Interviews: UN Ocean Conference frustrates small-scale fishers

Small-scale artisanal fishers explain why they left the recent UN Ocean Conference feeling unheard and overlooked, and set out what needs to change so their needs and priorities are reflected in future decision-making process and policies relating to artisanal fishing.

Article, 02 September 2022
Women and men fishers lean over a boat gathering their catch at the side of a body of water.

Mpenja loanding site, Uganda (Photo: copyright Katosi Women Development Trust)

The UN designated 2022 as the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA), pledging to recognise the contribution that small-scale artisanal fishers, fish farmers and fish workers make to people’s nutrition, food security, sustainable livelihoods and human wellbeing.

The UN Ocean Conference (UNOC) earlier this year created an international space to push forward science and innovative solutions for conservation and sustainable use of the ocean.

Ninety per cent of people who work in fisheries and their value chains around the world are small-scale. These fishers have been using the ocean sustainably for centuries so it’s crucial their voices and perspectives are brought into global discussions on sustainable ocean management such as UNOC.

What were the reflections of small-scale artisanal fishers following the conference? IIED’s blue economy team talked to representatives from fisheries organisations in Central America, the African Confederation of Professional Organizations of Artisanal Fisheries (CAOPA) and the World Forum of Fish Harvesters & Fish Workers (WFF).

Contributions come from:

Headshot of six people

(Left to right and top to bottom) Alfonzo Simón, Margaret Nakato, Aaron Chacón, Mamadou Aliou Diallo, Maria Carrillo, Felicito Núñez

Q: The UN declared 2022 as the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture. How far do you think this was reflected in the debates and events of the UN Ocean Conference?

AC: Speaking frankly, it was only through the efforts and initiative of artisanal fisher organisations around the world to self-organise and arrange our own meetings that our voices were heard during the conference. Without these meetings, our perspectives would have gone completely unnoticed.

Fortunately, these efforts paid off: our call to action – demanding that governments protect and restore small-scale artisanal fisheries and maintain their contributions to economies, health, culture and wellbeing − attracted support from other organisations including fisheries organisations, NGOs and government representatives who joined the meetings.

That said, on the whole, fishers were largely invisible during the conference. During the official sessions, governments, heads of state and business leaders all pressed ahead with their agenda without paying any attention to the needs, priorities or solutions put forward by small-scale fishers.

FN: There was very little participation from small-scale fishers. For the few who did attend, very little time or effort was given to enable them to genuinely participate in the sessions.

MC: We small-scale artisanal fishermen and women are very happy that the UN declared this year the IYAFA. But it was deeply frustrating that the small-scale sector was not part of the main agenda [of the UNOC].

It was gratifying to be given the opportunity to participate in the Lisbon conference. A few organisations provided the financial and logistical support to enable us to attend. But I would like to emphasise that support for the artisanal fishing sector in the conference was missing. Our voices went unheard.

The UN has dedicated this year to artisanal fisheries and aquaculture. At this UN conference, where conservation and sustainable use of the oceans topped the agenda, it should have been us, the artisanal fishers, the stewards of the seas, who had prime place on the stage. It should have been our voices heard from the podiums, our needs and priorities discussed on the panels.

In the future, we would like the UN to not only let us observe in official sessions but to speak. Because we are the ones who can express how a fisher lives day-to-day. It is unfortunate we were not given the opportunity to be visible.

AS: The UN declaring 2022 as IYAFA presents an important platform for small-scale fishermen and women, from all over the world, to speak with one voice. We know with certainty that, by raising our voice, we are paving the way towards the recognition of our rights, as a sector that contributes to food security all over the world.

MAD: I think that [the IYAFA] was reflected at UNOC, across the conversations of national authorities, professional organisations intervening in the small-scale fishing and aquaculture sector, the side events, conferences, the interviews with international organisations (eg FAO) and the professionals that were present. 

MN: The discussions and events at UNOC largely neglected to focus on IYAFA. The list of non-state actors involved in key planning sessions excluded social movements and labour unions while transnational companies, banks, conservationist and philanthropic organisations featured prominently. My colleagues and I were invited as leaders of fisher movements – but we received very little attention in comparison. 

More so, the discussions downplayed the important role the ocean plays in the provision of food and employment to millions of people. Discussions focused on blue economic sectors that are priority areas for investment, such as carbon offsetting, marine protected areas and renewable energy.

Man holding a microphone speaks to an audience.

Event at the UN Ocean Conference 2022 (Photo: Cristina Pita/IIED)

Q:  In your opinion, will any of the political commitments made during the conference have an impact on small-scale fishing communities? If so, how?

AC: I expect the benefits for small-scale fishing communities to be very limited. In the plenary sessions there was a lot of talk about conservation, but it focused on issues such as tuna. It is no secret to anyone that tuna fisheries are one of the sector’s most lucrative. And who benefits from these? Very few do – and those that do are the big companies involved in large-scale industrial fisheries.

It will be a major challenge for artisanal fishermen and women to preserve our culture in the years to come. And yet, at these high-profile international conferences that invite global attention, we are invisible and excluded from decision-making processes.

One clear example was during one of the plenary sessions where a panel of politicians from around the world each talked for up to six minutes. But when they opened the floor, some fishers were not even given the opportunity to speak, even though they had put their names down on the list that would supposedly ensure they would have their moment and their space to respond.

FN: Political commitments have been made in the past, and many were made again at UNOC. But these commitments are rarely fulfilled. The impact will not be sufficient, or strong enough, to improve the lives of artisanal fishers.

MC: In the sessions we participated in, several authorities agreed to follow up on the issues around artisanal fishing sector – such as rights and access to resources, and the need for transparent, participatory management.

Costa Rica’s environment minister pledged support to the sector. But my question is, was a document drafted, setting out this pledge? Was a document signed committing to fulfilling those pledges?

Promises to follow up on issues are only words unless they are turned into signed documents that commit to helping the artisanal fishing sector.

We, on behalf of the Network of Marine Areas for Responsible Fishing and Marine Territories of Life, are fighting for our fishing sector and we, as coordinators, are also following up on these processes. We hope the commitments made during UNOC are taken forward and become reality.

AS: Historically, politicians have never cared about the artisanal fisheries sector. Some commitments were indeed made during UNOC, but they focused on large-scale industrial fisheries; none related to the small-scale artisanal fishing sector.

The commitments made in Lisbon will have no real impact for us. The fishers in my territory here in Bocas del Toro won’t benefit from the outcomes of UNOC. Year after year, the UN reiterates its support for the sector − but that support never reaches my community.

MAD: The conference can only be useful when the concerns of the workers are taken into account in public policies and when workers are involved in decisions that affect them.

MN: The political commitments made at UNOC could negatively impact small-scale fishing communities. Efforts to build sustainable blue economies have, so far, benefited only a few. They have intensified conflicts between aquaculture farms and artisanal fisheries, created new conflicts due to small-scale fisher communities being displaced from their territories, and neglected their customary rights, putting their livelihoods, cultures and traditions in danger.

In some cases, blue economy agendas have softened national regulations and policies to favour the expansion and the interest of the corporate sector. These have translated into human rights of small-scale fishing communities being denied or violated.

The political commitments made at the conference were diverse. But they were voluntary – following up will be a challenge as there are no measures to track progress. And there are no mechanisms for ensuring future initiatives don’t negatively impact those already in place such as FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries.

Q. What needs to change so that the needs and priorities of small-scale fishers are translated into policy?

MAD: In the future, it will be necessary to inform the fishworkers, to involve them from the start to the finish in the decision-making process and in policies relating to artisanal fishing and aquaculture activities.

MN: Discussions on fisheries need to be brought to the FAO which has structures to support inclusive decision making that will consider the voices of the millions of small-scale fishers.

To resolve the urgent ecological, nutritional, and social crises, it is crucial to dismantle the capture of decision making by corporations within the UN system.

Equity must be at the heart of a sustainable ocean economy, focusing on how benefits from the ocean are distributed among the many stakeholders, particularly small-scale fishing communities and women. The transformation of ocean governance must ensure that the human rights of those who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods are respected, and benefits are equitably distributed.

Small scale fishing communities need political support for the FAO’s voluntary SSF guidelines. State and non-state actors implementing the guidelines would be a substantial step forward in ensuring the perspectives of small-scale fishers are addressed in ocean governance.

Interview contributions gathered by principal researcher Cristina Pita, senior researcher Annabelle Bladon, and researcher Anna Ducros, all in IIED’s Shaping Sustainable Markets research group.