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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem

Address by H.E. Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland, at the opening of The Reykjavik Conference on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem, October 1-4, 2001


President of Iceland, Director-General of FAO, Honourable Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome all of you to Iceland and to this very important conference on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem. Iceland is an appropriate place to hold such a conference for many reasons. The ocean, which batters our coast year round is also the source of our livelihood, and in the dark days of the 17th and 18th centuries, when volcanic eruptions devastated our agricultural land, fishing probably prevented the complete extermination of Iceland as a nation. Still today, our wealth is built on fisheries, with 60-70% of our export in goods being marine products. We have a very special interest and concern in the state of fisheries. And in our small world, we know that it is not enough to limit our concern to our own back yard.

Mr. Chairman,

All over the world, there is a growing concern about overfishing and the state of fish stocks. These worries are understandable in the light of the importance of fisheries for world food security. Fisheries also provide for the livelihood of millions of people and even of whole nations and for a number of countries export of fish and fish products is vital for their national economy.

However, it is important to caution against over-generalisations and over-simplifications. The state of fisheries is certainly alarming in certain regions, but it is actually in very good shape in others. Indeed, fishing can be sustainable and a number of countries already implement effective sustainable fisheries management. It is important that these cases be recognised as positive examples for others to follow.

In Iceland we know from experience that sustainable resource management is a pre-condition of our prosperity and welfare. We simply cannot afford to get it wrong.

The fisheries management system in Iceland was not invented overnight and indeed it is still developing. It is the result of much scientific work and political effort, and required many difficult decisions. Through trial and error we have developed a sustainable fisheries management system which by international standards must be considered at once advanced, innovative and successful. But we still face new challenges that we must overcome.

By applying modern technology, science and management methods, we have been able to make use of our fishing grounds in a sustainable manner. This has made us a leading fishing nation and allowed us to build up a prosperous society with modern standards of housing, healthcare and education, despite our harsh natural environment.

We have also sought to allow our fisheries know-how to benefit others. Aid to develop sustainable fisheries is one of the principle pillars of Iceland's development assistance programme. Icelandic public institutions have moreover provided developing countries with assistance in building the scientific and legal basis of their fisheries management systems. Icelandic companies have also invested in fishing operations and fish processing industries throughout the world and Icelandic companies have been involved in many development projects building up regional fishing industries.

Here I would like to mention specifically the United Nations University Fisheries Training Programme, which was established here in Iceland in 1998. The programme provides post-graduate training for practising professionals from the fisheries sectors in developing countries. The programme will be presented here in the lobby and I encourage you to learn more about it.

Mr. Chairman,

There is without doubt much need for international co-operation to promote sustainable fisheries. I sincerely hope that this conference will make a significant contribution.

I share the concern of many countries over the state of fish stocks and fisheries management in some regions. Before becoming Foreign Minister I was Fisheries Minister for 8 years and had to deal with the many difficult social and economic issues while we made radical changes in our fisheries management system to build up sustainable fisheries.

I also understand the position of those countries that press for a more active role of global forums such as the United Nations in the area of fisheries. But allow me to be frank. Most of these countries are advanced industrialised countries. Some of them have lost fish stocks due to overfishing. Others have hunted their marine mammals to near extinction. Still others have so much overcapacity in their fishing fleets that they have to send their fleets to distant waters to fish. These countries should not, however, seek to export their problems to other countries or assume that other countries will inevitably make the same mistakes as they did. The fact that these countries have had difficulties does not mean that living marine resources are not being managed sustainably in other regions of the world.

We have to bear in mind that for many countries, fisheries is a key economic sector. We cannot expect these countries to tolerate micro-management of their economies by the world community. International co-operation on fisheries must be consistent with the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.

Having said this, what then should international co-operation in the area of fisheries focus on? I see four areas of critical importance.

Firstly, technical and scientific co-operation on common issues of concern is pivotal for advancing our knowledge of ocean resources and the best ways to manage them. This conference is a good example of such co-operation. The world community has come to understand the common interest in advancing the ecosystem approach to fisheries management. Therefore we have gathered here to learn from the scientists and from one another's experiences about what can and cannot be done in incorporating ecosystem considerations into fisheries management, and to identify ways in which we can co-operate to promote and develop the approach of eco-system based management of living marine resources.

Secondly, it is important that we make the global market conducive to sustainable fisheries. International trade rules can either support or undermine sustainable fisheries management. Experience has shown that market distortions, like tariff-escalations and subsidies, have the effects of encouraging overfishing. Subsidies and high tariffs in the OECD countries have in particular negative effects on the developing countries, both for their trade interests and their use of their fisheries resources.

More than half of the total world export of fish and fish products comes from the developing countries. Most of this export goes to the OECD countries, which together import about 75 per cent of internationally traded fishery products. These same importing countries are responsible for the bulk of the fisheries subsidies granted in the world and they also apply tariffs to products from the developing countries.

Thirdly, it is imperative that we increase the support of the world community to the developing countries in the area of fisheries.

Fish is the prime source of animal protein for one billion people in the developing world. Of the 30 countries most dependent on fish as a protein source, all but four are in the developing world. The developing countries account for more than half of the total world export of fish and fish products. We should also bear in mind that fisheries are of critical importance in some low-income food-deficit countries and small island developing States.

I believe that we the fisheries nations, the FAO and the International Financial Institutions have a responsibility to form a partnership with the developing countries and support them in building their own sustainable fisheries management systems that fit their own circumstances and needs.

A few years ago the major donors in the area of fisheries created the concept of the Forum for Sustainable Fisheries to build exactly that partnership. It is imperative that this initiative gain a new momentum, and that we the member States of FAO call upon the World Bank to continue its collaboration with FAO on this important matter.

Lastly, we must promote better understanding between governments, the fishing industry, environmental NGOs and the general public about the importance of conserving and sustainable utilisation of living marine resources for the benefit of present and future generations. In this context I stress in particular the need for active participation of the fishing industry.

Mr. Chairman,

This is the only FAO-related conference dealing with fisheries to be held before the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, where world leaders will renew the commitment of the world community to sustainable development. A strong message on global partnership in support of sustainable utilisation of living marine resources must be delivered from Reykjavik to Johannesburg.

I would like to thank the Government of Norway for its generous support to this conference and the Director General of FAO for the rewarding co-operation in preparing this conference. I hope you will have a pleasant stay while in Iceland.

Thank you Mr. Chairman.

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