Corporatised NGOs say maximum profit saves fisheries

A recent report sets out a global vision for ‘transitioning to sustainable fisheries’. It is an important publication, being the outcome of collaboration among many of the world’s most influential environmental organisations; the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), WWF, Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Other contributors to this report are the World Bank and the Prince of Wales International Sustainability Unit. All of these organisations are now part of a new initiative called 50in10 (also listed as a co-publisher of the report), a Washington based organisation that describes itself as:

“A collaborative initiative among NGOs, businesses, public and private investors, philanthropies, and governments. Driven by their respective mandates and capabilities, these organizations coordinate their activities and share tools and expertise to accelerate fisheries restoration so that communities can prosper”. (emphasis added) 

50in10 is a name chosen because the World Bank’s president demanded in 2012 that in 10 years 50% of the world’s fisheries should be restored, thereby increasing the global contribution made by fisheries to between 20 and $30 billion. On its new website, replete with inspiring photos of small-scale fishers in developing countries, 50in10 describe this new report as ground breaking – for the first time all these organisations have put their heads together to come up with a new framework to increase investments for sustainable fisheries.

But what they are saying in this report is neither new nor ground breaking. It represents the latest in a line of publications by a group of people determined to resolve a host of problems related to fisheries through privatisation and profit maximisation, - what the World Bank celebrates as the ‘Wealth Based Approach’.  These corporatized NGOs believe that capitalism has the power to achieve a triple win scenario – good for the environment, good for communities and good for the “bottom line” of businesses.

The new report describes that through careful research from around the world they have discovered three vital ingredients to ensure fisheries produces maximum wealth, a concept used confusingly as a proxy for sustainable fisheries.

One of these is that fishing should not involve overfishing. This is described as being very important for any investors wanting to get involved in the sector – they must appreciate that taking too many fish from the sea is not good for making profits.

The second ingredient to maximising wealth in fisheries is to make sure fishing companies have secure tenure rights, which means giving companies long term tradable rights for owning fish and parts of the sea. This is a longstanding recommendation made by some fisheries economists and includes implementing ‘catch shares’ or “Individual Transferable Quotas” – something that EDF has been advocating for years. The logic here is bound up with the famous ‘tragedy of the commons’ essay by Garrett Hardin (duly referenced in the report), used to explain the root cause of overfishing; under open access everyone is fighting for their share without any security for the long term. Once companies have long-term ownership over their resource, they become careful stewards of nature and will not want to spoil their cash cow (“secure tenure ties current behaviour to future outcomes and incentivises fishers to invest in long term sustainability…the immediate economic impact of establishing secure tenure can be dramatic”). This is the mantra of self regulating free markets writ large.

The third ingredient is for states to ensure that fisheries have robust monitoring and enforcement. There is an obvious paradox here given that fisheries are supposed to be self regulating if companies have secure tenure – so why the need for state regulation? The answer is that the real problem is with outsiders, including illegal vessels and communities who are not educated about responsible fishing. So regulation is more about providing a secure environment for investments, and policing the private property of companies that may be made less valuable by ignorant outsiders and pirates (“ensuring robust monitoring and enforcement will significantly reduce the risk of investment in the transition, as it either reduces or eliminates existing IUU [illegal, unreported, unregulated] activity and discourages any new IUU activity from starting.”)

These three ingredients to maximising wealth are described as irrefutable based on “research and evidence”.  Yet experiments in transferable quotas have produced widely differing outcomes, and the fable of overfishing being caused by ‘open access’ and the tragedy of the commons is misleading – there are few fisheries that have ever been characterised as open access, and there are countless examples to show that fishing companies with quite secure interests in parts of the sea have plundered this resource with disregard for sustainable ecosystems, making great returns on investments in the process. Corporations do not become good environmental stewards through secure property rights. Where ITQs have coincided with improved fishing practices, this has always relied on a great deal of regulation, which fishing companies tend to fight vigorously against. We expect green NGOs to fight back against this and tackle the major challenge of ‘regulatory capture’ in fisheries – but not 50in10, who prefer instead to depict NGOs as strategic business partners: “NGOs have played and can continue to play an important role in providing investment, education and technical assistance that support industry in increasing their market value” (emphasis added). 

Another point of contention with ‘secure tenure’ is the well-known problem with transferable quota systems – they open the way to financial speculation by investors and concentration of wealth. This is why so many smaller companies and fisher communities dislike them. This may be a policy to maximise economic rents from fisheries, but it can drive inequalities and create the classic winner takes all scenario. EDF knows all about this as it has been subject to fierce criticisms from fishers in the US and Canada where these experiments with investor friendly fisheries have been pushed forward. One hopes the organisations involved in 50in10 read the “The Global Ocean Grab” by another group of organisations more interested in social justice for fishing communities than lining the pockets of big business.

“Today we are witnessing a major process of enclosure of the world’s oceans and fisheries resources, including marine, coastal and inland fisheries. Ocean grabbing is occurring mainly through policies, laws, and practices that are (re)defining and (re)allocating access, use and control of fisheries resources away from small-scale fishers and their communities, and often with little concern for the adverse environmental consequences”

The ground breaking report by the world’s largest green NGOs on how to harness private investments to achieve sustainable fisheries disregards these counter arguments emanating from fisher communities. It is also remarkable for not actually being concerned with fishing communities at all. The basic question of how all this extra wealth that is on offer will trickle down to workers and fishers is left out of the equation. Why aren't these organisations questioning the environmental and social impacts of a global economic model dependent on growth and profit maximisation?     

From "Towards Investment In Sustainable Fisheries"

From "Towards Investment In Sustainable Fisheries"

The report continues from the three ingredients for profit maximisation to list the factors that can help increase value for investors in fisheries (although why investors need to be told all this by green NGOs is distinctly odd). This includes reducing “operational inefficiencies” and ensuring "business flexibility", familiar signifiers for reduced pay to workers and labour security ("improving the operational efficiency of a fishery includes any activity that reduces the cost of fishing or delivering seafood through the supply chain. Increasing efficiency and overall profit margins will improve the return on investment"). Then it champions the merits of voluntary certification for fish products such as that provided by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), although again failing to reflect on the full range of debates on eco-labelling, including its ambiguous contribution to sustainable fisheries and potentially negative impact for small-scale fisheries.  Daniel Pauly - one of the most recognised marine biologists in the world criticised the MSC as merely "doing the business for the business community"

The report then drifts off into several pages of advice on how to build new investment strategies and why it is important that investors consider risks carefully - “a multi-species fishery in a developing country with jurisdictional complexity, limited rule of law and limited access to market" is a particularly risky investment prospect. Investors are also instructed on the pros and cons of “mezzanine”, “anchor equity” or “concessional loan” investments and so on. At this point the report reveals itself for what it is – not a ground breaking report on social and ecological sustainability in fisheries, but a proposal by many large organisations involved in fisheries to get more investors interested in funding their work (“to encourage investors towards this sector, a pipeline of projects needs to be developed”). A wealth based approach indeed. 

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