The fishing activities are a small part of a chain that begins with boat-building and net-making and ends with marketing and consumption of the catch. File Photo: IOL
The fishing activities are a small part of a chain that begins with boat-building and net-making and ends with marketing and consumption of the catch. File Photo: IOL

Sea change for policymakers of small-scale fisheries

By John Virdin and Xavier Basurto Time of article published Oct 2, 2019

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INTERNATIONAL – Flying along the coast of Senegal, it is impossible not to notice thousands of dots below in the water. These are large, planked fishing canoes, the product of centuries of design and tradition, and a vital part of the local economy.

When the fishing crews come home, Senegalese beaches come alive with activity. Women sort the catch and prepare it for sale in the local market or sell it to wholesalers who might put it on a truck to Dakar, the country’s capital. Young people sell drinks or help beach the canoes, while others drive carts to carry fish to markets.

The canoes and fishing activities are only a small part of a large chain that begins with boat-building and net-making and ends with marketing and consumption of the catch, often in towns far away.

These types of local fishery economies occur the world over but have often been overlooked or not well understood by policymakers when considering priorities for coastal towns and regions. Yet increasingly, international studies are focusing on local and traditional fisheries, and the value they bring to their communities. 

In many countries, artisanal or small-scale fisheries represent most of the people working in fisheries, and in many developing countries they provide nearly half of the fish caught for human consumption.

We are a research team that includes a scientist, who studies how people in fishing communities solve problems together, and a policy expert, who works with national governments to support local fisheries.

During the two decades we have worked with tropical fisheries, our experience and the wider field of research has shown that small-scale fisheries are central to solving many problems in the oceans, such as overfishing or loss of natural habitats, as well as on land by addressing poverty and hunger in places where jobs and quality nutrition are limited.

In 2012, researchers from the World Bank, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and the research organisation WorldFish published a report titled “Hidden Harvests”, which provided admittedly rough first estimates that small-scale fisheries take 38 percent of the total fish catch from the ocean and, when inland waters are included, almost half of the global fish catch.

According to this report, these small-scale fisheries could account for more than 90 percent of the world’s commercial fishers, processors, and other people employed along the value chain – which is about 108 million people.

This would make small-scale fisheries the ocean’s largest employer –greater than oil and gas, shipping and tourism combined. 

We suggest that because these small-scale fisheries are often found in coastal waters with high biodiversity but outside formally protected areas, fishers can and have served as traditional stewards of these ecosystems. They are often the first to know when changes occur, such as the effects of the changing climate.

While these diverse contributions to society are significant, they are often not considered or appreciated in policy decisions affecting fisheries and fishing communities.

Small-scale fisheries are also estimated to provide more than half the animal protein intake in many of the least developed countries. Beyond this contribution, research shows that the micro-nutrients, vitamins and minerals that fish provide are far more important than the protein itself.

Despite their importance to societies around the world, small-scale fisheries are often marginalised from power and decision-making processes.

As fisheries and ocean-use have become more industrialised in the last century, national government agencies have, for the most part, not taken into account the needs of small-scale fisheries as they design new policies. 

The resulting policies may not recognise traditional and customary practices or large-scale fisheries may be prioritised to maximise fish harvest and profit, without considering the cost to local communities. That can lead to conflicts between the economies of small-fisheries and large-scale fisheries, such as trawlers and canoes or between small-scale fisheries and other sectors like tourism.

For example, in Mexico, on the Baja California Peninsula of the Pacific Ocean, members of the fishing co-operative of Punta Lobos rise at daybreak as they have for two generations to fish for tuna and other finfish. Fishermen defy the 1.8m waves, and launch their boats from the beach in a collective effort.

Increasingly, the Punta Lobos fishers near the touristic town of Todos Santos are struggling to retain access to the beach against encroaching hotel and residential development. The concessions fishermen have made so far have enabled them to keep developers from limiting and closing access to their source of livelihoods, but this may change with future development pressure, if other fishing co-operatives that have lost access are an indicator.

Governments around the world are beginning to recognise the unique and shared characteristics of small-scale fisheries and the challenges that they are facing. 

In 2014, they agreed to international policy guidelines written specifically to protect them. These guidelines commit governments to recognising and securing access of small-scale fisheries to ocean resources and coasts in the face of competing interests and, above all, protect and respect the rights of people to earn a living and feed themselves and their families.

Still, all too often, small-scale fisheries are effectively “hidden” from policymakers and researchers. Despite increased attention and study in recent years, there is a great deal that we do not know.

The amount of fish caught by small-scale fisheries worldwide is not consistently monitored, and it is not well understood how many jobs that fishing provides, such as building and repairing boats or processing and selling the catch. 

Another important question is the strength of the safety net that fishing creates for those who need to fall back on this work.

This may sound absurd in an age when we can track fishing activities via satellite. But typically, small-scale fisheries are not well documented because they are neither taxed nor monitored by the government; they are not counted in official statistics or they are counted but mixed together with larger, industrial fisheries.

We are part of an international effort – led by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and WorldFish – that is working to update and expand the 2012 report in a new global assessment of small-scale fisheries. 

The assessment, being compiled by researchers in more than 45 countries, will provide policymakers with the best data possible about small-scale fisheries and their diverse contributions to society, and why they should be a high priority in decision-making.

If policymakers can empower small-scale fishers and their communities to secure their fishing grounds and diverse uses of the ocean, it could represent a sea change for the environment and the people who depend on fishing. 

Elevating the importance of this sector can contribute to the universal goals of good jobs and income to help reduce poverty and increase the supply of nutritious foods to communities suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

John Virdin is a director of the ocean policy programme and Xavier Basurto is an associate professor of sustainability science at Duke University.


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