GLOBAL - Top fishery officials from more than 50 countries have gathered in Morocco this week to review rapidly-shifting trade practices and patterns as aquaculture comes of age.
The delegations are examining emerging governance needs in a sector that provides the world with 17 per cent of its animal protein and developing countries with more export revenue than meat, tobacco, rice and sugar combined.
The globalisation of the fish trade, driven in large part by fast growth in aquaculture, raises challenging needs for better rules and practices regarding traceability, labour conditions and the protection of biodiversity as well as commercial preparations for shifts in demand, consumption habits, climate change impacts, and the rapid rise of supermarkets with their corollary supply chains.
"Trade in fish is much more important than people think, both in absolute and relative terms," said Audun Lem, Deputy-Director in the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation's Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division as well as secretary of the Sub-Committee on Fish Trade, whose biennial meeting is being held in Africa for the first time.
Dialogues over the week-long meeting in Morocco will help FAO, its member countries and industry representatives understand new trends, opportunities and challenges in the fishing sector, fostering the development of strategies that can "best position developing countries to develop their fisheries sectors in a sustainable manner and to maximise their economic benefit from the growth we expect to witness," Mr Lem said.
Ministers are also poised to agree in Agadir on FAO's proposed technical guidelines for catch documentation schemes, a set of documents testifying to the legal origin of the catch, facilitating traceability of the product throughout the supply chain. This could become an important tool in curbing illegal fishing, a goal mandated by the United Nations General Assembly.
As fish production, processing and consumption often takes place in different countries, international collaboration and harmonisation is critical to assure success in this effort.
Private sector engagement with a FAO project on catch documentation schemes for tuna has been unexpectedly high, reflecting industry interest in complying with sustainability goals.
Central to the effort is FAO's Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing which has now been ratified by 21 nations and is on course to have the 25 national ratifications required to enter into full legal force by the time the Committee on Fisheries, a global intergovernmental forum, meets at FAO's headquarters in July.
Work will also focus on harmonising certification requirements for fish exports to major international markets, where consumers as well as retailers are becoming more alert to quality, safety and legality concerns.
Sustainably serving those lucrative markets is of critical importance to developing countries, where most fish - whether caught in the wild or grown in cages or farm ponds - are produced.
International trade of fish and fishery products has doubled in a decade to $144 billion in 2014. Of that, lower-income nations together exported $78 billion in 2014, more than three times the value of global rice exports.
Much of the sector's dynamism is due to aquaculture, whose output has more than tripled to 78 million tonnes over the past 20 years, making it the world's fastest-growing food producing sector.
While most fish farms are in Asia, aquaculture's highest growth rates have of late been in Africa and South and Central America, where its marginal contribution to food security can be higher than elsewhere precisely due to the fact that per-capita consumption of fish in these emerging regions has traditionally been low.
One reason aquaculture has altered industry dynamics is that its production methods are typically far less seasonal and volatile than open-sea fishing. This allows for easier access to insurance or credit - there are now salmon futures - and even tailored solutions such as assuring the provision of fattier salmon suitable for smoking.
Aquaculture, with its predictable rhythms and focus on more standardized products, also enables a longer-term and more intensive approach to supply chains. If managed efficiently, food waste can be minimised and food safety enhanced, investments in cold-storage facilities incentivised, all enabling supermarkets to plan and guarantee procurement.
New trends are emerging wherein fewer but larger operators vertically transform the industry structure, a process well advanced with species such as shrimp, tilapia, Atlantic salmon and European sea bass and bream. This can enable more investment in selective breeding, logistics, marketing and brand differentiation strategies, according to Mr Lem.
The evolving distribution infrastructure can benefit capture fisheries, which face greater pressure to adopt sustainable practices - such as better handling methods, reducing discards and waste. And governments the world over are now collaborating to reduce and eliminate illegal fishing operations through better rules and improved enforcement.
In broad terms, capture fisheries will be pushed to target consumer needs more closely rather than selling whatever is landed, and to create value by moving into higher-priced niches that highlight qualities such as uniqueness and natural origins. FAO expects wild-caught fish to grow modestly in volume terms while its share of the market for human consumption declines to 38 per cent in 2030.
Changes on the plate
The seafood menu is changing in many ways, as exemplified by the fact that, for the first time in history, more fresh tuna was flown to the US than to Japan.
Shifts in age-old patterns are likely to become a common feature in the future of fish, especially as developing countries increase their share of world imports. And develop local production for domestic demand.
Since 2013, salmon and trout have replaced shrimp as the most important commodity traded in value terms.
In 2014 Vietnam passed Thailand to become the world's third-largest exporter of fish products, led by the rapid internationalisation of pangasius, a freshwater white fish that competes with sea-based species such as cod, hake and pollock. Meanwhile, trading in octopus has been growing sharply in the past few years, whereas squid sales have been sluggish.
TheFishSite News Desk