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The purpose of this paper is to help fisheries officials better understand the cultures of small-scale fishing communities. By doing so they will be better prepared to develop more successful management policies and practices, while helping people in fishing communities to have more decent lives.

Nearly 95% of the world's fishers are small-scale fishers, and collectively they harvest nearly half of the world's fish catch that is designated for human consumption. These number more than 20 million primary producers plus another 20 million small-scale processors, marketers, and distributors, totaling approximately 40 million people worldwide who are directly employed in the small-scale fisheries sector. And if all the ancillary workers who support these are also counted, as well as the dependents of all of the foregoing people, then small-scale fishing supports the livelihoods of more than 200 million people worldwide.

At the same time, most of the world's fisheries are in peril, and unfortunately most of these imperiled fisheries are situated in coastal regions where practically all of the world's small-scale fishing people live. For the foregoing reasons, small-scale fishing communities merit the special concern of fisheries officials.


The paper discusses the following cultural characteristics of small-scale fishing communities that are particularly important for fisheries officials to understand:


The foregoing cultural characteristics are mainly internal to small-scale fishing communities. In addition, the report provides suggestions concerning the following external influences that can also promote the success of fisheries management and strengthen small-scale fishing communities:


The following general methods are described which may help fisheries officials to obtain trustworthy and reliable information about the cultures of small-scale fishing communities, while doing so in an ethically sound manner:


Rapid assessment (or rapid rural appraisal) of fishing communities, which is a broad and expeditious method for studying small-scale fishing communities, is also discussed. Rapid assessment approaches utilize inter-disciplinary teams to gain a rapid understanding of fishing communities and the problems that are facing them. It is particularly efficacious in situations where fisheries officials are constrained by tight budgetary and time limitations.


Recommendations concerning the following are also presented:

1. General recommendations.

2. Recommended subjects of study for understanding the cultures of small-scale fishing communities.

3. Recommendations regarding promoting and legitimizing fishers' organizations.

4. Recommendations for harmonizing new management and development schemes with fishers' traditional systems.

5. Recommendations regarding capacity building.

6. Recommendations regarding promoting public awareness of the cultures of small-scale fishing communities.

These recommendations are intended for fisheries extension officers and higher-level government officials, as well as for others who are concerned with promoting more successful fisheries management while enhancing the well being of people living in small-scale fishing communities.


Two appendixes are provided near the end of the paper. Appendix 7.1 presents supplementary information concerning the background for this report and how it was developed. Appendix 7.2 presents examples of data sets that can be collected by rapid assessments.


Several end notes provide detailed supplementary information regarding some of the discussions appearing in the text.


Complete bibliographic information for the more than 150 published works that are cited in the report is presented in this section.


Six case studies of contemporary small-scale fishing communities from distinct world culture regions are annexed at the end of the report. These richly illustrate how fisheries-management policies and practices can be made more successful by understanding the cultures of small-scale fishing communities. These case studies are briefly summarized below:

"Species-oriented resource management and dialogue on reef fish conservation: a case study from small-scale fisheries in Yaeyama Islands, Southwestern Japan" (by Tomoya Akimichi).

In this case study Akimichi illustrates the complex and highly participatory steps that must be taken in order to promote cooperative, community-based, fisheries co-management. He describes the Yaeyama Islands of Southwest Japan, where the recent degradation of coral-reef marine ecosystems and heightened fishing effort by both commercial and recreational fishers have prompted concerns for bringing about new means for managing a valuable and threatened species in the region: the emperor fish.

During 1996 and 1997, at the prompting of the prefecture government, a series of meetings were launched at the Yaeyama fisheries cooperative association (FCA) to present management proposals to the diverse types of commercial fishers who targeted the emperor fish. FCA members, prefecture and other government officials, and individuals from the recreational sector took part in these meetings. A consensus among FCA members about the proposed management measures proved difficult to achieve, mainly because of their diverse approaches to fishing. On the other hand, FCA members were virtually unified in their concern about recreational fishers' impacts on emperor fish stocks. Eventually, after reworking the proposed management program, a tentative consensus was reached among FCA members regarding their willingness to abide by the proposed program, while members of the recreational sector voluntarily agreed to abide by it as well.

Akimichi stresses that the ecological knowledge of the various FCA members helped government authorities to develop the program, while dialogue among all parties having interests in these stocks helped to formulate a potentially more comprehensive and effective management program.

"Integration of traditional institutions and people's participation in an artisanal fisheries development project in Southeastern Nigeria" (by Menakhem Ben-Yami).

This case study describes a successful credit-development program that was aimed at helping small-scale fishing communities in Southeastern Nigeria. The program that Ben-Yami describes capitalized on existing cultural institutions in the fishing communities by connecting them with a modern lending bank, and key to its success was a high degree of participation by community members through every phase, from initial planning through implementation.

On launching the program, Ben-Yami observed that the main limitation on overall fishing effort in the small-scale sector was not the fish stocks, which had long remained stable and underutilized, but rather difficult access to reasonably-priced credit which was needed for sustaining fishing operations. The local communities did have traditional credit institutions, but these were inadequate for providing levels of credit that would facilitate significant increases in fishing production. Thus, by connecting these traditional community-based credit institutions with a modern lending bank, the development effort capitalized on important pre-existing components of the communities' local cultures.

Overall, the project enhanced the well being of many people living in the small-scale fishing communities, although its success was eventually eroded by politicians, government authorities, and bureaucrats who tried to exploit the project for their own benefit, as well as by inflationary trends in the national economy. A few years later other development projects were launched in this same region without first consulting the local people, making considerable expenditures on technological innovations which turned out to be inappropriate, and which did little to improve the well being of the people living in the fishing communities.

"Small-scale whaling in North America" (by Milton M. R. Freeman).

This case study focuses on the aboriginal Inuit people of northern Alaska and Canada, and illustrates how their traditional whaling practices have helped to maintain their cultural identity as well as to conserve whale stocks. While whaling does have salience in the Inuit's contemporary subsistence economies, Freeman stresses that its symbolic importance as a cornerstone of their cultural identity is perhaps more important. Thus, community-wide distributions of whale-derived foods are valued as an important means for maintaining social cohesion and cultural identity, with the distribution process itself, rather than the actual quantities distributed, being most valued.

While the Inuit population has doubled over the past two decades, the average number of whales taken annually over that same time has remained nearly constant, and the Inuit have shown little interest in increased commercialization of these resources. Freeman argues that conventional fisheries-management approaches, which would conceptualize whales as merely another wild stock to be conserved and allocated as a human food resource, would threaten the sustainability of the Inuit's unique cultural identity, as well as that of the whale stocks. The key to sustaining both the Inuit and the whales, he stresses, is to sustain the multi-dimensional significance of whale hunting and the distribution of whale products in Inuit culture.

"The socio-cultural aspects of fisheries: implications for food and livelihood security. A case study of Kerala State, India" (by John Kurien).

Kurien describes small-scale fishing communities in Kerala, India, whose well being declined as a result of development initiatives which ignored traditional approaches to fishing that had great antiquity. Before these developments, communal traditions emphasizing the sharing of seafood and the incomes derived from it, as well as community-based participation in fisheries management, had regulated fisheries access and the allocation of fisheries resources. They had also provided effective means for conflict resolution and sustained an abundant supply of seafood throughout the region.

Beginning around four decades ago, however, development policies favoring the growth of a modern shrimp-exporting industry refocused fisheries policies on the needs of that sector, which otherwise provided little employment for people living in the small-scale fishing communities. Eventually important marine ecosystems became degraded, while regional seafood supplies and the employment of women in the region's seafood markets declined. Within the small-scale communities themselves, other development efforts compelled small-scale fishers to turn away from traditional approaches to fishing, while simultaneously promoting a new ethos of competitive individualism and orientation to the market, rather than to the community per se. This subverted cultural traditions that had long guided social and economic life in the communities, prompting new social and political divisions within them, as well as between them.

Kurien recommends that promoting the well being of the small-scale fishing communities be made the first priority in future fisheries policies, while placing stricter controls on the shrimp-export industry. He also urges a revitalization of the traditional communal ethos and community-based fisheries management, greater regard for traditional approaches to fishing, and more support for women to revitalize regional seafood markets.

"When fish is water: food security and fish in a coastal community in the Dominican Republic" (by Richard W. Stoffle).

This case study explores a small-scale fishing community's connections with other people and cultural systems. Stoffle describes a rural-coastal village in the Dominican Republic, which to a first-time visitor might seem rather isolated, but which in fact is enmeshed in a web of local, national, and global-level connections.

The village's fishing specialists produce fish to supply their families with food, as well as to sell in regional and national marketplaces. Much of the lesser-quality fish that they catch is sold in markets in the nation's coastal cities, where it becomes an important source of animal protein for the urban poor.

Yet, Stoffle explains, to understand the villagers' connections to local, national, and even global-level contexts, the fishing people's relations with the local farming people must also be taken into account. Hence, when local farmers experience production declines brought on by drought, or by changes in national- or international-level economic policies that depress prices for the cash crops that they produce, many temporarily turn to fishing, which prompts an increase in overall fishing effort and corresponding reductions in local fish stocks. Moreover, during these periodic reversals in local agriculture the village's fishing specialists sell relatively more of the lesser-quality fish that they catch to their agricultural neighbors, diminishing fish supplies among the nation's urban poor who can ill afford alternative sources of animal protein. Furthermore, because potable water in this village is often in short supply, local fishers are sometimes compelled to sell fish they might otherwise use to feed their families so they can buy potable water, which is needed for drinking purposes and for cooking less expensive, high-calorie staple foods.

Thus, Stoffle's case study underscores the ramifications of a fishing community's connections with many other people and cultural systems, illustrating how these can influence the well being of the various people who are interconnected.

"Hebrides and West coast of Scotland: the social and cultural importance of the coastal fishing communities and their contribution to food security" (by David Thomson).

This case study describes how small-scale fishing communities in western Scotland are being impoverished by fisheries policies favoring larger-scale approaches to fishing. Despite long-term declines in this region's fisheries, Thomson notes that the small-scale fishing sector still provides about 20% of the region's total employment.

Since the early 1980's, the region's fisheries have steadily declined as a result of over-harvesting by fishers of all types, and encroaching marine pollution. Large-scale fishing enterprises from other parts of Scotland have also been buying up the limited number of fishing licenses from economically marginal, smaller-scale fishers, who can no longer sustain fishing activities. This has bid up the prices of these licenses and further decreased the small-scale fishing communities' participation in the fisheries.

And now, Thomson argues, the region's small-scale fishing communities will be fatally impoverished when the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (EUCFP) is fully implemented, permitting access to all member-country fleets. Once this policy is implemented, he says, this will further escalate the trade in licenses, putting these well beyond the reach of most of the region's small-scale operators, while increasingly transferring the economic benefits of the region's fisheries to foreign interests. Although regional development is one of the objectives of the EUCFP, Thomson argues that the way the policy is currently structured it so favors larger-scale approaches to fishing that it may be the death knell for the region's small-scale fishing communities.

Thomson therefore recommends that the EU make the well being of the region's small-scale fishing communities the first priority in its fisheries policies. The benefits of doing this, he concludes, would be increased food security and employment in the coastal communities, a more efficient seafood harvest, healthier marine ecosystems, and a reversal of the population and economic decline that has long been seen in this region.

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