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1. Introduction - background to the research agenda

Globally, small-scale fisheries and fisheries-related activities (processing, trading, net-repairing, etc.) make an important contribution to the nutrition, food security, sustainable livelihoods and poverty alleviation of many countries, especially developing countries. Small-scale fisheries usually require only small capital investment, use low technology gear and vessels (often non-motorised) and catch fish for subsistence or local markets (see definition below). The work is often part-time or seasonal and is a key component in the livelihoods of millions of people. Small-scale fisheries are found in coastal marine areas, brackish water lagoons, and along freshwater lakes, rivers and reservoirs. In the Mekong Delta region, for example, more than 15 million people are estimated to depend on fisheries activities on a daily basis, either for incomes, employment or food supply. Although some may be relatively well off, the majority of these people live in rural (often remote) areas, with poor standards of living, unable to influence their operating constraints.

Despite this significant contribution to food security, the position of small-scale fisheries and how they fit into the multiple activities of the rural economy remains poorly understood. Unlike large-scale industrial fisheries, they have a low visibility and receive little attention from policy-makers. They are often open access enterprises that contribute little to the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and command little political attention or support through research, subsidies etc. However, because of the poverty associated with some small-scale fisheries, they have tended to receive project support from international development donors but have not received systematic research support to improve understanding of their functioning, governance and human and resource benefits.

To ensure fulfillment of national and international goals for human development and environmental sustainability it is necessary to treat fisheries more comprehensively, and to redress the situation of small-scale fisheries globally. These issues have been highlighted (see Box 1) by the FAO Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research (ACFR). This document identifies some of the major issues affecting small-scale fisheries and provides a research agenda for addressing these issues (taking guidance from the background papers and outcome of a meeting of the ACFR Working Party for Small-scale Fisheries[1]). Consideration is also given to the means by which the gap between research and action can be bridged.

Box 1: A focus on small-scale fisheries

Fourth Session of the FAO Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research (ACFR), in December 2002:

  • highlighted that small-scale fisheries had not received the research attention that they deserved considering the important contribution that they make to nutrition, food security, sustainable livelihoods and poverty alleviation, especially in developing countries,

  • noted that although many of the issues (such as user-rights, excess capacity, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, trade and incentives, governance, etc.) are common across all fisheries, they need explicit attention in the small-scale fisheries context,

  • recommended that a working party be convened to (i) elaborate a draft research agenda, (ii) undertake an evaluation of the role and importance of small-scale (marine) fisheries (subsequently expanded to include inland fisheries) and (iii) outline ways in which the transition to responsible fisheries could be facilitated, bearing in mind the developing paradigm of the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF).

The FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI), at its Twenty-fifth Session, 24-28 February 2003:

  • considered “Strategies for increasing the sustainable contribution of small-scale fisheries to food security and poverty alleviation”,

  • supported FAO’s initiative to treat the small-scale fisheries sector as a stand-alone agenda item and strongly advocated that more efforts be made to support the small-scale fisheries sector, both inland and marine,

  • welcomed the suggestion to elaborate, in the context of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF), technical guidelines on increasing the contribution of small-scale fisheries to food security and poverty alleviation,

  • recognized that there was linkage between EAF and small-scale fisheries management and suggested that FAO, through case studies on small-scale fisheries, develop an [adaptive] EAF tool box with rapid appraisal techniques, participatory processes, conflict resolution, integrated resource assessment and management, including co-management, and capacity-building.

Director-General of the FAO convened the Working Party on Small-scale Fisheries of ACFR from 18 to 21 November 2003:

  • to undertake an evaluation of the role and importance of small-scale fisheries, elaborate a research agenda for the sector, review strategies and mechanisms to bridge the gap between research and action and provide views on key elements that should be included in the draft guidelines on small-scale fisheries.

  • The Working Party and a number of ACFR background papers provided the input for this research brief.

What are small-scale fisheries?

Small-scale fisheries take on a great number of forms and modes of operation in the countries and cultures in which they are found. They include the catching of fish, post-harvest treatment and marketing of the catches, as well as ancillary trades. For these reasons, it would be futile to formulate a universally applicable definition for a sector as dynamic and diverse as small-scale fisheries. Instead, it is preferable to describe the sub-sector[2] on the basis of the range of characteristics that are likely to be found in any particular small-scale fishery:

“Small-scale fisheries can be broadly characterized as a dynamic and evolving sub-sector of fisheries employing labour-intensive harvesting, processing and distribution technologies to exploit marine and inland water fishery resources. The activities of this sub-sector, conducted full-time or part-time, or just seasonally, are often targeted on supplying fish and fishery products to local and domestic markets, and for subsistence consumption. Export-oriented production, however, has increased in many small-scale fisheries during the last one to two decades because of greater market integration and globalization. While typically men are engaged in fishing and women in fish processing and marketing, women are also known to engage in near shore harvesting activities and men are known to engage in fish marketing and distribution. Other ancillary activities such as net-making, boat-building, engine repair and maintenance, etc. can provide additional fishery-related employment and income opportunities in marine and inland fishing communities.

Small-scale fisheries operate at widely differing organizational levels ranging from self-employed single operators through informal micro-enterprises to formal sector businesses. This sub-sector, therefore, is not homogenous within and across countries and regions and attention to this fact is warranted when formulating strategies and policies for enhancing its contribution to food security and poverty alleviation.”

[1] FAO (2004) Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research. Report of the second session of the working party on small-scale fisheries. Bangkok, Thailand, 10-21 November 2003.
[2] This characterization of small-scale fisheries is that endorsed by the ACFR Working Party, and is a slight modification of the characterization that was used by the FAO Committee on Fisheries at its Twenty-fifth Session. Such a characterization is not inclusive.

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