Feed the Future
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Small-scale fisheries are not so small after all

This post was written by Andrew Deines. Andrew is a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame where he studies fisheries, invasive species and ecosystem services. Last week Andrew participated in the Ag Sector Council Seminar, “Fishing for the Future: The Why and How of Nature’s Most Abundant Protein Source,” featuring Bryan Gillooly and Richard Volk from USAID. Andrew shares his thoughts and opinions on the event.

Small-scale fisheries are not small at all.

Hiding in the scanty shade of an Acacia tree, sorting through the day’s rapidly spoiling sample of small fish near Loc Invar National Park on the Kafue River, Zambia, I hear the nearby reports of a rifle shot just up the river. Hippos sometimes demolish the small fishing canoes that ply the waters, and it’s better to give them fair warning, aimed at nothing, than it is to surprise them. The small fish I’m sorting are signs of heavy exploitation, despite the remote feeling soundscape. Harvests here have held steady for the last few decades, but only by constantly increasing effort, pulling in the underemployed from across the economy. Meanwhile, the livelihoods of men and women are dependent on the fishery decline, while the risks of HIV/AIDS and other traumas rise. As in many other "small-scale" fisheries around the world the boats here are small, with small catches of small fish. Yet, small-scale fisheries like those found on the Kafue aren’t small on the global scale. 

Back in the office at the University of Notre Dame, I tuned in to last week’s "Fishing for the Future" webinar, and some statistics writ large my observations. Half a billion people depend on fisheries for their livelihoods. Something close to 1 in 14 people. So–called "small scale" fisheries in developing regions account for about 95 percent of these fishers and half of the world’s fish catch. Not small at all.

Many fish or many fishers: choose one.

The image of poorly regulated small-scale fisheries is indelible, the classic tragedy of the commons, and I am reminded again that managing fisheries is managing people. Richard Volk noted that the number one barrier to fisheries potential is weak governance. I can imagine the wide variety of institutional ailments thus politely shrouded. The task that lies before fisheries managers is to give people the power to not fish, not using power to prevent them from fishing. 

What would better fisheries governance look like? We think: De-centralization of power to local fishing communities, along with a return of user rights through co-management; integration of traditional and scientific knowledge; and, consideration of the broader economy that pulls fishers into, but also out of, the fishery. It could also look like reclaiming the Sunken Billions, the $50 billion per year in forgone value from marine fisheries due to mismanagement and over fishing. This is $3 trillion dollars over 30 years that could have been caught, but was never spawned. Not so small after all.