Developed nations view ‘beachfront property’ as an exclusive, premium property. In our case, [it is] inundation, overfishing, hardship, and challenging as we continue to live on it as ‘home’.
– Marshall Islands Fisheries Director Glen Joseph
I report quite frequently on fisheries in developing island nations of the Pacific, and I am always aware of how different perceptions can be. It is interesting to speak with local fishers in the developing world about the developed market countries in which their fishes land, as well as the end consumer of the products they harvest. In many cases, the products harvested in these developing island nations end up as, essentially, luxury goods in the developed world. Whether it’s a piece of sashimi grade yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) or a conspicuous angelfish (Chaetodontoplus conspicillatus) for a saltwater aquarium, it can be difficult for a local fisher to truly envision what a sushi restaurant in Laguna Beach, California or a large reef aquarium in Denver, Colorado looks like.
For a fisher who has more than likely earned a fraction of the fishes’ prices at the retail point-of-sale, understanding the lifestyle and financial capability of an individual who might spend a hundred dollars on a sushi meal or $2500 on an aquarium fish is akin to trying to understand life on Mars. Likewise, truly understanding the fisher’s situation is equally challenging for the developed world consumer making a purchase of a luxury fisheries product originating from a developing island nation.
In many cases, the same consumer capable of purchasing a product from a developing island fishery is in a position to weigh-in, if not directly impact, many of the issues facing developing island nations. Moving up the food chain, developed nations where these fishery products are landed are, more often than not, in a position to influence what happens on the ground in these developing island nations. And so we in the developed world–over sushi and in front of our aquaria–discuss global climate change, overfishing, ocean acidification, and a host of other issues as little more than that: issues. Too often, we don’t see the fisher who is being affected by the issues. Too often we make choices based on our own agendas, financial situations and time tables…on what we think is right based on our experience.
As Marshall Islands Fisheries Director Glen Joseph has pointed out time-and-again, this dynamic needs to change.
Truly sustainable fisheries, ones that put socio-economic sustainability on par with environmental sustainability, are a way to bridge the abyss between producers and consumers. They are a way to insure local fishers and fisher communities are part of the discussion when we discuss issues directly affecting developing island nations. There are many forces–market and otherwise–that continually sideline the local fisher from the so-called “big picture” debates regarding fisheries. There are too many initiatives–often thinly veiled under the guise of conservation–that would entirely cut local fishers out of the equation.
“We have all heard it from the international community on the wide-ranging issues affecting us.” says Joseph. “We have all seen it as first-hand victims of the effects of the global community on food security, overfishing and climate change. Yet [the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) group of the United Nations] is basically being pushed to one side while issues effecting them continue to be debated.” The Group is currently made up of 52 small island developing states in three regions.
Consumers in the developed world–you, me, the guy next to you at the sushi restaurant or behind you in line at the local saltwater aquarium store–we can begin to make a difference with something as simple as demanding the fisheries products available to us at the point-of-sale are sourced from sustainable fisheries where local fishers and fisher communities are directly benefitting in a sustainable manner from the sale of the products they harvest. Does that mean we will need to be willing to pay more for these fisheries products? At times it does, but isn’t the benefit to ecosystems and the people living adjacent and in close connection to those ecosystems worth it?
As Joseph implores us, it’s time we viewed so-called “beach-front property” throughout the developing island nations of the Pacific for what it is–somebody’s home. It’s time we aligned our environmental initiatives and market agendas with the people who will be most impacted in the immediate future by our erudite discussions and lofty ideals. It’s time we ask questions about where the fisheries products we buy originate, and it’s time we use our purchasing power to support sustainable fisheries.