How social protection can support people and sustain fisheries

Social protection and labour programmes can enable and encourage more sustainable and resilient livelihood practices, but they rarely respond to the needs of fishers and fish workers. IIED and the World Bank have been exploring how countries can address this.

Annabelle Bladon is a senior researcher in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group; Yuko Okamura is a senior economist with the social protection and jobs global practice at the World Bank

A woman in an orange life jacket sits on the edge of a square pond cage, surrounded by water.

A fisher uses pond cages in Zambia (Photo: Agness Chileya/WorldFish via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The livelihoods and wellbeing of fishers and fish workers – most of whom are small-scale or artisanal workers living in the global South – are becoming more precarious as climate change and overfishing reshape the risks they face.

Almost 90% of global marine fish stocks are now ‘fully exploited’ or ‘overexploited’, and this stress increases the vulnerability of the fisheries sector to climate change

Social protection and labour programmes can help people manage risk and build resilience against shocks. But their reach is limited, particularly among informal workers, including most small-scale fishers and fish workers.

Fisheries management can rebuild and sustain stocks by limiting catch, effort (amount of fishing) or access to certain areas. While such measures should reduce overexploitation and build resilience in the long term, they usually impose a short- to medium-term socioeconomic cost (often lost earnings), which can be insurmountable for the most vulnerable.

Since fisheries management rarely integrates mechanisms to compensate for these costs, what often results is a vicious cycle of noncompliance, overfishing and poverty, particularly where governance is weak. 

But what if fishers and fish workers had better access to social protection and labour programmes – and what if these were better integrated with fisheries management? 

Pathways to an integrated approach

As a part of efforts to answer these questions, the World Bank and IIED (with support from PROBLUE) have developed a conceptual framework that guides policymakers and practitioners towards a more integrated approach.

We identified three main ways to align social protection and labour systems, policies and programmes with fisheries management by incentivising actions that enhance sustainability and compensating for their costs.

The first action is registering fishers and fish workers, which provides essential data for fisheries management while also connecting them to appropriate social programmes; the second is a specific change in behaviour, such as compliance with new regulations; and the third is a partial or complete exit from a fishery – a longer-term strategy to reduce the total numbers of workers, which is sometimes necessary when stocks are in decline.

A flow chart

Aligning social protection and labour systems, policies and programmes with actions that support fisheries management can enable and incentivise these actions while reducing vulnerability and improving livelihoods. Click on the image to enlarge it, or see more or download the full infographic.

Some countries, such as Morocco, have extended mainstream social protection to small-scale fishers by making it easier and more attractive for them to register.

Other countries have deliberately adapted or conceived programmes for specific fisheries or communities: the Bangladesh government provides social assistance as compensation to fishers for complying with closed seasons; some Caribbean countries insure fishers and fish workers against bad weather; and in the Peruvian anchoveta fishery, regulatory efforts to rebuild stocks have been supported by training programmes and advisory support for fishers who exit the sector.

However, efforts tend to be limited, fragmented and ad hoc, and rarely meet the needs of all fisheries actors. For instance, programme eligibility is often linked to asset registration and tax or licence fee payments, which can exclude the most vulnerable workers who do not own fishing vessels or gear (usually women). The seasonality and variability of income in the sector also make regular social insurance contributions difficult.

One of the main barriers to designing more inclusive and integrated programmes is that socioeconomic data on the fisheries sector are patchy.

Another is the fact that social protection, labour and fisheries management are typically led by different ministries with distinct mandates and limited interactions, which restricts the potential for policy coherence or information sharing.

From concept to reality

Governments can increase the coherence and impact of social protection, labour and fisheries policies by enhancing intra- and inter-ministerial coordination. Cooperation and coordination are also essential with and between NGOs, private companies, fisheries sector organisations and community-based organisations.

These last two often play a role in the informal risk management mechanisms that so many fishing households currently rely on, which can be an important starting point for formal social protection. 

Governments could create the fiscal space to invest more in integrating social protection and labour with fisheries management by reforming harmful fisheries subsidies.

Policymakers and practitioners may need to adapt programme design features and delivery mechanisms to effectively support more of the fisheries sector. For example, to properly assess the profile and needs of fishers and fish workers, they should be included in social registries as well as fisheries databases; when linked, these can provide a more complete picture.

Programmes should also use eligibility criteria that reflect their objectives, which might involve compromise. For instance, targeting the poorest households (the norm for social assistance) does not always deliver the best environmental outcomes, since they are not always the ones with the greatest impact on fish stocks and their habitats. 

Governments can make programmes more accessible, appropriate and attractive to fishers and fish workers – for example, by allowing flexible and reduced social insurance contributions. And, critically, they can maximise synergies with fisheries management by making benefits conditional on specific fishing practices or on moving out of declining fisheries.

While challenges remain, there are clear opportunities to leverage social protection and labour programmes to strengthen fisheries management, reducing the vulnerability of people and nature for a more sustainable future.


Gunilla Tegelskär Greig, a senior fisheries specialist with the World Bank's environment, natural resources and blue economy global practice, also contributed to this blog.

About the author

Annabelle Bladon (annabelle.bladon@iied.org) is a senior researcher (inclusive blue economy) in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group.

Yuko Okamura (yokamura@worldbank.org) is a senior economist with the social protection and jobs global practice at the World Bank.

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