Strategies in Food Security: Thinking Seriously about Fish in Southeast Asia
January 24, 2013
With an estimated one billion people going hungry every day, food security is one of the most pressing issues the world will face this century. As an integral part of the United States’ rebalance toward Asia, food security policy needs to shift away from its historic focus on rice agriculture to address the potential disaster faced by the region’s fisheries. Fully 84 percent of global fisheries are seriously overexploited—many are near collapse—and Southeast Asia is one of the regions where this trend is most apparent.
Fisheries are integral to the way of life of many Southeast Asians. Perhaps the best example of this is Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands that is home to 240 million people and houses the “Amazon” of fisheries and coral reefs within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Fish accounts for only 5.2 percent of
Indonesia’s GDP, but it provided 72 percent of its animal protein consumption in 2011. It is also the primary source of livelihood for coastal communities that have few other alternatives for employment. Indonesia faces many serious threats to its fisheries. The changing global climate caused by increased carbon emissions has resulted in the ocean absorbing more heat and becoming more acidic. These two changes are expected to radically alter traditional fish habitats around Indonesia. Currents circulating nutrients will change course and fragile coral ecosystems are expected to shrink. Because of climatic changes and environmental degradation over the past four decades, over 40 percent of coral reefs and mangroves have been destroyed in the “coral triangle” in which Indonesia is located.
Beyond that, overfishing is driving Indonesian fisheries to the brink. Indonesia’s waters are “open access,” attracting not only legal fishing vessels but also illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) vessels from distant nations. IUU fishing vessels are estimated to create a minimum loss of $3 billion to the Indonesian economy each year.
With little policing and a growing number of industrial-scale fishing vessels entering Indonesian waters, fish are now being caught faster than they can reproduce. Aquaculture may seem like an obvious solution to this problem, but unsustainable practices like feeding farmed fish with meal made of wild fish and inefficient farming practices often increase environmental degradation and the risk of disease in the fish themselves.
These problems are not unique to Indonesia. They are region-wide problems that need region-wide action. There is growing awareness in the U.S. government that the health of the region’s fish resources poses a serious threat to the people of Southeast Asia. The United States has responded by becoming one of the region’s strongest partners in the Coral Triangle Initiative, which aims to protect coral reefs and fisheries and work toward climate change adaptation in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries in the region.
A joint U.S.-Indonesian statement in September 2012 included a section on supporting an Indonesian marine reserve and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s vision of a “blue economy”—an environmentally sustainable economy based on the ocean. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration are helping Indonesia with ocean surveillance and data collection, climate change resilience, and fishery enforcement and are working with local communities to find employment alternatives to the fishing industry.
But more needs to be done in placing fisheries management firmly at the heart of Washington’s food security paradigm. This could include ensuring that environmental considerations are included in trade agreements and given increased priority in intergovernmental organizations.
The United States is a major customer of Southeast Asian fisheries and it is paramount that the process of acquiring fish in the region becomes more transparent. A system of fish import certification should be implemented to ensure that the origin of fish can be traced.
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines the origin of a product based on where it is processed prior to arriving on U.S. shores. But this creates a loophole under which the United States can import illegally caught fish. For example, if fish is illegally sourced in Indonesian waters but processed in Thailand, it is labeled as a ‘Thai product” when it reaches the U.S. consumer.
Creating a system of “catch certificates” like that implemented by the European Union in 2008 could help. However, many of the organizations offering “sustainable seafood certifications” are fakes. A U.S.-approved list of reliable certifications would keep both U.S. importers and consumers informed when they purchase seafood.
The United States should also seek to expand public-private partnerships. The U.S. government and the private sector have shared interests in sustainable seafood: the private sector does not want fish stocks to become overexploited and is facing a consumer that is becoming more concerned about sustainability. A possible model for such collaboration is the Fishing and Living Initiative between USAID and Anova Food, the United States’ largest distributor of sashimi-grade tuna. Through this program, Anova purchases only pole-and-line caught tuna directly from small coastal fishing communities, thereby supporting sustainable fishing practices and the livelihoods of local fishing communities.
Several systemic changes need to occur if these strategies are to be effective. First, the U.S. private sector and consumer must actively drive the demand for sustainably sourced seafood. There are some positive signs that the movement for sustainable seafood is slowly gaining momentum: since Greenpeace introduced its seafood retailer scorecard in 2008, roughly 80 percent of U.S. supermarkets have improved the sustainability of their seafood supplies.
Most seriously, Southeast Asian fisheries are threatened by the lack of regulations and policing in their EEZs. With the “open-access” model already proving to be a recipe for disaster, the only logical alternative is to limit access to EEZs. Regional cooperation may be the best answer to managing migratory fish stocks.
One of the best existing models for this is the Parties to the Nauru Agreement in the central Pacific that aims to limit fishery access through bilateral agreements. Such regional cooperation will fall short of expectations, however, when it faces a lack of resources to enforce the agreements, tenuous cooperation among members of the organization, and corruption within its administration.
The threats faced by fisheries in Southeast Asia cannot be overemphasized. If the fisheries collapse, not only will there be food shortages, but the livelihood of millions of Southeast Asians will be destroyed. In the spirit of the United States’ rebalance toward Asia, Washington’s food security strategy must include protection of the region’s fisheries. Otherwise, the United States will miss an opportunity to help boost regional security in an area where it matters most.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the January 24, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)
Elke Larsen is the research assistant for the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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