Fish have gone global. They are, in fact, one of the world's most hotly traded food commodities: some 37 per cent of all fish production — 53 million tonnes — is traded internationally. Exports of fish in 2008 were valued at a cool $102 billion.
The lion's share of fish being traded is imported by developed countries — 60 per cent of it, in weight terms, and 80 per cent of it in value terms. Europe, Japan and the United States alone account for 70 per cent of all fish imports, in terms of value. The total value of all fish imports in 2008 was $108 billion.
For the most part, that fish is from the developing world — the source of 50 per cent of all fish imports by rich nations, in value terms ($43 billion).
This means revenue. Net export earnings for developing countries from fish trade currently run $27 billion a year.
It also means jobs. Some 45 million people are directly employed, either full or part time, in fisheries and aquaculture. An additional 6.5 million are engaged in the sector on an occasional basis. Factoring in jobs in processing — mainly female labour — marketing and service industries and including the family members of all people employed, an estimated half a billion people rely on fish for some or all of their incomes.
Getting fish to market isn't always easy, however. And according to reports prepared for a meeting this week of FAO's Subcommittee on Fish Trade (April 26-29, Buenos Aires), for developing countries, doing so is getting harder.
Challenges, old and new
As of 1 January 2010, the world's largest import market for fish, the European Union, requires that all imports of wild fish be accompanied by a certificate validated by the fisheries authorities of the country that flagged the vessel that originally caught them. The aim is to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, a major problem -- but compliance is placing new, often difficult burdens, on exporters, says FAO. Other major markets concerned with IUU are contemplating similar measures.
Meanwhile, a growing number of food retailers are committing to carrying only fish that has been certified as from a sustainable fishery — Trader Joe's in the US is one example. A range of both government and private, non-government certification schemes are being used to do this, raising the compliance bar further.
For small-scale producers, acquiring technical know how, becoming familiar with best practices, investing in upgrading facilities and equipment — and learning the paperwork and procedures -- necessary to meet such requirements is a challenge, especially if they are trying to comply with more than one standard.
Key global forum
This is why FAO's Subcommittee on Fish Trade has a key role to play.
"This body is a unique global forum where policy makers from importing and exporting countries, from aquaculture producers, Coastal, Flag and Market States come together to find ways to create an enabling environment for the sector to develop while successfully addressing the challenges that development presents," said FAO Assistant Director-General for Fisheries and Aquaculture, Ichiro Nomura, in an address at the start of the meeting.
"Sustainable trade of wild capture fish and seafood depends on a natural renewable resource base that is managed in a sustainable and responsible way. Market access requirements can be shaped to create incentives to achieve sustainable fisheries. The challenge is for policy-makers to ensure these measures are sound, science - based, transparent and do not create unnecessary barriers," Nomura added.
This year's meeting in Argentina represents the first time since its creation in 1984 that the Subcommittee meeting has been held outside of Europe and hosted by a G77 nation. This year's session is being chaired by Ramiro Sánchez of Argentina's Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries.
Sound management must underpin it all
According to FAO, good management of fisheries by developing nations is essential if they are going to continue to benefit over the longer term.
Increased demand for fish to supply international markets can sometimes result in excessive fishing pressure, potentially leading to over-exploitation and wasteful use of some fish stocks.
Last year FAO prepared a set of Guidelines for Responsible Fish Trade, which contain best practices and technical advice on how to maximize the poverty reduction, food security and nutrition benefits of fish trade while minimizing potential negative aspects.
Impacts of economic crisis
International trade in fish grew through most of 2008, but the global economic downturn led a drop in imports in almost all markets in 2009. Fish exports grew 8.7 per cent in 2008 to $102 billion; data for 2009 are stilling coming in, but estimates point to falling values and volumes both.
The EU is the largest market for imported fish. The value of imports to the EU-27 from non-European suppliers reaching $24.6 billion in 2008. Figures for 2009 show a six per cent fall in Euro terms.
In 2009, with $13.2 billion, Japan was the largest single-country import market, followed by the USA with $13.1 billion.