Creating waves for small-scale fisheries

Dave Steinbach identifies three approaches to help ensure small-scale fishers are not left behind in ambitious new development agendas.

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Insight by 
Dave Steinbach
Dave Steinbach is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group.
17 November 2016
Fishermen offloading their morning catch from a fishing boat in Kalindi, West Bengal (Photo: Souvik Das Gupta, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Fishermen offloading their morning catch from a fishing boat in Kalindi, West Bengal (Photo: Souvik Das Gupta, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Oceans are the earth's life-support system: they regulate our supplies of water and oxygen, provide livelihoods for around 200 million people and are the main source of animal protein for billions more.

The global call to conserve our oceans, seas and marine resources in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14) was, for many, long overdue recognition of their importance for humankind.

Yet a critical question, and the focus of a recent meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations I attended, is 'how can small-scale fishers – whose precarious living and working conditions make them among the sector's most vulnerable – realise their rights to access, manage and benefit from our oceans?'.

Or in other words: how can the global ambition of the SDGs be met with local action to support small-scale fisheries?

Coastal fisheries are one of three contexts IIED has been exploring as part of a six-month research project asking what it will take to meet the overarching SDG commitment to 'leave no one behind'. 

Our work looks at two specific areas:

  • How to enhance the profitability of small-scale fishers in Bangladesh by identifying systemic constraints along the supply chain, and
  • How fiscal instruments such as taxes and subsidies can be reformed to incentivise sustainable fishing practices and eliminate those that lead to overfishing. 

Agendas for action

Such work is an important start to bringing the voices of small-scale fishers into global discourse on sustainable ocean management. But the FAO meeting drove home the need for scaled-up action to ensure that small-scale fishers are not left behind.

Reflecting on the richness of the discussions I see three action agendas to link global aspirations with local actions that could support small-scale fisheries.

  1. Integrate small-scale fisheries into SDG action plans

    The meeting focused on the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries (PDF), which outline ways to reduce poverty, drive fair and inclusive social development, and encourage sustainable resource management that benefits all people across fisheries value chains. 

    The message was clear: the ambition of the guidelines must be harnessed and translated into action. But the main challenge is that the guidelines are voluntary; there are no institutional structures to ensure their lessons and approaches are integrated into national policies and local actions. 

    The SDGs – with their internationally-guided monitoring processes – offer an important platform for mainstreaming the guidelines into national fishery plans that support local action. Next year, the UN will convene a high-level Conference to Support the Implementation of SDG 14. This is an essential opportunity to outline practical, actionable ways to embed the guidelines into national and sub-national planning to achieve SDG 14.

  2. Improve social protection systems

    People working across the small-scale fisheries value-chain receive disproportionately less support for social protection (PDF) than other rural communities. This means there is relatively little guidance on how to set up social protection schemes for fishers or fishing communities. 

    IIED's research in Bangladesh's hilsa fishery has examined schemes to compensate fishers with food transfers alongside other ways that can help prevent fishers slipping into poverty during the closed season. But with few other practical examples of social protection in the fishery sector, we need to draw on more diverse examples from elsewhere to broaden our understanding of what works in practice. 

    As part of my research on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in India, I've seen first-hand how social protection schemes offer a lifeline to rural communities by providing cash-for-work in the non-farming season. Perhaps we can draw on lessons from programmes like MGNREGA, and trial similar approaches to promote social protection for fishers and fishing communities.
  3. Integrate small-scale fisheries into disaster risk management (DRM) and climate change planning

    Communities living on exposed coastlines are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change. Slow-onset disasters such as sea-level rise and coral bleaching threaten fishery ecosystems, while rapid-onset disasters such as typhoons damage critical infrastructure. 

    Despite these risks, my observation as a climate change researcher is that the fishery sector and fishing communities are not adequately included in climate change or DRM planning. There are several ways to address this gap: 
  • Include the small-scale fishery sector in National Adaptation Plans
  • Promote action on DRM in the small-scale fishery sector through national and regional platforms of the Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction, and
  • Commission research through the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage to understand the links between migration of fishery communities and loss and damage associated with climate change, and use this evidence to guide future responses.

The SDGs have put in place the building blocks for sustainable ocean management. But much work is needed to translate ambition into action that ensures no small-scale fishers are left behind.

Dave Steinbach ([email protected]) is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group.

On 1 December, IIED is hosting FishNight 4, an event in London that will look at the governance of the high seas.
The guest speaker is Emily Penn, an architect turned ocean advocate and skipper who rounded the globe on a record-breaking bio-fuelled boat. She has spent six years at sea, exploring and discovering oceanic gyres – huge areas of plastic accumulation - and co-founded Pangaea Explorations, an organisation dedicated to marine education, conservation and exploration via a 72-foot sailing vessel.

The event has been organised in partnership with Ibex Earth and Blue Ventures, and will include a question-and-answer session moderated by IIED director Andrew Norton. Register for FishNight 4.