Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page


1.1 The crisis in contemporary fisheries and fisheries management
1.2 The fisheries are a human phenomenon
1.3 Reconstructing fisheries management, planning and policy
1.4 Emphasis on small-scale fishing communities
1.5 Problems facing contemporary small-scale fishing communities
1.6 The special fisheries-management needs of small-scale fishing communities
1.7 Guidance for fisheries officials

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, and to help people living in such communities to have more decent lives.

An overwhelming majority of the world's fishing people are members of small-scale fishing communities and they make valuable contributions to humanity's food supplies. To enhance the well being of these people it will be essential for fisheries officials to understand how their communities are organized and function, what their important value orientations are, and how they can be strengthened and protected. Furthermore, to better understand the cultures of small-scale fishing communities it will also be important to use methods for studying them that will yield trustworthy, reliable, and useful information.

1.1 The crisis in contemporary fisheries and fisheries management

Nowadays most of the world's major fisheries are in peril. Nearly all of the approximately 200 fisheries monitored by the FAO are fully exploited, with one in three being either depleted or heavily over-exploited (Safina 1995, and Economist 1994: 21). And unfortunately, most of these fisheries are in coastal regions, where nearly all of the world's fishing people live--an ominous prospect not only for the world's fishing people, but also for the world's burgeoning human population and its future food needs. This situation is proof-positive that new approaches to fisheries management must be found.

1.2 The fisheries are a human phenomenon

Over the course of its development, much of fisheries-management science, both in theory and in practice, has had a misplaced emphasis. Whereas its first concerns should have been the human beings who utilize fisheries resources, its cornerstones were instead lain mainly by biologists, economists, administrators, and politicians, whose first concerns were usually the conservation of important marine-biological species, and whose next concerns were allocating fisheries resources and maximizing the economic benefits from them. This state of affairs is understandable when we recall that when modern fisheries science was born, around the end of the 19th Century, the scientific disciplines of biology and economics were already well advanced while the social sciences were still in their infancy. And the legacies of these early beginnings can still be seen in much of contemporary fisheries management.

What needs more emphasis in fisheries-management science, practice, and policy, is that the fisheries are a human phenomenon. Essentially, the fisheries are places where human activities are linked with marine ecosystems and renewable resources. Indeed, human fishing activity is the defining attribute of a fishery, since without it there would only be an aquatic realm where various marine species live. Clearly, then, the fisheries are much more than geographic regions, fishing methods, types of fishing gear, particular fish species, natural resources, or economic domains-something much more human.

Therefore, it is essential now that fisheries officials rethink what the fisheries are mostly about, understanding that their task is not so much the management of natural resources and economic systems, but rather the management of people-fishing people. If fisheries management is to be more successful in the future it must integrate social and cultural concerns with the heretofore more traditional biological and economic ones. And ultimately the measure of its success will rest upon how well it promotes the well being of people living in fishing communities.

1.3 Reconstructing fisheries management, planning and policy

If fisheries management is to be more successful in the future fisheries officials must better understand the cultures of fishing communities. Reaching this enhanced understanding will require them to explore approaches to management which are more sensitive to fishing people's concerns, and which more often incorporate fishing people as joint participants in the formulation of fisheries policies. If done carefully it should encourage fishing people to work more cooperatively with fisheries officials, while bringing about more effective management and a more sustainable utilization of fish stocks.

While fisheries officials may agree with the foregoing ideas in principle, some may still insist that biological conservation must remain their first concern, stressing that there can be no fishing community if there are no fish to sustain it. And while that cannot be denied, a fundamental change in thinking is still called for, one acknowledging that sustaining fish and sustaining fishing communities are integral concerns.

1.4 Emphasis on small-scale fishing communities

Nearly 95% of the world's fishers are small-scale fishers. 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.1 Thus, because an overwhelming majority of the world's fishers are small-scale they merit the special concern of fisheries officials.

Small-scale fishers make important contributions to the rest of humanity. For example, they provide around half of the world's fish catch that is designated for human consumption, with larger-scale approaches to fishing providing the rest. Moreover, practically all of the catches made by small-scale fishers are designated for human consumption, whereas around a third of the fish that are caught by large-scale fishers are reduced to fish meal which is used mainly for animal feed. Furthermore, the catches of small-scale fishers mostly supply local and regional markets, and are less often designated for export to more distant markets than are the catches of large-scale fishers.

The main defining characteristics of small-scale fishers are their individual capital commitments and levels of production, which are relatively small scale. Such people have often been referred to in the fisheries management and development literature as "artisanal" fishers, but in many cases that is not an accurate term. Hence, while it is often apropos for describing fishers who fabricate much of their own gear, it is inappropriate for describing the far larger number of fishers who use small motorized watercraft and fishing gear which is manufactured outside their local communities. Unfortunately and confusingly, these latter types of fishers are still often identified as "artisanal" in many fisheries management and development contexts, even though strictly speaking they are not artisans.

"Small-scale" is a more useful term because it encompasses both types of fishing people described above, and, moreover, because it is applicable to a great diversity of fishing people around the world living in both developing as well as in developed countries who have much in common. Mainly what they have in common is their relatively small-scale individual capital commitments, levels of production, and political power. Most live in communities that are scattered along coastlines, and most of their fishing activities take place near their home communities. Heretofore, most have had little influence in the development and implementation of fisheries-management policies, and correspondingly little ability to protect the fisheries they depend upon from encroachment by larger-scale fishers, as well as from other external threats such as marine pollution.

"Small-scale" does not automatically imply "poor" or "impoverished." Indeed, in some small-scale fishing communities, high prices for certain catches facilitate relatively high levels of affluence. But more often the people living in small-scale fishing communities can be counted among the less affluent members of the larger societies of which they are a part, in both developing and developed countries.

Another important attribute of small-scale fishing is that to a greater degree than that seen in large-scale approaches, the fishing occupation is closely tied to the fishers' personal and cultural identities. Among most small-scale fishers, fishing is perceived not merely a means of assuring one's livelihood, but more broadly as a way of life-indeed, a way of life which is vivified by important occupational values and symbols which in turn underscore core aspects of small-scale fishers' individual and cultural identities. Many small-scale fishers are therefore very tenacious in their adherence to the fishing occupation even after it has ceased to be economically rewarding for them. And this tenacity can sometimes make them unduly resistant to necessary and progressive change, which in turn can pose vexing problems for fisheries managers.

In addition to the significant contributions that small-scale fishing makes to human food supplies, it also compares favorably with large-scale approaches in several other ways. For one, although small-scale fishers' collective impact on fish stocks can be problematic, in general they are less often implicated in the depletion of important fish stocks than are large-scale fishers. One reason is the relatively less productive fishing technologies they commonly utilize. Another is that unlike large-scale fishers, who often target only one or a few species, most small-scale fishers take an extensive approach to fishing, targeting several different species in the marine ecosystems they depend upon. Moreover, because most small-scale fishers work close to home and cannot easily move to other fisheries should the ecosystems they depend upon collapse, they are usually more motivated to ensure that the ecosystems they depend upon are sustained in good health.

Still other characteristics of small-scale fishing compare favorably with large-scale fishing. Obviously, because small-scale capital is defining attribute of small-scale fishing, for a given amount of capital invested they usually provide significantly higher levels of production and employment--a significant benefit in developing countries which have large labor forces but scarce supplies of financial and physical capital. Also, because of their relatively low levels of capitalization, small-scale fishers are less often implicated in the problem of over-capitalization, which is one of the most vexing problems in many large-scale fisheries today. Furthermore, for a given unit of energy consumption small-scale fishers usually produce far more fish, another benefit especially in any developing countries which must import fossil fuels while carefully monitoring their balance of trade.

1.5 Problems facing contemporary small-scale fishing communities

Despite their preponderance in the world's fisheries, their contribution to human food supplies, and, compared with large-scale fishing, their generally lesser degree of impact on fish stocks and more efficient utilization of capital and energy, most small-scale fishing communities these days are beset with serious problems. Their small-scale political power leaves them vulnerable to threats arising externally to them, and perhaps the greatest external threat facing them is the large-scale fishing sector.

In the post-war era development trends have favored forms of economic growth which are characterized by increasingly large accumulations of capital, and which have facilitated rates of exploitation of natural resources such as never seen before. In the fisheries this trend has favored the development of large-scale approaches to fishing over small-scale ones, and as a result access to fisheries resources has often been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Special market demands arising in the increasingly globalized world economy, for example, have increased pressures on politicians and investors to promote larger-scale, more industrialized, and more productive approaches to fishing. These larger-scale enterprises usually enjoy greater economies of scale, and often greater economic efficiency, at least in the short run. Their competitive advantages over small-scale approaches therefore usually stem from their being better financed, their use of highly productive technologies, their receipt of other external support and government subsidization, and their continuing support by the politicians and investors who initially promoted them. Unfortunately, however, the phenomenal growth of the large-scale fishing sector in the post-war era, and the management and development policies which have favored this growth, has often been at the expense of small-scale fishing communities (readers are encouraged to review Annex 10.6 of this paper, which describes how small-scale fishing communities in western Scotland are being impoverished by policies favoring larger-scale fishing enterprises).

In some regions the foregoing developments have merely put small-scale fishing communities at a competitive disadvantage when larger-scale competitors have been able to offer mass-produced seafood at lower prices. More egregious for small-scale fishing communities, however, has been the encroachment of large-scale fishers in their traditional fishing grounds. This has often brought about the depletion of important fish stocks, degradation of coastal-marine ecosystems, and the inadvertent destruction of various sorts of passive fishing gear that small-scale fishers typically utilize. The foregoing problems may also be exacerbated by the large-scale sector's emphasis on production for export, which ships locally-produced seafood out of the region, further reducing its availability in local and regional markets while bidding up its price.

The foregoing developmental transitions have often gone unchallenged by negatively- impacted small-scale fishing communities, whose members are usually geographically dispersed, politically disorganized, unaware of their rights of appeal, and unable to take time off from fisheries activities to press their grievances. Thus, while increased levels of production by large-scale fishing has increased total economic returns in certain regions, the benefits have often not been widely distributed. And in the absence of effective and formal challenges by the small-scale communities, these negative impacts are almost never comprehensively evaluated and tallied.

Therefore it will little matter how well fisheries managers understand and respect small-scale fishing cultures if ultimately these are further eclipsed by the growth of larger-scale modes of fishing and fisheries policies that favor them. If that trend is allowed to proceed unchecked more small-scale fishing communities will lose access to fisheries resources, and those which are no longer able to sustain fishing activities will become extinct as distinct fishing cultures.

Yet the growth of large-scale fishing has not been the only problematical external threat to small-scale fishing communities. With the increasing growth of the planet's human population, increasing levels of seafood production, and the generally increasing competition for living marine resources practically everywhere, encroachments by other types of fishers from other fishing communities, including other small-scale fishers, has also brought hardship to small-scale fishing communities. And still other external threats have prompted severe problems in small-scale fishing communities: marine pollution, for example, which remains a virtually intractable problem in many developed and developing countries, and which has had dire consequences for many small-scale fishing people, ranging from sudden and disastrous to slow and subtle.

In recent decades burgeoning coastal-tourism industries have also threatened the well being of small-scale fishing communities by increasing pressures on fish stocks and marine ecosystems, displacing fishers from important fisheries resources and radically disrupting their cultures. At the same time the worldwide animal-protection movement has also been successful in preventing some small-scale fishing communities from harvesting certain marine resources that they had traditionally relied upon.

As small-scale fishing communities have been increasingly linked with new and larger marketing spheres, cultural, political, and economic changes taking place in regions which are geographically remote from them have also prompted rapid and disruptive changes within them. Thus, if fisheries officials are to more successfully manage small-scale fishing communities it will be important for them to understand not only these communities' internal cultural dynamics, but also their dynamic links with communities existing well beyond their geographical boundaries.

Closer to home, another more subtle problem faces many people living in small-scale fishing communities: the low esteem in which they are held by their non-fishing neighbors, others living beyond the community, and sometimes even fisheries officials themselves. The reasons are varied. For one, fishers who work at sea are frequently dissociated from their families and everyday community affairs, which promotes their estrangement from the non-fishing populace and stress and instability within their own families. Moreover, because many fishing livelihoods can be undertaken without significant capitalization and formal education, the fisheries often attract the poorest, least educated, and already least-esteemed members of a community. Capture fishers are also often criticized by their non-fishing counterparts because they extract natural resources without making investments to sustain or enhance them. Moreover, while personality traits such as independence, self-reliance, and willingness to take risks are necessary for undertaking many fishing activities, these traits are often not favorably regarded by a community's non-fishing populace.

Many small-scale fishers also routinely violate fisheries-management rules and policies, especially when they feel these are unfair or unduly threaten their livelihoods. Such behaviors may further decrease their non-fishing neighbors' esteem for them, at the same time undermining fisheries officials' esteem as well. On the other hand, low esteem for small-scale fishing people has sometimes been capitalized upon to justify management practices and policies that are detrimental to them.

1.6 The special fisheries-management needs of small-scale fishing communities

Small-scale fishing communities pose complex challenges for fisheries management. Their relatively large numbers of participants, as well as their dispersion along coastlines, make them difficult for fisheries managers to access and monitor. This in turn often prompts profound feelings of social distance, distrust, and alienation among fishers and managers alike.

An effective means of mitigating the foregoing problem is for fisheries officials to afford people living in small-scale fishing communities ongoing opportunities for participating in management and in the formulation of management policies. Devolving as many management activities as possible to community members is usually an important part of this. But that is often easier said than done, for even when community members are favorably inclined to participate in such activities it is often difficult for them to leave off fishing so they can participate in fisheries-management activities. Moreover, in larger communities fisheries officials will not be able to work effectively with all the members of the community and will have to work with a subset of its total populace. Yet, deciding the membership of that subset will not be an easy task-not for fisheries officials, and often not for the members of the fishing community either.

Working effectively in a small-scale fishing community will usually require fisheries officials to first obtain an in-depth understanding of the community's social, economic, political and cultural dynamics, as well as its history, before getting underway with highly participatory projects and programs. Fisheries officials will also have to develop working relationships with key members of the community, and may be required to work with persons the community has put forward who they would have preferred not to work with.

Protecting small-scale fishing communities' rights of access and exploitation of fisheries resources should be a prime concern of fisheries officials. At the same time this may pose some difficult personal, professional, moral, and ethical dilemmas for them. For instance, they may find themselves embroiled in conflicts of interest-within the fishing community itself, with colleagues in the institutions that employ them, including those having higher authority, and with still others working in other levels or sectors of the government. Yet, it is specifically such problems that they must take on, better inform themselves about, and not shy away from.

Indeed, to do their jobs well, fisheries officials will often be required to consider some of the most complex and challenging philosophical questions that humanity has ever asked. Humanizing fisheries management is what they must promote, yet there is no simple formula for going about this. Nevertheless, a number of suggestions are offered in this report.

1.7 Guidance for fisheries officials

FAO and other similarly-inclined organizations have long acknowledged the need to better understand the social and cultural dynamics of small-scale fishing communities, not only for improving the well being of these communities but also for more wisely managing the fisheries. For several decades this need has been voiced at various meetings assembling government officials, fisheries managers, scientists, academics, and fishers themselves. It has also been underscored in countless publications. Yet while there has been widespread agreement concerning the importance of addressing this need, practical guidance for doing so has remained somewhat hard to come by. The International Conference on the Sustainable Contribution of Fisheries to Food Security, held in Kyoto, Japan, December, 1995, for example, recommended attention to social and cultural aspects to enhance food security, but otherwise provided little guidance concerning how this should be done.

Hence, many fisheries officials who have genuinely desired to enhance their understanding of fishing societies, communities, and cultures have either not known about, or have not had access to, practical guidance for doing so. "Precisely what is a fishing society, community, or culture," many have asked, "and even if I understand more about them how do I put these understandings into practice?"

Fortunately, a robust literature concerning the social and cultural dynamics of small-scale fishing communities has arisen over the past several decades (e.g., see the recommended readings appearing at the end of the next section). But, unfortunately, this literature has not always been particularly accessible or useful to many fisheries officials. One problem has been that much of it is rather disparate and unsystematic, reflecting a variety of concerns and findings that were arrived at by a variety of methods. This has made it difficult to compare one study with another, and has similarly made it difficult for fisheries managers to come to conclusions that might be put into practice. Another problem is that much of this literature is published in languages that are not understood by fisheries officials who might otherwise find it useful. Moreover, especially in many developing countries, there has often not been an awareness of the existence of this literature, nor an easy means of obtaining it.

This paper addresses the need for an accessible document that provides fisheries officials with guidance for better understanding the cultures of small-scale fishing communities. After due consideration of the discussions appearing in this paper it is hoped that these officials will be better prepared to develop more successful fisheries management policies and practices, which in turn may help people living in small-scale fishing communities to have more decent lives.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page