Seafood Trade and the Environment:
Balancing a Shrinking Resource
The question arises: even if seafood demand remains moderately strong, will current stocks be able to feed a growing world population?
In a recent Washington Post article ("Today's Catch - and Tomorrow's," Outlook section, Sunday, March 20, 1994), Jessica Mathews, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that 13 of 17 major species worldwide are depleted or in serious decline. The other four are fully exploited, or overexploited. Since 1989, she states, the global fish harvest has been dropping, despite intense effort (and the use of improved technology).
The picture painted by Mathews is bleak indeed: "The catch of 9 of the 12 Atlantic groundfish stocks has collapsed. The take of such species as cod, haddock and flounder is down by 70 to 85 percent. Clam and oyster catches are down by half. Pacific salmon are nearing commercial or biological extinction."
Only rigorous fisheries management, say Mathews and others, can save the stocks. But with world population expected to double by 2035, even brilliant and downright harsh fisheries management will have a tough time preserving stocks and providing seafood to a hungry world. At present seafood accounts for about one-sixth of the world's animal protein, protein which is in short supply - or at least widely unavailable - given that some 800 million people are malnourished.
In addition to concerns about food, there are also other environmental issues which relate to trade agreements such as GATT, according to policy expert Peter Brown, of the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs.
"I don't agree with the world view of which this [trade agreement] is the progeny," Brown says. GATT, according to Brown, places too much emphasis on the old "neoclassical" approach to economics, an approach that has often led us to overexploit natural resources such as fish stocks. GATT, according to Brown, may actually hurt our efforts to address pressing environmental questions.
"Take the tuna controversy," Brown says. In that case the U.S. said that it would no longer import tuna from Mexico, because current fishing practices were inadvertently killing large numbers of porpoises. Mexico complained, through the GATT mechanism, that this constituted a "restraint to trade." Mexico won that round, according to Brown.
The impact of such policies, Brown says, is also apparent in other areas, such as the reforestation program underway in Canada. According to Brown, the U.S. objected that Canada's reforestation efforts constituted an unfair government subsidy to that nation's timber industry. And, he says, the U.S. won.
"The GATT," Brown says, "can potentially interfere with the 'carrots and sticks' we might otherwise use to affect policy, including environmental policy."
We may not, Brown worries, be able to guide the behavior of nations, in the interest of "ecological preservation and stability." Trade agreements like GATT, he argues, may have effects we never intended.