Products from fisheries are the world's most widely traded food, the net export value of which is greater than that of rice, coffee, sugar, and tea combined. Fishers in developing countries, who overwhelmingly operate on a small scale, supply 77 percent of the fish the world eats. But despite the global importance of fisheries, they suffer from poor planning, inadequate funding, and neglect by all levels of government. To address these issues, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have launched a series of seminars on the key trends, threats, challenges, and opportunities that shape the management of fisheries. The inaugural seminar on September 13, 2006, focused on the potential opportunities for interventions at national, regional, and international levels.
Overcapitalization of fisheries threatens the economic futures of developing countries, since, by 2020, developing countries are expected to provide almost 80 percent of total food fish production. Lives are also at risk—1.5 billion people in developing countries depend on fish for food. "Income isn't the only important measure," said Jacqueline Schafer, assistant administrator in the Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade at USAID. Developing countries need assistance in building the capacity of individuals and institutions to effectively manage fisheries. But real solutions require looking beyond what is in the water. Education and training, as well as creative thinking and foresight, are all necessary to halt fisheries' decline. "We are dealing as much with a social problem as we are with an environmental problem," she said.
The gloomy state of the world's fisheries can be attributed to overharvesting, said Robert Pomeroy, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Connecticut. Weak governance, poor enforcement and compliance, insufficient training and education, and inappropriate laws and policies all contribute to overfishing. In Southeast Asia, for example, lax laws allow fishers to harvest 3 or 4 times more fish than the system can sustain. Increased access to technology is also playing a part, he said. Fishers can now buy cheap GPS systems to triangulate dense fish areas, allowing for more rapid and frequent depletion of fish stocks. Additionally, environmental degradation and ecosystem changes—from pollution to sea level rise and habitat loss—are negatively impacting coastal fish communities. "The Indonesian tsunami tragedy [of 2005] showed us the vulnerability of some of these communities," said Patrick Christie, assistant professor at the School of Marine Affairs and Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.
In the face of declining stocks, the industry is experiencing extreme growth in employment—upwards of 400 percent in the small-scale market. "Increasingly, people are coming into the fisheries part-time," Pomeroy said. "We need to be thinking about the different types of small-scale fishermen entering the market." Following these trends is extremely important, he noted, because large-scale fishers—around 50,000—are far outnumbered by more than 50 million small-scale fishers, who account for 96 percent of the total. Small-scale fishers are feeling the greatest strain from declining per-capita availability and the subsequent increase in market price: they can no longer afford to buy what they catch. According to Pomeroy, this gap between supply and demand will continue to widen—and increase poverty—unless fishery practices are reformed.
Building a management plan for a small-scale fishery, however, requires adequate data. "We don't actually know the numbers and we have a poor understanding of behavior," said Christie. "We often don't know basic information, like what tools fishers are using." Better data are also needed to address social aspects, as each small-scale fishery operates differently, he said: "There is not a one-size-fits-all context. You need to choose the issues that are important and address them in a culturally appropriate context." These social issues should then be combined with ecological findings to create a unique fisheries plan. "The intent of this is not to collect data for data's sake. It is really important that this information is utilized," he said.
The development of human and institutional capacity is also crucial to fisheries management. Small-scale fishers require education and training to understand the reasons behind management strategies. In many cases, Christie noted, overfishing is not acknowledged or even apparent, which renders plans useless. Education programs, he said, should mainstream conservation policies, to make conservation relevant to the community. "How do you show that [conservation] will benefit these people? We need to be creative enough to make that argument."
Finally, governments and policymakers must plan for an uncertain future, and expect that their plans may not work perfectly from the beginning. "You need to use an adaptive management approach," said Christie, noting that a major hurdle will involve creating alternative livelihoods. Vietnam, for example, has a national plan to reduce small-scale fishing that they "don't have a clue" how to implement, according to Pomeroy: "How do you build an economy to absorb the labor that is moving away from fisheries?" Yet governments must also realize that creating alternative livelihoods is about more than just economics: "People really do sense the impending crisis," said Christie. "And people don't necessarily want to migrate from being a fisher to being a tour boat operator—they like being fishers."
Drafted by Alison Williams.
- Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade, U.S. Agency for International Development
- Associate Professor, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Connecticut
- Assistant Professor, School of Marine Affairs and Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington