This post was written by RTI International's Joanna Springer and originally appeared on the Fish Innovation Lab website. Springer is the resilience specialist and monitoring, evaluation and learning advisor for the Fish Innovation Lab. RTI International is a Fish Innovation Lab management entity partner based in Washington, D.C.
Smallholder fish farmers and fishers play a critical function in the food security of various countries, including Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, Cambodia and Bangladesh. In 2015, 17 percent of animal proteins consumed globally were derived from fish, with a higher percentage found in many developing countries (The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2018). Fisheries and aquaculture also employ nearly 60 million people worldwide and that trend is increasing (FAO, 2018). However, coastal ecosystems are coming under pressure due to climate change and population growth, making research on ecological resilience and the sustainability of fishing practices ever more critical. Meanwhile, although the aquaculture sector has the potential to drive economic growth, it faces bottlenecks in production capacity, risk mitigation and pathways to market development. In turn, the availability of affordable and safe fish and fish products could go a long way toward improving the nutrition of women and children, itself a key determinant of development outcomes.
Resilience is a critical component of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s work to improve food security and reduce poverty (USAID, 2018). Many practitioners in the field increasingly recognize the role of fish production as a driver of food security and income. However, the shocks and stresses that impact aquaculture and fisheries are not well understood. We still have a lot to learn about protecting economic or nutrition gains driven by the fisheries and aquaculture sectors; equipping local institutions and communities to monitor and mitigate shocks and stresses is a key contribution of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish (Fish Innovation Lab) to sector resilience. Mississippi State University and its partners, through the Feed the Future initiative, are developing new technologies and practices to improve the resilience of aquaculture and fishery systems to meet the income and nutrition needs of vulnerable groups, especially women and young children.
Resilience for aquaculture
Aquaculture is generally resilient to many of the climate stresses and weather-related events that increasingly put pressure on fisher and smallholder farmer livelihoods, although changes in temperature and patterns and seasonality of precipitation can lead to increased incidences of disease as well as increased risk of damage to aquaculture operations. For example, aquaculture provides a resilient production base when well-designed fish ponds control environmental conditions and prevent exposure to outside biohazards. However, some disease outbreaks in aquaculture remain unreported and inadequately understood, presenting a risk for the development of the sector. The Fish Innovation Lab is working to lower this risk, especially in Nigeria, where researchers are developing an evidence base for the prevalence and costs of disease outbreaks that can be used to put in place systems for managing biosecurity at the farm level, thereby mitigating threats to the value chain as a whole.
Globally, upward trends in antibiotic resistance in aquaculture production are raising concerns that fish consumption may contribute to human antibiotic resistance. Dependence on antibiotics in fish farming can be mitigated using improved management practices and adaptive strategies from farmers and actors along the value chain. In Bangladesh and Nigeria, the Fish Innovation Lab is conducting research that can help strengthen government regulation regarding the proper use of antibiotics and alternatives to antibiotics to help farmers adapt to global stresses affecting consumer needs.
Resilience for fisheries
Although fisheries are less vulnerable to the seasonal risks that affect agriculture, they are nevertheless threatened by long-term stresses. In addition, the changing frequency and intensity of storms threatens the safety of fishers at sea and has the potential to damage landing sites and other coastal infrastructure. Increases in water temperatures due to climate change alter the ecosystem fishers rely on for their catch, while economic growth and human activity irrevocably alter fish habitats. Population growth is a stress that leads to widespread overfishing. The FAO estimates that only 67 percent of marine fish stocks are being fished at sustainable levels, a decline from 90 percent in 1974 (FAO, 2018).
Overfishing has grave consequences for the future income and food supply of fishers in coastal Kenya and riverine fisheries in Cambodia. Solutions to these problems are multifaceted and complex. The Fish Innovation Lab is tackling a key entry point for more resilient fisheries by setting up locally managed systems for tracking sustainable levels of harvest in both countries. In Cambodia, researchers are contributing to efforts to help smallholder fishers diversify their income to aquaculture to prepare them for a decreased supply of wild-caught fish. Perceptions and awareness are another key aspect of resilience to climate change and population growth; researchers in Kenya are working to shift fishers’ understanding of these stress trends so that they adjust their catch expectations to sustainable levels.
For research in the fisheries sector, incorporating trend analysis of stresses such as climate and habitat change is necessary for assessing sustainable practices. For instance, research in Kenyan coral reefs incorporates ecological methods and social perception and behavior change measures to assess stress trends and monitor the resilience of fisher practices. Across Fish Innovation Lab projects in East and West Africa and Southeast Asia, longitudinal measures of stress and the impact of shocks, such as market disruptions due to COVID-19, enable researchers to better interpret their findings and plan for scaling successful interventions.
Working with local actors to factor in shocks and stresses to management plans is another way that researchers can contribute to the resilience of fishery-based livelihoods and food security systems. Research in Cambodia is strengthening community-based management efforts, and researchers in Kenya are engaging long-standing Beach Management Units. Fish Innovation Lab research activities ensure the sustainability of their interventions in part through intersectoral team composition, ensuring that skill sets, data sources and local knowledge are included from across academic disciplines, local civil society and the private sector. For instance, in Southern Kenya and Cambodia, the Fish Innovation Lab, partnering with the Wildlife Conservation Society, work with regional and national councils to help households adapt to changing ecosystems.
The Fish Innovation Lab is contributing new technologies and promising approaches to build the resilience of aquaculture production systems to disease and the resilience of coastal fisheries to climate change and overharvesting. Successfully mitigating risks and adapting to shocks and stresses will help prevent negative impacts from undermining the growth of markets. Unfortunately, COVID-19 market shocks accelerated damage to ecosystems due to overfishing, and disease outbreaks in fish production systems are not only possible but also likely. Incorporating measurement of shocks and stress trends in aquaculture and fishery programs will generate urgently needed insights for development practitioners, researchers and governments.