At the end of March, I traveled to Vietnam to conduct a series of stakeholder meetings that included fishery managers, fishers, processors companies, mini-plant owners, and middle men; basically representatives of the whole supply chain. Traveling with me was also Mrs. Thuy Nguyen Thi Dieu from WWF-Greater Mekong (whom is also coordinating the blue swimmer crab FIP in Vietnam), Mr. Pha from Phillips Seafoods, and Managing Director of 50in10 foundation, Miguel Jorge. 50in10 recently awarded a small grant to the Vietnam FIP, to test 50in10’s “Theory of Change” (www.50in10.org). This was also a scoping tour for Miguel so that he could familiarize himself with the fishery, and advise on pathways to address fishery management that starts at the fisher level.
50in10 launched their initiative a little over 2 years ago with an ambitious goal to improve half the world’s fisheries in 10 years. Their approach isn’t simply to look at environmental indicators, but to also address the fishery system in its entirety. This entails looking at the capacity of enforcement, getting a pulse on the political environment, the business model the fishery employs, motivations in the supply chain, and enablers for fisher empowerment. At the heart of the initiative, is to improve fisher livelihoods and their communities through incentivizing good practices and giving fishers more managerial rights of the resource they depend on. A fishery centric approach is exactly what the Vietnam FIP needs, and for that matter what the rest of the region needs with regard to small-scale blue swimmer crab fisheries, to dovetail comprehensive data collection regimes, managerial options, and address the contentious issues that fishers face.
We started our tour in Rach Gia, with a meeting at the headquarters of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), to review FIP progress and propose a co-management program with stakeholders. Managerial jurisdiction for coastal fisheries is under the responsibility of DARD; they also do fisher licensing and registration. Attending the meeting were VASEP crab processors, mini-plant representatives, WWF-Mekong, fishery managers, and 50in10. DARD wears a number of hats when it comes to fishery management, including fisher licensing and registration, and enforcement of fishery regulations. After the usual run-down of progress on MSC criteria’s, processors in Vietnam announced that they are gravely concerned on DARD’s capacity to enforce fishery regulations. That without enforcement the fishery will continue to decline. Already Vietnam has regulations on minimum carapace width, closed seasons, and the types of boats able to fish in coastal waters. A big concern has been an introduction of a new trap design in the fishery that targets undersized crab, it’s been dubbed, “the Chinese Trap”. Which is characterized by a long caterpillar design with individual compartments strung together in a continuous trap (in Thailand the call it the “Crab Condominium”, which everyone in the fishery wants banned. DARD’s claim was that regulations are seldom enforced because there are a lack of resources to do so.
On paper the blue swimmer crab FIP in Vietnam is the most robust, and is used as a template for planning and monitoring our other BSC FIPs in the region. A third party, whom also does an annual audit, did the MSC Gap analysis, and setup M&E FIP matrices. A 5-year FIP Action Plan was developed from the launch, which outlines specific sub-projects and attainable milestone to be completed in order for the fishery to meet MSC criteria’s. Designed terms of references were created for each sub-project to ensure the time and money spent on those activities was effective. It’s a very well thought-out FIP, fishery consultant Richard Banks, of Poseidon, did the bulk of this work. By CASS standards the Vietnam FIP is Comprehensive, meaning it is “recommendable” to the market place, as such is the only Comprehensive blue swimmer crab FIP in Asia. In terms of development and reporting, one could make the argument that it is a model FIP.
However, if you were to visit landing centers in Vietnam, you would see that it’s very much “business as usual”. Enforcement capacity is lacking from DARD, which have a lot of processors upset. Being that the FIP has been staunchly dedicated to an extensive stock assessment program, has led to a lack of funding to support other activities in Action Plan. Some say that since the launch of the FIP and establishment of the steering committee, the main activity to date has been data collection. Talking with VASEP, there is a burgeoning desire to take control of management aspects of the FIP. Using their industry leverage, they have a bargaining chip in outreach to the government and to the supply chain to improve enforcement and compliance.
The next day we talked with both fishers and mini-plant owners. Mini-plants are where crab-meat is separated from the crab-shell, which is time and labor intensive. Mini-plants are where whole crab is aggregated before it’s turned into meat, and represent a control point in the supply chain. Fishers by and large are unaware of fishery regulations and the sustainability effort. With depleted resources, every year it gets tougher to find raw material to sell. On a good day a fisher may get 10 kg, ok day maybe 5kg, more than before <5kg to no crab is caught in a fishing effort. Fishers often seek loans from middlemen and mini plants to cover both their fishing and living expenses. Fishers are able to pay back those loans in crab volume, which is interest free and not time bound, however the price per kilo is then at times at the discretion of the lender as well. This is a very common scenario amongst all crab fisheries in Asia. In this lending system, there is little incentive for fishers to follow sustainable fishery practices. Lenders too, for the most part are dependent on crab they can peel and sell. In order for the sustainability initiative to work, both the fishers and mini-plant owners, have to “bake” it into the system.
This puts VASEP Processors in a bit of a sticky situation, as they have sustainability requirements by their foreign customers, however domestically there is a growing demand for crab as well that are now able to compete in price and volume. With depleted resources and a tourism industry that is booming, local restaurants and retailers are able to pay top price for crab and at the same time don’t have any sustainability requirements. Especially Thailand, whom have exhausted their own crab resources, and are now hungry for Vietnam’s. This puts the “FIP” premise a bit on its head because the concept is that there is leverage to impact the fishery through industry and market standards. VASEP are now in a race to keep crab stocks productive, and address actors in the supply chain to join the cause. Each passing year there is a growing concern about the amount of data being collected for the stock assessment that has taken away resources for actions on the ground. As well as a growing disdain for DARD whom aren’t enforcing fishery regulations.
When we did talk to one mini-plant owner he too said he was unaware of fishery regulations, although knew that there was a lack of enforcement of said regulations, and that he was negligent of any unsustainable fishing practices because that is something by which middlemen and fishers deal with (even if those middle-men were employed by him). However he was open to that fact that whatever he doesn’t or couldn’t sell to processors there are folks whom would still purchase that product. He did recognize that there is an issue with depleted crab volumes, and that mini-plants – whom haven’t been vocal in the FIP dialogue, citing that they get lost in the sustainability “talk”, needed to have a roundtable discussion to address the issue.
Under these conditions is why 50in10’s support is so sought after and appreciated. The fishery and FIP need resources to build co-management capacity. Empower fishermen to share enforcement decision-making and steward the resource. Whilst VASEP builds a top-down approach for compliance and enforcement, a bottom-up approach is need to ensure fishers aren’t disenfranchised. Together they could address mini-plant and middlemen issues in the supply chain. A co-management initiative will be proposed in the Phu Quoc vicinity that seeks to protect sea grass beds, which are a crab nursery area, and align fisher economic interests with health of the fishery through exclusivity of access or otherwise.