Whose labels? Whose benefit?
12 / 1997
The MSC ecolabelling initiative must be viewed as a major landmark for global fishing. It shows that multinational companies (MNCs)are increasingly aware of conservation principles. Unilever’s refusal to henceforth buy oil from the fish-meal oil industry must also be hailed as an important step. This move will deal a severe blow to the Danish fleets targeting fishmeal species. These boats can also catch juveniles of other species, upsetting the delicate balance of the food chain in the oceans. They have been criticised by the majority of European fishermen and, therefore, the move to control fishing activities is a positive measure for European fisherfolk. However, the joint WWF-Unilever approach raises several questions.First, the agreement between the Unilever and WWF seems have ignored the fishermen, though it is precisely their future, which is at stake. It may be recalled that the Breton fishermen, who targeted tuna with drift-nets, were outraged when another environmental group, Greenpeace, campaigned for a ban on that type of gear. These fishermen were, however, able to engage with other organisations in a debate on the matter. The evolution of the European market, with a bias in favour of industrial fisheries, has been a major factor in the price slump, which has affected the welfare of fishermen. With initiatives like the MSC, environmental movements and MNCs may have a decisive influence not only on prices but also on the conditions that determine access to the market. Fishermen will also find it increasingly difficult to become masters of their own progress, even though it is claimed that consultations will be widely held and that an independent body will be established for the MSC. It is most likely, however, that certain actors will outweigh others. For instance, fishermen will find it more difficult to promote their case than well-known environmental groups. The second area of concern is the principles for ecolabelling, which the MSC proposes to develop. The MSC statement mentions that relevant UN documents such as the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries will be consulted. These documents, however, primarily emphasise the environmental aspects of resource management, not the social aspects. Present European efforts to save resources are based on limiting the number and capacity of vessels. The number of boats and fishermen has been decreasing, though fishing effort has been increasing. Welfare of fishers has been affected as workload on board fishing vessels becomes unbearable and accidents increase. Will social aspects then be included in defining ecolabels?In view of the diversity of fishery traditions and situations, attempts to work out principles at a global level will, by nature, face major problems. Through moves like the MSC, are we not going to replace a varied, regionalized, participatory approach with standardised principles that will apply uniformly to all the seas and oceans, without paying due attention to specific conditions? Think of the campaign for a ban on drift-nets.Finally, it is likely that there will be a bias towards consumers and large producers in major markets like Europe, Japan and US, who will be in a position to impose their views on responsible fishing. Promoting imports to countries whose food requirements are already largely met, while simultaneously refusing to address the needs of the more underprivileged countries, does not really exemplify the principles of sustainable development. Are the companies, which have embarked on this new ecolabel venture really blameless? Significantly, Unilever promoted the development of large-scale salmon farming. This was not really in tune with the principles of sustainable development. If ecolabelling is to promote responsible fishing, then there must be wider consultation, with fishermen participating right from the start. Such an approach is indeed becoming more frequent. For example, Breton fishermen have, for the past two years, been furnishing a label for sea breams caught by liners. They have been able to take on the competition from farmed sea breams.
While the use of ecolabels to encourage responsible fishing certainly has potential, a central issue definitely pertains to the decision-making processes. Given that it primarily fishworkers who will be affected by this initiative, it is imperative that their participation be secured right from the initial stages. It is certainly not enough to claim that they will be consulted. As long as powerful environmental groups and multinational corporations call the shots, fishworkers will find it difficult to put forth their views. There is an urgent need for an international fishworker’s organisation to work to influence the policies of major environmental and industrial groups and, at a later stage, to try and initiate ecolabelling processes over which they have direct control. This will also ensure that ecolabels take into account environmental and social aspects, as well as local specificities.
Articles and files
LE SANN, Alain, Whose labels? Whose benefit? in. Samudra Report, 1996/07, 15