Are Fisheries Improvement Projects really delivering change on the water? | WWF
Are Fisheries Improvement Projects really delivering change on the water?

Posted on 25 April 2016

This important fisheries management tool was under scrutiny at the recent 12th SeaWeb Summit on Seafood Sustainability in Malta. In a presentation at the summit as part of a session co-convened by WWF’s Dr Geoffrey Muldoon on “Next generation FIPs” he elaborated on some issues plaguing fisheries improvement projects, and what could and should be done to enhance their impact.
Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs) have changed the way businesses engage in and support the sustainable seafood movement. In developing countries, however, where 80% of the fisheries are far from meeting recognized sustainability criteria, a question that needs to be asked is whether such projects are delivering real “change on the water.”
It is the responsibility of advocates of sustainable seafood and everyone working in the field to continually assess the role, effectiveness, and impact of the tools they use and promote, and none more so than FIPs, where expectations around the scale of impacts are high.
This was a key message delivered by Dr Geoffrey Muldoon, a Senior Manager with WWF’s Coral Triangle Programme during his presentation “Facing Up to the Challenge: FIPs at the Crossroads,” at the 12th SeaWeb Seafood Summit, held this February in Malta.

The case for FIPs

The “FIP” concept, first introduced in the mid-2000s was intended “as a step-wise approach to improving the current status of a fishery, with the ultimate goal of having that fishery performing at a level consistent with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standards within a specified time period.”

In a soon-to-be-released 2016 discussion paper by Dr Muldoon and colleagues, the authors underline the Theory of Change as one whereby demonstrated ongoing incremental improvements in a fishery would be recognized by the market, thereby creating the incentive to continue improving and to maintain market access up to the point of certification readiness. "The FIP approach was ultimately designed as a “framework” for a company or group of stakeholders to enter into a milestone-driven programme, ideally culminating in MSC certification—a ‘ladder of progression’ if you will, from poorly performing fishery to one capable of meeting credible certification standards,” Dr Muldoon says.
FIPs, as an extension of the community-based certification idea, are recognized as an ideal tool for application to fisheries in developing countries, which are faced with numerous obstacles on the path to MSC certification, among them poor stock conditions, destructive and over-fishing, limited data on target and other harvested species and fishing effort, weak governance, and poor compliance, monitoring, and enforcement, notes Dr Muldoon.
Often these issues are systemic and will require many years of concerted effort to advance the fishery in question. It is appropriate however that these fisheries, which are a long way from achieving MSC certification, be incentivised and rewarded for their commitment to improvement. This often means looking toward international markets where consumers are more predisposed to the idea of sustainable seafood.
While there is currently limited demand for MSC product from within developing countries domestic markets, international retailers and consumers have long been driving the demand for bringing MSC products to market through public sustainability commitments. Recognizing that the supply of sustainable seafood was unlikely to be met from existing and future MSC certified fisheries, major retailers in the US, Canada, and Europe embraced the idea of FIPs, both as a source of more responsible seafood and as a way of supporting fisheries they source from to move toward achieving MSC.
While positively underpinning the growing role and importance of FIPs, the explosion in the number of "FIPs" in the past four to five years has become somewhat of a double-edged sword, according to Dr Muldoon. He cautions, "Despite the opportunities and benefits FIPs can bring, particularly to developing world fisheries, there are real and immediate challenges emerging in this FIP space, not least the substitution of quality for quantity and continuing recognition by markets of non- or under-performing FIPs."

Where FIPs are falling short

On the question of whether they are realising their potential, legitimate criticisms have been levelled at FIPs. For some the FIP classification has become too broad, a label attached to any fisheries improvement plan, with insufficient focus on sustainability as the ultimate outcome. Running parallel to this are concerns that we are seeing a "race to the bottom".

Dr Muldoon described some within the system as “indulgent and exhibiting ‘opportunistic behaviour’, with some fisheries undeservedly being recognised and rewarded with continuous access to markets”. He identifies a worrying trend of ongoing recognition for non- or under-performing FIPs pointing to a significant number of so-called FIPs still being recognized by markets, despite having achieved very little in the way of progress. To his knowledge, no FIPs have ever had market support withdrawn for non-performance.
Ultimately, according to Dr Muldoon, some companies look at participation in a FIP as leverage of sorts, while overlooking more important requirements, such as the fisheries’ inherent sustainability. His concern is that “sustainability as a pre-competitive issue is being eroded by the need to "take out insurance" to capture or maintain market share and validate market or corporate commitments."

The notion of pre-competitiveness (where multiple companies are engaged in a sustainable fishery effort) among competing businesses is losing ground against the need to capture market share and meet buyer demands. The beneficiaries of this trend of progressively lowering the bar on FIPs will be the fishing industry in the short to medium term, but not the fish stocks that underpin this business activity in the longer term.

Sadly, he observes, “In some cases, FIP stakeholders appear motivated less by potential long-term social, economic, and ecological gains from achieving MSC certification than by receiving and retaining market access. The prevailing view; that FIP ‘stocks’ are gathering steam and one better get on that train any way one can or miss out is, according to some, undermining the legitimate value of FIPs."  

What then should be done to achieve “real change in the water”?

These and other issues around credibility and quality formed the core tenet of his presentation at the recent Seafood Summit in Malta. In setting up the discussion, Dr Muldoon acknowledged that for the foreseeable future, the FIP landscape will comprise both “basic” and “comprehensive” FIPs initiated as either top-down (based on buyer preference) or bottom up (based on supplier collaboration), with both receiving some form of market recognition. He encouraged the audience to look beyond just “credibility” to ask whether FIPs were:
  • Being strategically effective in terms of impact, stakeholder buy-in, and progressing fisheries
  • Encouraging durable uptake of better practises
  • Achieving scalability across multiple FIPs and geographies
  • Delivering better data for markets and management
In his presentation, Dr Muldoon identified several shortcomings and challenges to be addressed for FIPs in moving forward.
The bottom line must be improving the health of target fish stocks. “The FIP approach, especially in a developing world context, is not sufficient on its own to safeguard marine ecosystems and the livelihoods of the communities that depend on them. FIPs need to operate alongside and incorporate other recognised measures that support social, ecological, and management outcomes.
“An integrated approach is needed that combines private sector engagement with community engagement, and public sector support to achieve real conservation gains,” Dr Muldoon says. “By explicitly integrating the fishery improvement framework (e.g. harvest controls) with data collection measures, conservation efforts that protect critical habitats (e.g. spatial and temporal closures) and other appropriate rights-based measures, resource users and beneficiaries will take on a larger role in the management of the marine resources that underpin their own livelihoods and food security.”
Regrettably, FIPs have evolved without the same level of scrutiny as certification, yet they receive the same level of benefits. Addressing the current lack of scrutiny over FIPs needs a strengthened verification system with more regular independent and in-person audit reviews of progress for all FIPs. Closer scrutiny of FIP performance needs to be backed up by stakeholder willingness to withdraw market support from poorly performing FIPs, and improved traceability systems to ensure non-FIP fish are not entering FIP supply chains. These inevitably raise cost issues, but efforts are currently underway, led by the WWF Coral Triangle Programme, to build both in-country and regional capacity to improve FIP delivery and reporting at a lower cost without sacrificing quality.

This leads to another identified challenge, inadequate investment in FIPs, which remain chronically underfunded. For Dr Muldoon, this prompts the question, “Are buyers investing sufficiently based on revenues extracted or benefits gained?” Corollary to this is to ask whether FIPs have yet proven their transformational value, thus justifying the call for and attracting increased investment in the current FIP model. According to Dr Muldoon, the real litmus test is whether investment should be driven by the need to scale up and strive for large numbers of FIPs, or to focus on fewer, higher quality FIPs.

Underpinning this whole FIP milieu is the need to recognize that transparency, while essential, is not a substitute for FIP quality and consistency. Within the global FIP catalogue today, one can find poorly executed “comprehensive” FIPs and well executed “basic” FIPs, with recent unpublished data demonstrating the latter are just as capable of driving transformation and change as their comprehensive counterparts.

Accountability is also a key factor, and critical to this debate is acknowledging the difference between legitimately stalled or "stuck" FIPs and non- or under-performing FIPs, particularly in the context of continued market support and recognition. Ultimately, independent verification is needed to improve transparency, and again this is something that the WWF Coral Triangle Programme is working to achieve.

To stay relevant and effective in the future, FIPs must always consider the bigger picture, Dr Muldoon concludes. “By adopting this broader framework, ‘improvement’ programmes can extend their area of influence to include priority places that have high conservation value, are important for food security and livelihoods, and benefit multiple stakeholders, without the constraints of a pure market-based approach.”  
Fisheries Improvement Project in Vietnam
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