Focusing the blue economy future on small-scale fisheries

At the heart of IIED’s fisheries economics and ocean programme are small-scale fisheries and the people linked to those fisheries. Together, they play a large part in the future health and sustainability of the blue economy.

Rosalind Goodrich's picture
Blog by
18 February 2019

Rosalind Goodrich is head of research communications in IIED's Communications Group

Seaweed farmers in Indonesia (Photo: Hiswaty Hafid/USAid, Creative Commons via Flickr)

There’s lots of talk about the blue economy these days, ranging from discussions about the impact of large-scale mining companies, to the role of specialist marine security fleets, to the effect of plastic on marine wildlife. Encouragingly, and more frequently it seems, the talk turns to small-scale fisheries.

For IIED, small-scale fisheries and the people who work for them and with them, are central to the success and sustainability of the blue economy. It’s not that they should be mentioned every now and then – they should be at the centre of the conversation.

Hence our recent #OceanHour Twitter chat and the invitation to all interested parties to share and discuss how national government policies and international high seas governance negotiations can play a part in helping this to happen.

Small-scale fisheries could make or break the blue economy

There are remarkable statistics: 50% of seafood globally is supplied by small-scale fisheries; more than 90% of fishers are employed at this level. The supply chains associated with small-scale fisheries provide a livelihood for millions of women – providing jobs where there might not otherwise be one.

Despite all this, small-scale fisheries are too often ignored when it comes to investment by government or the private sector. The assumption often is that they are high-risk outfits with little return on investment, taking out of the ocean and coastal waters and not putting much back.

So is that the end of the story? Of course not. Our #OceanHour participants were keen to provide examples of a different picture: one where small-scale fisheries, with support from private sector advisors and from the right government policies, can be part of a sustainable blue economy.

It’s about finding fisheries’ true value

The first step is to recognise the true value of what these fisheries and the companies in their ‘value chains’ contribute to any national economy. Being ignored stems from being underestimated – once the true worth is known, policies are more likely to change.

Why has the Maldives done this? Because it knows that these fisheries, which catch one tuna fish at a time with a hook and line, are the second largest contributor to local GDP and account for 20% of the local working population, as well as being an important source of domestic protein for the population.

The Maldives’ tuna fisheries have a low environmental impact and tangible net positive social impacts, making it vital to keep them going. And – as there is always room for improvement in their practices – this helps them to be a safer and attractive bet for investors.

But what about the fisheries that have management and operational issues? Again, there are solutions out there to support them to improve.

Making progress builds confidence

Once progress is made, investors can use the promise of lower risk to stimulate government and private funding, and stronger commitments to increase monitoring and enforcement of regulations.

As confidence in these small fishing businesses increases, so will the policy tools that actively help them and the environment to thrive – such as local managed marine areas: 

And in Guatemala, the MesoAmerican Reef Fund empowers fisheries co-management associations to conduct their own control and surveillance activities around Punta de Manabique Wildlife Refuge.

There’s no doubt that encouraging the men and women linked to fisheries to participate in the design, implementation and enforcement of policies is a better and fairer way to promote sustainable practices.

So what does this all add up to? There seems to be progress being made in places around the world (although not all – see the tweet below):

It goes without saying, more needs to be done – and at a faster pace – to make sure that the voice of a sector playing such a significant part in the future of the blue economy is present and heard.

IIED is keen to make sure that happens and to join up this discussion to others about high seas governance, because what happens in the high seas has an impact on small-scale fisheries and coastal communities too.

Through our research and outreach programme, we’d like to build relationships with people and organisations who want to do the same. If that’s you – do get in touch.


IIED is holding an event in London on 25-26 February entitled Towards an inclusive blue economy. If you would like to attend, please contact Anne Schulthess: anne.schulthess@iied.org.

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