efforts at national, regional, and global levels to sustainably manage fisheries resources – and finally the observed and predicted impacts of climate change on aquatic resource distribution and productivity of commercially valuable aquatic species.

Some other major changes are also afoot in the fisheries industry. Last year aquaculture production surpassed captured fisheries in providing seafood for human consumption. Aquaculture expanded around 8.3 percent per year during the period 1970-2010 making it the fastest growing food production system.

Farming carnivorous species, however, relies on wild fisheries for fish meal and fish oil used in the preparation of feed. For example, salmon aquaculture has the highest fish in-fish out (FIFO) ratio. And while the expansion of aquaculture on trade patterns is not always obvious it does nevertheless have an impact on the distribution of income along the seafood value chain.

A joint publication by FAO, the World Bank, and IFPRI – FISH to 2030 – estimates that world fish production will increase by some 20 million tonnes to reach 185 million in 2030, mainly from growth in aquaculture. This will present major challenges in terms of ensuring that the three pillars of sustainability are maintained, namely, environmental, economic, and socially responsible production practices.

Figure 1: World fish utilisation and supply

Source: UN FAO Information and Statistics Branch, Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, 2015.

The social and economic contributions of the fisheries and aquaculture sectors, including seafood processing and trade, are important and complex. Some 58 million fishers and farmers were in business in 2012 and between 11-12 percent of the world’s population depended on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods including fishers, producers, and distributors. Employment in these sectors has historically grown faster than employment in agriculture and faster than world population expansion.  

Around 38 percent of fish production enters international markets and this trade is valued at almost US$130 billion. The majority of this trade, over 54 percent, originates from developing countries.

However, it remains to be seen whether global and regional fish trade can continue to support food and nutrition security and economic growth in fish exporting countries, in the face of climate-induced resource shifts and inflexible market-based measures and trade-tightening policies such as new IUU regulations in the EU. This paper offers a preliminary exploration of the continued challenges to achieve sustainable fish production and trade and the possible additional hurdles climate change may present.

Current sustainability challenges

Marine resource sustainability remains a major problem despite efforts in the international community to negotiate agreements for responsible ocean and aquatic resource management and use. Out of the wild fish stocks assessed in the FAO’s State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014 (SOFIA 2014) report, 28.8 percent were overfished, 61.3 percent fully fished and only 9.9 percent are underfished. The proportion of assessed marine fish stocks utilised within biological sustainable levels declined from 90 percent in 1974 to 71.2 percent in 2011.

The first step in sustainable fisheries trade is to insure that the products are produced in a sustainable agricultural system at the start of the value chain. The 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF) sets out principles and international standards for responsible practices with respect to the conservation, management, and development of fisheries.

The CCRF explicitly states that one of its aims is to promote “responsible international trade.” Growing global demand and rising prices for seafood has, however, led to IUU fishing and other problems in many national jurisdictions. Evidence from countries themselves suggests that implementation of the CCRF and the ecosystem approach to fisheries and aquaculture is not keeping pace with uncontrolled market forces.

The FAO is tasked with the collection and analysis of self-assessed questionnaires on CCRF implementation submitted by FAO member countries on a biennial basis. The findings highlight some common challenges facing countries in implementing fisheries sustainability and trade-related aspects of the CCRF. These include the complexity of coordinating among all the different responsible ministries and authorities involved at the national level; a lack of qualified human resources trained in sustainable fisheries management; difficulties in monitoring and tracking IUU fishing due to lack of proper coast guards or fishing vessel monitoring systems; the need for support from the respective governments’ in order to align national internal policies with international market requirements; difficulties in establishing and implement traceability systems for activities related to fisheries, especially traditional fisheries; limited capacity to measure the environmental impact of fisheries and fishing activities – for example carbon footprint – and to calculate and mitigate the impact of climate change on fishing and aquaculture communities.

One area identified in need of immediate support is the improvement in data collection and analysis especially around artisanal and small-scale operations. Without evidence of sustainable management many of these communities may be unable to meet certain market access requirements. For example, if it cannot be verified that the fishery products sourced by the community are legally caught, then there is no way to distinguish these from IUU fish.

Given that the major seafood importing markets are tightening their regulations to combat illegal activity, this could have serious repercussions for market access of legal fish from “unreported” or “unregulated” fisheries, because the national authorities lack the capacity to collect relevant data and/or enforcement capacity to monitor the length of their coastline to prevent IUU fishing and unrecorded landings. Many North African and West African nations have reported these problems in hindering sustainable management of their fisheries resources.

Climate change impacts on production and trade

Climate change is expected to make the situation of sustainable fisheries governance even more urgent and critical. The full implications, however, of climate change for international trade of fish and fishery products are not well known and require further study on the links between changing resource abundance/distribution and fisheries and aquaculture production at regional and national levels.

It is known that climate change will increase uncertainties and raise risks in the current supply of products from marine and inland capture fisheries. Climate change and increased carbon dioxide absorption in the world’s oceans could lead to warming water temperatures; changing ocean currents; southern oscillation; sea level rise; changes in rainfall, river flows, lake levels, thermal structure, storm severity and frequency; and ocean acidification. [Ref 1]

These impacts could result in changes in total fish catch, composition of the catch, and the distribution of fish, especially within Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in tropic regions, as fish move to cooler waters found further offshore, which could particularly impact small-scale fishers using traditional methods. Extreme weather events and sea level rise are anticipated to impact fisheries-related infrastructure such as ports and fleets, further raising the costs of fishing, processing, and distribution activities.

Climate change therefore has the potential to change the competitiveness of exports from the fisheries sector, the distribution of fisheries production, and ultimately world trade patterns. While some regions may gain from expected resource shifts, others will face major adjustments, which could threaten the sustainability of their livelihoods and food security. Climate-induced movements in aquatic species used by the fisheries and aquaculture sector will require adaptation at all stages of the seafood value chain, from producers, processors, marketers, exporters, and importers as they search for supplies to meet the world’s growing demand for seafood.

A model developed to predict the impact of climate change on capture fisheries illustrates a latitudinal shift in currently targeted species that could drastically alter the location of fishery resources (Cheung et al., 2009). [Ref2] Tropical countries could face up to a 40 percent drop in catch potential of traditional and/or commercially-valuable species. High-latitude regions could gain as much as a 30 to 70 percent increase in catch potential. This has implications for developing countries and small-island states highly dependent on fisheries for livelihoods, export earnings, and domestic food security. [Ref 3]

Another model was developed to estimate climate change impacts on fisheries production (Merino et al, 2012). [Ref 4] The Merino model predicts a six percent increase in potential yield from large commercially-valuable fish stocks by 2050 but this is less than the expected human population growth rate. The authors propose that aquaculture could fill the gap between future supply and demand but that such intensification will require technological advances, for example, by lowering the FIFO rates as discussed in Box 1.

The Merino model does predict one constraint on aquaculture growth due to anticipated falling output from the anchovy fisheries in Latin America under more unpredictable El Nino effects and increasingly severe weather episodes from climate change that will impact the availability of the fish as well as constraints on fishing activity. This is expected to contribute to rising prices and price variability for fish feed ingredients as demand outstrips supply.

Another study is optimistic in its projections that global fish supplies will be able to meet rising global demand in 2050 (Barange et al., 2014). [Ref 5] A redistribution of resources as a result of climate-induced shifts will imply the need for changing trade patterns to move products from surplus to deficit regions. It is possible, however, that the deficit regions will lack the financial resources necessary to pay for these imports.

The 2014 Barange model also combines predicted productivity changes from climate change with measured vulnerability of populations dependent on fisheries resources. The results illustrate that South Asian and Southeast Asian fishing communities are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on fisheries in part due to high population density and dependency on marine resources for food security. Coastal communities in West Africa are also at high risk, even though the climate change impacts in this region are expected to be less severe, because these populations are less economically able to adapt to changes and thus are more vulnerable.  More work needs to be done at the national and sub-regional leves in order for these projections to be useful for national policymakers, who must decide on how to allocate limited financial resources to assist vulnerable coastal communities to adapt to climate-induced resource changes.

Figure 2: Predicted maximum changes in fisheries catch 2001-2060

Source: IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Working Group II, 2014. [Ref 6]

Trade and market-based tools

Climate change could exacerbate ongoing efforts to reduce fisheries market distortions, promote sustainable fish trade, and ensure long-term food security. Appropriately designed  multilateral and bilateral trade rules can discourage economically unviable and environmentally damaging fishing practices. The international community could also utilise market access and trade policies to foster resilience to climate change in the fish industry including for the most vulnerable communities.  

Some essential aspects of trade policy in supporting fisheries and aquaculture adaptation to climate change can be summarised as follows, including recommendations in  an earlier ICTSD article [Editor’s note, ICTSD is the publisher of BioRes]; eliminate tariff escalation in processed fishery products that discourage value-added production in developing countries; remove non-tariff barriers that do not directly promote human, plant, and animal health or harmonisation of science-based technical standards; eliminate capacity-distorting fisheries subsidies while ensuring national policy space for countries with underutilised resources and the need to develop their fisheries and aquaculture sectors; encourage product and export diversification through appropriate economic development and trade policies; market and label goods produced following sustainable and legal practices to better inform consumers about their choices and the impact of their consumption on the environment. 

At the border, improved trade facilitation rules would promote sustainable fish trade by insuring that these perishable products reach international markets more quickly and thus arrive in high quality to meet market requirements. Improved national trade facilitation rules and intra-regional transport systems based on international standards could develop into better South-South trade links, contributing to long-term livelihood resilience for small-scale fishers and aquaculture farmers, as well as improving regional food security and reducing dependence on international food aid. Increased intra-regional trade would also reduce the carbon footprint of fish trade.

The use of voluntary seafood certification to boost fisheries sustainability, otherwise known as eco-labels, needs to be expanded outside the traditional eco-label markets of North America, Europe, and Japan. While some progress has been made in certifying developing country capture fisheries and aquaculture farms, however, the acceptance of eco-labelled products by consumers in Latin America, Asia, and Africa needs to improve in order for these market-based measures to have an impact on sustainable fisheries management. This is especially important in Asia where the import demand for fish is fast outstripping demand for traditional food sources, driven by population growth, rising incomes of the new middle class, and changing tastes for seafood products.

Financing for sustainable development is a critical topic this year as governments seek to outline a post-2015 development agenda. In addition to traditional sources of development funding, such as overseas development assistance (ODA) and foreign direct investment (FDI), trade-related assistance such as Aid for Trade and climate change financing mechanisms could be channelled in a complementary and reinforcing manner as part of international efforts to help developing countries improve the sustainability of their fisheries sectors in face of new challenges.

Targeted assistance to strengthen trade-related fisheries infrastructure, including improved boats and equipment to insure safety at sea, stronger ports designed to resist rising sea level and severe weather episodes, to name a few, could also enhance both the trade-related supply-side capacities and the climate change adaptation needs in the most climate-vulnerable developing countries.

Areas for future work

It is early days for predicting the impacts of climate change on marine resources. It is certain that there will be shifts in fish resources with net winners and losers. Linking early predictions with production and eventually trade flows requires significant research efforts, especially moving down from global to regional and national level analysis. There also needs to be more flexibility in existing management tools used by national governments and Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) to allow adequate policy space for countries to adapt to changes in resource availability under climate change.

Ultimately, contributions from all stakeholders – public sector, private sector, and civil society – will be essential to tackle the complex challenges facing the fisheries and aquaculture sectors, particularly given the need to ensure future sustainable development outcomes in a post-2015 development agenda architecture.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, FAO.

Victoria Chomo, Economist, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Cassandra De Young, Environment and natural resource economist, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

[Ref 1] De Young, C., D. Soto and J. Muir. (2013), Module 10: Climate-Smart Fisheries and Aquaculture, in Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) Sourcebook, UN FAO.

[Ref 2] Cheung, W, V. LAM, S. Sarmiento, K. Kearney, R. Watson, D. Zeller, and D Pauly. (2009), Large-scale redistribution of maximum fisheries catch potential in the global ocean under climate change. Global Change Biology 16: 24-35.

[Ref 3] Allison, E., A. Perry, M-C Badjeck, W.N. Adger, K. Brown, D. Conway, A. Halls, G. Pilling, J. Reynolds, N. Andrew and N.Dulvy. (2009), Vulnerability of national economies to the impacts of climate change on fisheries. Fish and Fisheries 10: 173-196.

[Ref 4] Merino, G., M. Barange, J. Blanchard, J. Harle, R. Holmes, I. Allen, E. Allison, M.C. Badjeck, N. Dulvy, J. Holt, S. Jennings, C. Mullon, L. Rodwell. (2012), Can marine fisheries and aquaculture meet fish demand from a growing human population in a changing climate? Global Environmental Change 22, Issue 4: 795-806.

[Ref 5] Barange, M., G. Merino, J.L. Blanchard, J. Scholtens, Harle, E.H. Allison, J.I. Allen, J. Hold, and S. Jennings. (2014), Impacts of climate change on marine ecosystem production in societies dependent on fisheries. Nature Climate Change Letters 4: 211-216.

[Ref 6] Pörtner, H.-O., D.M. Karl, P.W. Boyd,W.W.L. Cheung, S.E. Lluch-Cota, Y. Nojiri, D.N. Schmidt, and P.O. Zavialov, 2014. Ocean systems. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L.White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 411-484.

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