Introduction: Family and Small-Scale Fisheries

Many of the same challenges that face family and small-scale farmers also affect family and small-scale fishers. Learn about the problems with the industrial fishing industry and how to move toward the human right to fish.

Fishermen in Elmina, Ghana. Photo by Katrina Moore.

Fish and fisheries are a major component of the world’s food systems and significant sources of nutritious food and income for families worldwide; fisheries provide food and livelihoods for more than 800 million people worldwide, according to the FAO. There are 58 million people who are actually fishers, but when all of the work related to fisheries is combined, “fisheries and aquaculture assure the livelihoods of 10-12 percent of the world’s population.”

However, fisheries are being overfished due to industrial-scale fishing fleets, water is becoming severely polluted due to aquaculture and agriculture, and marine resources are being appropriated from small-scale fisheries by powerful food and fish industry giants in a move known as “ocean-grabbing.”

According to the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), a fisher-led organization based in the northeast United States that promotes healthy marine ecosystems and the human rights of fishers, a just fishery is an essential part of a secure food system in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally appropriate, nutritionally sound diet through an economically and environmentally sustainable food system that promotes community self-reliance and social justice. Ensuring and partaking in a healthy, regional food system that includes wild-caught seafood is therefore essential to deepening food security, not just in the United States, but around the world. According to Herman Kumara, the convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) of Sri Lanka, which supports hundreds of thousands of families in Sri Lanka that depend on small-scale fisheries, “ the research tells us that it’s the small-scale food producers who feed the world, and not big industries. We need to promote and protect them, and the environment, to ensure they continue to be able to do this .”

Niaz Dorry, NAMA’s Coordinating Director, wrote in 2008

Fishing communities [14 years ago] were at the same fork in the road that family farmers reached decades before. Facing the onslaught of agribusiness and their slogan ‘we are providing cheap food to the world’s hungry,’ family farmers weren’t able to effectively promote their economic AND ecological advantages. Instead, agribusiness’ message of economic efficiency, replete with boardroom charts and graphs and congressional sway, created an arena in which farmers could not compete. With that, agribusiness forwarded their ‘Green Revolution’ and argued that they could produce food for the growing world population more efficiently and, thus, cheaply. Today, aquabusiness is promoting its ‘Blue Revolution’ the same way. This time community based fishermen and the marine ecosystem are at stake.

Small-Scale Fisheries and Ocean Grabbing

According to the new Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (VGSSF) from the United Nations, “small-scale fisheries contribute about half of the global fish catches” and two-thirds of the fish that people eat for food. Small-scale fisheries, which include not only the actual catching of fish but also all of the activities that come before catching the fish – making nets, repairing boats and gear – and after catching the fish – cleaning, drying and smoking – “employ more than 90 percent of the world’s capture fishers and fish workers, about half of whom are women.” The Guidelines also add that, “Many small-scale fishers, fish workers and their communities – including vulnerable and marginalized groups – are directly dependent on access to fishery resources and land.” However, ocean grabbing is pulling resources and income away from these small-scale fisheries and toward the consolidated global fish industry. Ocean grabbing typically results from privatized fish stocks, increasing the size of industrial fishing companies and large-scale aquaculture.

Because fisheries are governed by policies created by governments and industry giants, rules and policies are created that exclude small-scale fishers from access to the fisheries and markets they need to sustain them and their families.

According to a 2014 report called The Global Ocean Grab: A Primer, “small-scale fishers are suddenly denied or lose the legal right to fish or harvest aquatic resources due to changes in legal frameworks that now require them to possess a market-embedded right to fish.” One of these frameworks is deceptively called Rights-Based Fishing (RBF) – fishing based on property rights rather than human rights – and allocates shares of allowable catch to all fishers. This is often managed through Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) or Catch Shares, which privatizes shares of fish by allocating a percentage of the total catch of a type of fish from a particular body of water to an individual fisher. These shares can then be bought and sold on the market, which fishermen often do if the price of fish drops below their cost of production, concentrating of power and capital in the hands of private actors. This results in fewer but larger vessels that can catch more fish and make a profit even at a lower price and dispossesses small-scale fishers from their resources. In Chile, for example, only four companies control 90 percent of the quotas after the introduction of RBF.

Organizations like NAMA have worked to require that fisheries take steps to ensure that fisheries have “fleet diversity,” that is, both large and small boats, and other fisheries in the United States have stipulated that quota or catch shares can only be owned by fishermen, not by investors or absentee boat owners. At the global level, the United Nations’ Voluntary Guidelines on Small-Scale Fisheries and the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGT) both include human rights mechanisms to protect small-scale fisheries in the face of industrialization.

Destructive Industrial-Scale Fishing Practices

According to a 2014 FAO report, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 158 million tons of fish were caught in 2012, increased from about 140 tons in 2007. This number goes up by about 3.2 percent every year, double the rate of population growth (1.6 percent). Most fish caught around the world will end up on people’s plates, but fish is also processed into fertilizers, fish oil and animal feed.

Small-scale fishers catch the majority of the fish consumed directly as food, making small-scale fishers vital for community food security, and the large, industrial-scale fleets catch most of the fish used for fertilizer or fish oil. Because of Rights-Based Fishing (RBF), fishing fleets have consolidated worldwide — meaning larger and larger corporations control more and more fishing boats — and these fleets are increasingly adopting large-scale fishing practices, potentially hurting food security. Slow Fish, a campaign of Slow Food, notes that the majority of the world’s 15 million full-time fishing boat employees work on boats that are less than 24 meters long, a tiny boat by industrial fishing standards.

With fewer independent and small-scale boats catching fish, communities that depend on fish for their livelihoods are losing sources of nutrition and income, an impact detrimental to community food security.

Besides the food security concerns, industrial fishing methods are extremely damaging to ocean ecosystems. One of the most destructive methods, bottom trawling, involves tying the net to a large ballast and dragging it along the ocean floor, destroying everything in its path. This method does not discriminate between the intended catch fish and other species in the ocean; these so-called “discards,” which are often killed by the fishing process, can make up even 80 percent of the total catch on a single boat, and a large number of them are thrown back into the sea dead or wounded. In addition, the use of industrial-scale nets with holes so small they catch young and baby fish are an increasing problem, as they can destroy fishing populations. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that at least 40 percent of the annual global marine catch is bycatch, a term that includes anything caught that is unmanaged or unused.

Industrial-scale fishing is also harmful to small-scale fishers economically because they don’t get the fair market value for their catch. The industrial model in general is a model of scale; as more fish are caught by bigger boats using bigger nets fishing for bigger companies, the price of fish goes down. The big companies can still make profits with this model because they sell high volumes of fish. However, small-scale fishermen that are conserving the oceans and fisheries by catching smaller amounts of fish still have to sell their fish for the low prices established by the industrial fishing industry, often leading to fishermen losing money on their catch. Privatization of the oceans leads to job losses and wage losses for smaller-scale fishers.

A commercial crab boat.

The Trouble With Aquaculture

Many have touted large-scale aquaculture, or fish and shellfish farms, as the solution to destructive industrial fishing methods. However, industrial aquaculture is not that different from industrial agriculture – huge volumes of waste from feed, antibiotics, fish fecal matter and chemicals areleached into the oceans. It also disrupts small-scale fisheries by reducing local fish stocks, reducing biodiversity and blocking the community from the enclosed coastal areas. Aquaculture provides relatively inexpensive fish, but the ecological and social costs outweigh the benefits.

According to the FAO, out of the total fish caught in 2012, 66 million tons came from aquaculture. The Global Ocean Grab notes, “Species farmed by large-scale aquaculture feed the growing demand for fish from Global North high-end and middle-income markets rather than the local food systems of the rural poor people. By grabbing land and waters upon which they rely, aquaculture further increases fishing communities’ vulnerability. Aquaculture is another dynamic whereby control over aquatic resources is captured by the corporate seafood regime, at the expense of the people depending on these resources and the resilience of marine ecosystems.” In short, large-scale aquaculture is a form of ocean grabbing and cannot therefore be a long-term solution to ending hunger.

Toward the Human Right to Fish

The same principle that has led to large-scale, input-intensive agriculture has also been applied to fisheries: that we must increase food production in order to feed a growing global population. This principle has led to ocean grabbing, consolidation in the fishing industry and large-scale aquaculture. However, food insecurity, as noted in The Global Ocean Grab, “is largely linked to issues of food access and distribution,” and is not due to a lack of food supply. To achieve justice in fisheries, a human rights framework must be adopted, moving away from the privatization model and prioritizing the rights of small-scale fishers.

The paradigms of “food justice” and “food sovereignty,” or the right of all people to define their own food systems and policies, should be applied to fisheries. We need to ensure the right of all small-scale fishers and fishing communities to access and have democratic control over their natural resources. We also need to recognize that fisheries, fishers and fish workers are a critical part of the food system, along with farms, farmers and farmworkers.

Image courtesy of NAMA.

In October 2014, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), a social movement of small-scale fishers advocating the rights of fisher people worldwide, along with representatives from small-scale fishing communities, governments and civil society organizations came together in a powerful movement-building action. Through their advocacy, they pushed and advised the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) to develop the Voluntary Guidelines on Small-Scale Fisheries, a human-rights framework for protecting small-scale fishers. The guidelines include the objectives of supporting small-scale fisheries to contribute to global food security and nutrition, developing small-scale fishing communities to improve socio-economic conditions, promoting responsible and sustainable management of natural resources and increasing public awareness. The framework aims to address the imbalances of power in the fishing sector and poor regulations on aquaculture and industrial fishing.

Due to their voluntary nature, the success of the Voluntary Guidelines on Small-Scale Fisheries depends on how they are implemented in each country, which in turn depends on how social movements of fishing families can engage their governments and allies. However, these Guidelines still hold great promise and show the way forward to address hunger, poverty and powerlessness.

As Naseegh Jaffer, the Secretary General of the WFFP, argued in a statement at the plenary session of FAO meetings discussing these guidelines, “the contribution of small scale fisheries and aquaculture could be significantly improved if the imbalances of power in the food system and throughout the fishery value chain are addressed, and if the efforts of small scale fishworkers to feed their families and their communities are effectively supported.”

To learn about what you can do as a consumer, see the Take Action article.

Updated 11/2014