This menu organises news, documents, projects, profiles and links into key topics, and the menu along the top divides the contents of the site by type.
Bycatch / discards
Chain of custody / Supply chain management
Corruption / mismanagement
Flag state issues
Governance / management
International trade / WTO
Monitoring, control and surveillance
Port state issues
Retail / consumers
18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Enmeshed: Australia and South-East Asia's fisheries
Distressing and perhaps threatening stories, depending on your perspective, of Indonesian fishing vessels apprehended in Australia's northern waters have become common. We explore what is driving this phenomena and what can Australia do about it.
The Indonesian fishing transgressions are but one relatively minor, though significant manifestation of what is happening in fisheries in the South-East Asian region, and indeed globally. The history of fishing shows that fish stocks that are not properly managed end up threatened with survival. This lesson is stark for Australia and its neighbours in South-East Asia who are enmeshed through connections over fish - connections that become problematic when they threaten the basis of good fisheries management and are explored in more depth in a recent Lowy Institute paper.
Australia manages and protects its fish stocks better than most. The Commonwealth, State and Territory governments share the burden of responsibility. They use scientific, economic and environmental advice and consult with fishers and the public. The main management goals are sustaining the fisheries resources and their environment, supporting economically viable commercial fishing industries and vibrant recreational fishing.
To our north, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are now in the top 12 fish producing countries in the world. Nearly 100 million people are directly dependent on the fishing industries and their related service sectors and nearly all South-East Asians eat fish.
Australia's connections with South-East Asia are important for Australia's own fisheries management. The key connections are, first, fish trade. Australia imports more than half its fish because its own fish catch is small, though high value. Three times as much will be imported by 2050. South-East Asia supplies almost half Australian fish imports. Thailand and Vietnam are number one and three fish suppliers, respectively. Yet, South-East Asian large marine fish resources face big problems.
The second key connection is illegal cross-border fishing, especially by vessels from Indonesia, a world fishing giant. Even a small fraction of its huge fishing fleet presents a threat to Australian fish resources. Illegal cross-border fishing is an unwelcome connection between countries throughout South-East Asia, and not an Australian problem alone.
The third connection is the challenge of managing shared fish stocks such as sharks and snappers. These stocks can be overfished if over fishing is happening on just one side of the border.
The fourth connection concerns tuna stocks that Australia cares about. Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines feature prominently in southern bluefin, Pacific and Indian ocean tuna fishing and trade.
These fish connections are underlaid by regional problems that cause international tensions. The three most serious underlying problems are, first, uncontrolled fishing allowing too many fishing vessels and treating fish resources as a source of unlimited commercial return. Second, regional fisheries regulatory bodies are overlapping but incomplete. Third, much basic data to guide action is not available, such as up to date stock status, accurate fish catch composition, what stocks are shared and basic information on the human dimensions of fishing and fish marketing.
Australia has two options for handling the challenges of fisheries connections.
One option is 'business as usual'. Australia already has major and respected bilateral and multilateral fisheries engagements with South-East Asia. But, alternatively, a second option is a more holistic re-examination, leading to a deeper and more strategic engagement - the comprehensive engagement option.
The justification for the comprehensive approach is that business as usual may be too reactive for the future and its costs and co-ordination needs are mounting. Australia needs to work closely with South-East Asian countries to help them seriously address the underlying causes - overcapacity, limited stocks, inadequate regional management and poor data.
A comprehensive fisheries engagement would need two stages. First, undertake a national analysis of the issues and options; and then engage with South-East Asian neighbours.
The first stage would be under the joint leadership of the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Environment and Heritage and Foreign Affairs and Trade, and would examine the priorities of a comprehensive fisheries engagement between Australia and the countries of South-East Asia and Papua New Guinea. The initial analysis and forward planning should also include other Commonwealth and certain northern State agencies involved in border security, development assistance and research.
Above all, the comprehensive approach would endeavour to bring all relevant Australian agencies with a role onto the same page. It would put the work of each agency in perspective and it would make good use of existing knowledge.
On the basis of the above analyses and the development of a national approach, Australia should stimulate interest in dialogue and engagement among South-East Asia and Papua New Guinea governments.
Although we cannot guess what the more comprehensive engagement might set as priorities, we are tempted to suggest five specific policy priorities that might be in a comprehensive engagement.
1. Improve regional fisheries management organisations: South-East Asian countries have been slow to sign and ratify many of the UN fisheries legal instruments such as the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement. Australia should continue its efforts to have the big fishing countries - Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand - take a more active role in the regional management organisations, especially for tunas.
2. Fix up the northwest Australia 'MoU Box' arrangements with Indonesia: with the co-operation of the Government of Indonesia, Australia should work to help understand and define the historical, current and likely future patterns of fishing vessel use of this conservation area and then make appropriate changes to long term access arrangements for traditional Indonesian fishers.
3. Inform consumers: Australia should promote market-based, supply chain schemes such as country of origin labelling and chain of custody identification to help combat illegal fishing and increase public and retail pressure for sustainable fish products.
4. Help make decentralisation work: Australia's experience with the Offshore Constitutional Settlement between the States and the Commonwealth could offer insights for Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, all of whom have decentralisation programs that affect fisheries' regulation.
5. Support marine environment conservation: In the 1998 National Oceans Policy, Australia introduced a regional marine planning approach that offers models for ecosystem based management across levels of government. Australia should continue to support marine environmental efforts by global and regional networks for coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses. These networks are like the 'IPCCs' of their fields and all grew from Australian aid programs of the 1980s.
Whether 'business as usual' or the comprehensive approach prevails, Australia should embed a number of general approaches in all its bilateral and multi-lateral fisheries efforts. Here are some approaches with a proven track record.
* Australia should give priority to helping South-East Asian countries build their fisheries management capacity, research and information management skills. We should also help fisheries officers to raise the profile of fisheries and represent fisheries interests in trade, industry development and environment forums.
* Australia should embed the principle of stakeholder inclusion in its fisheries interventions by stressing the importance of including views from fishers' representatives, environmental organisations, women's and community groups, consumers and the supermarket, fast food and fish processing sectors.
* With sensitivity to the political, cultural and economic circumstances of other countries, Australian fisheries co-operation should help the countries develop rights-based management.
* Australia should substantially increase the quantum of co-operative fisheries and marine conservation research to support long-term fisheries engagement.
* Australia should join with regional bodies such as FAO-APFIC, ASEAN and SEAFDEC to create a regional process to assess fisheries resources and to provide publicly available scientific advice for fisheries management. These assessments would be like those in the periodic fisheries status reports of the Bureau of Rural Sciences and some States and Territories.
To give some idea of the three underlying problems - overcapacity, inadequate regional organisations and data gaps - we describe how they manifest in South-East Asia.
Uncontrolled fishing in an era of limited resources arose with the great expansion of South-East Asian fishing - and aquaculture - in recent decades. The first expansion phase from 1950 to the end of the 1970s was the age of fishing industrialisation and the race for fish unconstrained by national borders. The second expansion phase was from the 1980s to the present as the open frontiers were closed by sea territory claims under the 1982 UN Law of the Sea and by overfishing that closed off many fishing options and ended the rise in production from wild fisheries. However, paradoxically, the number of fishers and boats is still increasing in South-East Asia. Fish prices are increasing and most countries still have open access to fishing or are weak on controlling numbers. This is a growth paradigm that does not match the reality of the resources and degrading marine environments.
Australia is affected directly by Indonesian overcapacity. The marine resources of Indonesia, the fourth largest fish producer in the world, are close to fully exploited, and a significant number of fisheries, even in remote eastern Indonesia, are already over-exploited. Yes, the intensity of fishing is still increasing and all resources will be fully exploited or over-exploited within a decade. Indonesian fishers and legal, semi-legal and illegal foreign fishers in Indonesian waters are hungry for more fish and this hunger can result in internal illegal fishing, and illegal fishing in Australia, in other countries and in international waters.
The similar story is heard in the other major South-East Asian fishing countries but the boundaries of marine fisheries sustainability were reached earlier. In Thailand's most important fishing ground, the Gulf of Thailand, the density of fish declined by 86 per cent from 1961 to 1991. The fish are now smaller, of different types and less valuable. Sixty per cent of the Gulf of Thailand trawl catch is sold as 'trash fish' to fishmeal manufacturers. And Thailand is the number one source of Australia's fish imports. However, a lot of what we import from Thailand, such as tuna in cans, comes from fish caught elsewhere and processed in the highly developed Thai fish processing sector.
Vietnam is a new fishing power and a growing source of Australian imports. Most of Australia's Vietnam imports come from aquaculture, such as prawns and catfish fillets - often grown on feeds made partly of trash fish. Between 1981 and 1999, Vietnam tripled its fishing capacity but only doubled its marine fish catch - a sure sign of declining resources. In areas such as the Gulf of Tonkin which Vietnam shares with China, the decline has been even more severe because vessels from both countries pressure the fish resources.
In the Philippines, most marine fisheries were overexploited by the 1980s, with catch rates now as low as 10 per cent of rates when fishing grounds were lightly fished.
In short, South-East Asian countries continue to fish their depleted but still valuable fish resources hard, and continue to allow their fleet fishing capacity to expand, almost as though resources were unlimited. The countries recognise the coastal fisheries problems but tend not to address them directly. The typical policy reaction is to develop offshore, distant water fishing and aquaculture, and leave the difficult coastal fishing problems unresolved.
Can Australia help countries develop the means to address the overcapacity problems, other than to catch the spillover when it crosses the sea border?
The second underlying fisheries problem is that regional fisheries regulation is served by a plethora of management organisations that are making only slow headway on critical issues, especially illegal fishing and shared stock management. Illegal fishing is outwitting the efforts of many national and regional fisheries management bodies. Most countries prefer to handle the hard issues bilaterally, if at all. In addition, other non-South-East Asian economies are also interested in the fisheries of South-East Asia, especially Japan, China and Taiwan, and European and Latin American countries.
The third underlying problem is a lack of basic data, such as data on shared stocks, the social and cultural characteristics and the dynamics of fishing communities - like the Bajo of Indonesia who traditionally fished the MoU Box, the impact of illegal fishing and the extent of environmental degradation of mangroves and seagrasses.
And who can project what global warming and ocean acidification will do? These data gaps are delaying and complicating effective regional action. For example, if we don't understand which fish stocks are shared across national boundaries, we don't know whether we have to manage them jointly or separately.
Only a few scientific studies - most funded by the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research - have been conducted to study shared stocks and improving tuna data collection. These studies are time consuming, but essential, and they also help build scientific bridges between countries.
Australia and South-East Asia's enmeshed fishing interests will lead to international fishing tensions unless regional overcapacity is reduced, the exploitation limits of fish stocks are recognised, regional organisations become effective in eliminating illegal fishing and reaching sustainable catch levels, and basic data gaps are filled.
Australia already performs well in regional fisheries engagements but a more comprehensive approach to the fisheries connections could elevate the contribution. The challenge: is Australia prepared to further help the region and help itself by a more comprehensive regional fisheries engagement?
Dr Meryl Williams is a fisheries specialist with experience in Australian and international fisheries research and policy, especially in Asia and the Pacific region. From 1994-2004 she was Director General of the WorldFish Center in the Philippines and Malaysia. She currently holds a number of non-executive positions, including Chair of the Commission for the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research and has just been made an Honorary Life Member of the Asian Fisheries Society.
Dr Malcolm Cook is the Program Director Asia & the Pacific at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.
click to view source website
Issues/Chain of custody / Supply chain management
Issues/Governance / management
Issues/International trade / WTO
Oceania/Papua New Guinea