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The Emergence of SEAFish for Justice

Fisheries resources in South and Southeast Asia are under increasing pressure. Many marginalized communities depend on these resources for subsistence and their basic income. There are four major threats on fishery resources and ecosystems namely: rapidly growing populations; diminishing natural resources; increasing trade linkages and the facilitation of extraction and trade of fishery commodities for international markets; and weak domestic governance systems.

Currently in Southeast Asia, there are 20-35 million people directly engaged in fisheries as a livelihood and minimally 365 million people depend on fishery products for food and protein intake. Rough assessments of the quality of ecosystems that fishery industries rely on reveal that approximately 55% of the coral reefs in the region are seriously damaged and 75% of formerly existing mangrove habitats have disappeared. As an economic sector, fisheries is important for national economies providing for 5 –10 percent of GDP and almost USD 8 billion in export earnings for the region.

Nevertheless, the number of NGOs working on fisheries development remains relatively small and very few have had experience in working in a regional or international context despite the fact that some of these NGOs have had serious positive impact on domestic fisheries development in the countries they work in.

Given the growing international dimension to fisheries management and development issues, the time was ripe for fisheries-oriented NGOs in the region to work together and develop a regional and international dimension to their lobby, advocacy and campaign work.

Why SEAFish for Justice

In 2002, a series of meetings on fisheries trade involving NGOs in Southeast Asia began facilitated by Oxfam International. Those involved in the meetings eventually came to be known as the fisheries trade reference group and eventually became the core group that catalyzed the establishment of the Southeast Asia Fish for Justice Network (SEAFish for Justice). SEAFish for Justice was officially established in August 2003 in a regional conference in Manila when fourteen (14) NGOs decided to combine forces to develop an international lobby, advocacy, and campaigning platform on fisheries and fisheries development issues in the region. The network operates on the basis of a commonly defined Pool of Consensus, which describes a series of opinions, statements, and advocacy calls that any member of the network can make on behalf of the total membership. Also present at that time were Oxfams working in East Asia, who indicated their support to the Pool of Consensus.

From this platform, SEAFish for Justice strove to develop its capacity and expertise to provide added value to the various programs of the members at country level over the last three years. In delving into the international dimension of fisheries development issues, the network enabled itself to emerge as an institutional spokesperson in international processes affecting fisheries development such as those involving ASEAN, SEAFDEC, WTO and ADB. Individual NGOs are often too small and lack the international overview to make advocacy effective. The combination of members in SEAFish for Justice is in the process of developing the expertise to become the acknowledged and respected advocate of small-scale fishery and poverty issues that these international institutions need to hear.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the SEAFish for Justice paper entitled “Trade and export orientation  of fisheries  in  Southeast  Asia:  Underpriced  export  at  the  expense  of domestic food security and local economies”. The paper is a collective effort by network members and was subsequently presented at the East Asian Seas Congress in Malaysia in 2003 and the Coastal Zone Asia Pacific (CZAP) Conference in Australia in 2004. The paper has recently been accepted for publication in the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Management, and serves as one of the main reference papers of the network in its advocacies.