Australia is surrounded by the Indian, Pacific and Southern oceans and located among countries of great cultural and biological diversity. A constant but subtle theme in human development in the region is the use and dependence on fish and other aquatic life – for sustenance, for trade, for livelihood and for the environment.
In modern times, fish in the region has been a source of stability and instability – and over time the same resource may cause either. For example, in the last 20 years in Asia, the huge growth of shrimp farming and other aquaculture has helped fuel the economic growth of Thailand, Bangladesh and Vietnam. In these countries, fish exports dominate those of all other agricultural commodities, e.g., in Vietnam in 2001, US$1.8 billion of seafood was exported versus US$600 million of rice.
At times, the prosperity brought by such growth has been destabilised by sudden trade restrictions such as blanket bans over product quality on shrimp exports to the European Union from Bangladesh, the US ban on the use of the name "catfish" for the native Vietnamese catfish, and the US imposition of tariffs for shrimp from some countries. The growth of shrimp farming has also generated sporadic environmental and social protests.
Other examples of the stabilising forces of fish and fisheries are the strong Pacific regional harmonisation of tuna fisheries arrangements through the work of the Secretariat for the Pacific Community and the Forum Fisheries Agency – Australia is a strong member of both arrangements – and scientific collaborations with neighbouring countries over fisheries and environmental assessments.
In war times, fishing can offer a welfare safety net. This is witnessed during the recent years of civil conflict in the Solomon Islands when paying jobs dried up and agriculture was not feasible for displaced people. In other difficult times, the safety net of subsistence fishing may prevent instability, as millions of the poor of Cambodia and Laos know in the annual cycle of the mighty Mekong River.
Fish can also lead to destabilizing forces such as when illegal fishing strains relations between countries.
Despite the pervasive nature of fish issues in the region, they are often not visible on the political agenda until a crisis occurs. This raises the fundamental question of whether we could make fish a greater force for stability?
I believe the answer is yes. We are at such a stage of understanding and capacity in the above types of fish issues to develop national approaches that address the complex challenges of fish in all regional agendas, including aid, the environment, fisheries, aquaculture and trade.
Already, many different parts of overseas aid and bilateral arrangements address fish issues. We have an opportunity to make the total more than the sum of the parts. The fish related activities have grown organically from many different seeds. They would now benefit from a new coherence and a comprehensive examination of opportunities and risks. For example, fish pop up in the aid program as means of livelihood to help landmine victims in Cambodia, as small business enterprises for women in Indonesia, as ‘scientific bridges’ between Australia and neighbouring countries and as part of the conservation message delivered to coastal communities by our Young Ambassadors for Development.
A thematic strategy, such as done last year for water (Making Every Drop Count: water and Australian aid) can add value to the activities by describing the multi-faceted challenges, canvassing the options and resources available for their solution, including people and expertise, and creating focus on the most promising strategies.
Australia has much to offer. It has become a world leader in fisheries and conservation through such mechanisms as its Oceans Policy and the tough moves to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Australia is also a world leader in applying international agricultural research to mutual advantage in the development program through ACIAR.
Australia’s agricultural and fisheries scientists, managers and aid experts possess an outstanding capacity to help ensure that fish contribute more to stability in the region. The capacity that could be brought together resides in Australia’s aid agencies (AusAID and ACIAR), in the private sector, in several government line departments and authorities such as agriculture and trade and in non-government and civil society agencies and universities. Australia’s international fisheries and agricultural research capacity is well on stream through the excellent "mutual benefits" strategy used by ACIAR. Even more importantly, this strategy is implemented by collaboration between Australians and researchers in developing countries, thus building our regional partners' capacity and building international relations at the same time.
Now seems to be just the time to apply Australia’s capacity in fish more fully to the regional agenda for stability.
This is based on a keynote speech to an international development conference held at Parliament House, Canberra, on 11 August entitled “Fish, Aquaculture and Food Security: Sustaining Fish as a Food Supply”.