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Australian fishing will struggle without co-ordinated international fish policies

By Meryl Williams - posted Wednesday, 2 July 2003

For nearly nine years I have lived as an expatriate Australian. Among the several ways I keep current with Australian news is the welcome batch of local press clippings my mother regularly sends me from the Townsville newspapers. She carefully and thoroughly selects the clippings which match my interests (fish and other living aquatic resource management and biological issues). Therefore, I receive much news of the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland recreational and commercial fisheries, and of course the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Recent envelopes have been getting fatter and coming more often - a result of the greater coverage of marine and aquatic resource news. Little of it is good news.

The recreational and commercial fishers and their families are deeply concerned about their future livelihoods. The Governments and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority are concerned for the future of the Reef, its fish and its fishers. Scientists are finding more going wrong with the exquisite biological functioning of the Reef. There are at least ten dangerous species of 'stingers' to look out for. And the dreadful drought that grips Australia is worrying not just the farmers and keen gardeners but also the corals.

This is north Queensland but it could be almost anywhere in the world, rich or poor, that makes a good living off fish and other living aquatic resources.


Unfortunately, all around the world, conflicts abound over the use of natural resources such as fish, reefs, land and water. Conflicts over access to fishing grounds, conflicts between fishers and environmentalists, and trade conflicts between countries. In the last year we have had North Sea cod fishers blockading shipping to protest quota cuts; North and South Korea fighting over fishing grounds; the United States resisting the import of Vietnamese catfish on the grounds of its common name and its price, and continued friction in Australia over new controls on trawl fisheries.

Governments, resource users and stakeholders clearly need new and better ways of managing such conflicts. These 'fish fights' are expensive, consume a great deal of human time and energy and often do not lead directly to greater resource sustainability. Worse still, as any conflict can potentially lead to insecurity, and in the extreme, terrorism, much better ways of resolving the conflicts are needed.

The challenges (and the conflicts) facing fish-dependent communities around the world were tackled recently at the Fish for All Summit. Nearly 300 participants from over 40 countries including fisheries specialists, development assistance experts, fishers organisations, civil society representatives, and several government fisheries ministers from Asia and Africa participated in the Summit. Among the conclusions of the Summit was that conflict resolution must become much more effective to achieve "Fish for All" forever.

Recognising that conflicts will arise in fisheries resource allocation and rights issues is a critical first step in preparing for managing and resolving them. Finding common ground among stakeholders and building consensus are the next steps. Too often the actual evolution of a conflict goes from a surprise incident to finger-pointing and accusations that polarise the parties from an early stage, even when there are considerable common grounds for agreement.

Solutions lie not just in recognising and expecting disagreements when scarce resources and livelihood options are in question. Society needs a range of tools for use from the local community to national and international levels.

Governments have produced a large number of international treaties and conventions, sometimes in efforts to resolve the conflicts, but the Fish for All Summit concluded that coordination is needed among them. Often these treaties and conventions are negotiated and managed by officials from departments without direct experience and knowledge of fisheries (e.g. development assistance, agriculture, health, trade, etc) and so their implications for fish are not directly included.


The recent World Summit on Sustainable Development, completed in Johannesburg in September, also highlighted fish issues in a big way. It set some tough targets such as to rebuild fish stocks by 2015 where possible and to move more towards an ecosystem approach to fisheries management by 2012. To achieve these targets, governments will need to enlist all their ingenuity and rally stakeholder cooperation - conflicts will need to be faced and managed early if the timetable is to be at all realistic. Thus, although the treaties and plans do not do the job itself, they do provide clear, coordinated goals and targets for all countries and certainly have a place in the toolbox for conflict resolution.

Scientists can help resolve conflicts by providing the facts if these are in dispute or, when personal values are at the base of the disputes, by developing and advising on socially and politically acceptable approaches to conflict and dispute resolution. Social science has much to offer in this area. Scientists and their institutions are forging new alliances with stakeholders to better address the issues. The Fish for All initiative, coordinated by WorldFish Center, is an example of such an alliance between research, development, environmental and fisheries groups.

Communities, local and state governments have a particularly vital role to play as the custodians of the natural resources. As an applied scientist, I contend that this role will increasingly rely on science but each community will develop and impose its own needs and values on its custodian role, within the norms set by higher levels of elected government.

You may be thinking that fish are somewhat marginal but consider this: the events of the last two years in the US and in Bali have all caused us, in our own ways, to look more carefully at our future security. Australia, despite its large landmass, has one of the world's highest percentages of coastal population and fish and fishing are part of the attraction. Additionally, for many poor people in Australia's neighbouring developing countries, basic food security was somehow underpinned by access to fish supplies. Now, even that is threatened unless attention is paid to how to achieve Fish for All, forever.

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About the Author

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 member of the Governing Board of the International Crop Research Center for the Semi Arid Tropics and is an Honorary Life Member of the Asian Fisheries Society.

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