Policy disconnections in the regulation of sustainable seafood in Australia

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Wild capture fisheries are managed by governments on behalf of their populations to address societal concerns related to the exploitation of marine resources. In Australia, a key concern for citizens and consumers is the sustainable management of fisheries to prevent overfishing, and overfishing is mainly how sustainability in fisheries is understood. This is also a central concern for the Australian fishing industry, in that social acceptability is a key factor in ensuring their continuing access to the resource. At the global scale, trade is one of the main pressures on fisheries’ sustainability, with demand from markets around the world driving unsustainable fishing practices. In Australia, however, ensuring that imported seafood is sustainably fished is not seen as the responsibility of the public governors. As a result, foods from both sustainable and potentially less-sustainable fisheries have equal access to the market and remain largely undifferentiated at the point of sale. This shows a disconnection between strong government efforts to regulate domestic fisheries to prevent overfishing and no government effort to ensure a level playing field for Australian fisheries in the domestic market. This research explores whether the specific sociocultural environment in the governance of fisheries production and trade can explain this disconnection and examines potential avenues for policy change. Within an interactive governance paradigm, it uses tools from deliberative policy and discourse analysis to unveil the discourses framing the current policy frameworks for sustainability in the harvest and post-harvest spaces in Australia. It explores the current configuration of the actors in governance and the potential to induce policy change to ensure the sustainability for all seafood sold at the retail level. The analysis shows that the Australian government’s strong fisheries management record for domestic fisheries is undermined by its reluctance to intervene in processes downstream. This reluctance produces regulatory inconsistency in the treatment of imported and domestic seafood and inhibits the capacity of domestic fisheries to communicate their sustainability at the consumer interface. In the past few years, the control of imports to prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing has provided a justification for regulations based on traceability systems in the United States and European Union. These regulations aim to provide a level playing field for well-managed fisheries and prevent seafood fraud. This justification has yet to be institutionalised in the Australian context; however, traceability regulations may become a feasible response to future industry demands.
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