May 25, 2016

Story: Emerging solution: Sustainable small scale fisheries

Moroccan Artisanal Fishing Fleet. Photo Credit: Mike Markovina, Marine Photobank.

By Paige Welsh
Small-scale fisheries, characterized by their smaller vessels, relatively low-tech gear and low operating costs, comprise the vast majority of fishing employment in the global supply chain and are present on coastlines around the world. In addition to contributing to coastal economies and livelihoods, they are also critical to food security and poverty alleviation. Yet, many small-scale fisheries management decisions are made with limited scientific information or without consulting the people who will be impacted.  Too often, these oversights create fishing practices that sound good on paper but become unsustainable in practice. With the support of the Walton Family Foundation, the Center for Ocean Solutions is working to address this challenge by creating a decision support tool that will guide best practices for managers, practitioners and funders working towards sustainable small-scale fisheries. To ensure the tool is timely and relevant, COS assembled experts from various sectors of fisheries governance (NGOs, government, funders, academics, fisher collectives) from all over the world to co-develop project ideas. COS early career fellow Elena Finkbeiner and COS research analyst Elodie Le Cornu brought together many of these experts in the first COS-hosted Small-Scale Fisheries Workshop in February 2016.
“Small-scale fisheries are facing a critical juncture right now because a lot of them are being impacted by marine resource and habitat degradation through climate change and heavy fishing,” explained Finkbeiner. “It’s not just an environmental sustainability issue; it’s a human rights and justice issue.”
The workshop provided a venue for productive, and often difficult, discussions around social, economic and environmental sustainability. According to Finkbeiner and Le Cornu, workshop participants converged around key ideas, particularly issues of equality, marginalization and social justice need to be at the forefront of fisheries management and conservation decision-making. 
“Our work is bridging different disciplines. People have been thinking about small-scale fisheries issues as ‘how do you fix stock decline,’ but a lot of it has to do with larger societal problems,” said Le Cornu.
Interdisciplinary experts, including the Center's Ashley Erickson (far left), gather for a small group discussion at the workshop.
Often, management decisions are made without the fishers. As a result, the policies can have low compliance or generate other unintended ecological or social consequences. For example, instating a marine protected area in an over fished habitat may protect fish. However, if local fishers are not consulted, the policy may harm their livelihoods or spur more illegal fishing all the while leaving them feeling disenfranchised.
COS and its small-scale fisheries collaborators hope to address these issues by co-producing academically robust and practically sound advice. The guidance will be specifically tailored to fisheries managers and funding communities that work toward both environmental sustainability goals and human well-being.
“The thing that we’re not trying to do is to make policy prescriptions. The way I envision it is as a policy process tool. How is the problem defined? Who is involved? What are your desired outcomes? What are the barriers?” said Finkbeiner.
Part of the research will mean thoroughly studying as many past fishery case studies as possible to look for explanations of success and failure across different policy implementations.  Already, the small-scale fisheries team has examined 172 case studies. A key lesson from the findings so far is that the specific policy approach itself is less important to explaining the difference between success and failure than the process by which it is implemented. For example, when Baja’s abalone fishery was on the brink of collapse, the Mexican government reached out to the fishers. Together, they created a system where fishers have exclusive rights and stewardship responsibilities to specific areas of the ocean. As a result, the habitat became healthier and the fishers' livelihoods became more secure.
“A lot of people write off fishers as the bad guys, but the more that you get to know them, the more you realize that they care a lot about their resources. They have a very deep knowledge, but this hasn’t yet been fully integrated [into fisheries science or decision making],” said Finkbeiner.
Finkbeiner, Le Cornu and the COS small-scale fisheries team plan to conduct additional surveys and interviews with small-scale fisheries practitioners around the world and glean lessons learned that are not available in published literature. Results will help to inform a decision support tool aimed to better address issues of equity, marginalization and human rights in fisheries policies while hopefully fostering healthy and sustainable fishing communities around the world.