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Derek Staples


The purpose of this paper is to provide a framework to aid discussion for FAO’s Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research (ACFR) Working Party on Small-Scale Fisheries. In particular, following the ACFR recommendations the paper addresses:

1. elaborating a draft research agenda;

2. undertaking an evaluation of the role and importance of small-scale marine fisheries, and

3. outlining ways in which the transition to responsible fisheries can be facilitated, bearing in mind the developing paradigm of the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF).

The framework for elaborating a draft research agenda is based on identifying a number of issues pertinent to small-scale fisheries, and then providing a lead to possible research activities. The list is not exhaustive, but hopefully, sufficient to initiate and structure discussion.

After presenting a conceptual framework for small-scale fisheries that stresses the importance of considering factors both within the subsector, and external to the subsector, the following issues were identified:

In reference to the second task presented above, the paper highlights the serious lack of reliable information on small-scale fisheries and suggests some approaches that could be used to overcome this deficiency. Lastly the paper describes ways that the transition to responsible fisheries can be facilitated, highlighting the importance of communicating research results, and also in adopting a more participatory fisheries management approach that considers fishing in the context of a larger system (ecosystem), and recognizing the need to satisfy the goals and aspirations of a wide range of uses and users (ecosystem approach to fisheries).


At the fourth session of the FAO Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research (ACFR) held in Rome in December 2002, the committee highlighted that small-scale fisheries had not received the research attention that it deserves when one considers the important contribution that this subsector makes to nutrition, food security, sustainable livelihoods and poverty alleviation, especially in developing countries. Although many of the issues such as user rights, excess capacity, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, trade and incentives, governance etc, are common across all fisheries, these issues need explicit attention in a small-scale fisheries context. The committee emphasized the need for research to enhance our understanding of the dynamics of the subsector and recommended the establishment of an ACFR Working Party on Small-scale Fisheries[1] to:

1. elaborate a draft research agenda;

2. undertake an evaluation of the role and importance of small-scale marine fisheries; and

3. outline ways in which the transition to responsible fisheries can be facilitated, bearing in mind the developing paradigm of the ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF).

Nature and characteristics of small-scale fisheries

Small-scale fisheries occur world-wide in both developed and developing countries, but it is in developing countries that they play a vital role in the nutrition, food security and poverty alleviation of a large number of the world’s inhabitants. Although some may be relatively well off, the majority of people undertaking small-scale fisheries in developing countries are relatively poor and vulnerable and it is this group that is the focus of the ACFR.

Small-scale fisheries can be broadly characterized as employing labour-intensive harvesting, processing and distribution technologies to exploit marine and inland water fishery resourcesref 1. The activities of the subsector provides a source of food and livelihood for many of the world’s poor and mainly supply fish and fishery products to local and domestic markets. They are harvested by both part-time (often seasonal) and full-time fishers operating from shore or small fishing vessels. It should be noted, however, that export has increased over the past two decades as a result of greater market integration and globalization, and can be part of the small-scale fisheries scene.

Although small-scale fisheries have often been thought of a discrete category in a fisheries sector sense, there is increasing evidence that this approach is not particularly relevant in many cases. There is in fact a continuum of fishery types that can be thought of as spectra along various dimensions. The main dimensions are the amount of capital being invested (ranging from none to fairly large-scale investments), the time involvement of the participants (ranging from part-time to full-time), the size/value of the stock being fished, the type of technology being used (including vessel size), the use of the product (ranging from subsistence to commercialization/profits), and the type of management regime. Small-scale fisheries will cluster at the lower end of all these dimensions.

In many countries, the people involved in this subsector are extremely poor and are unable to influence their operating constraints. As a result of increasing population numbers, rapidly expanding fish markets and improved harvesting technology, the pressure on fishery resources and aquatic ecosystems is increasing, and the status of the resources and associated ecosystems in many countries is thought to be seriously degraded with an overall trend for further deterioration. Indicators of over-fishing including declining catch per unit effort, widespread use of destructive practices (such as dynamite and cyanide fishing), declining size of fish caught and changes in the species of fish caught. This is being exacerbated by increasing degradation of fish habitats by coastal development, pollution, deforestation and siltation. Conflicts, both between different gears within the subsector and between small-scale and large-scale fisheries are increasing and the social instabilities, as evidenced by the break down in law and order and increased violation of rules and regulations, has resulted in declining quality of life in terms of health, education, crime, nutrition and the treatment of minorities. In many cases, the increasing conflicts, low compliance and declining resource base results in increased marginalisation of people involved in the subsector and mitigates against changing the status quo. Governments have often withdrawn support for managing the subsector through perceived poor investment of government funds.

At the twenty-fifth session of the Committee on Fisheries (COFI), members requested FAO to provide more support for sustainable small-scale fisheries and to promote their better inclusion within the formulation of poverty reductions strategies. In particular, it called for FAO to elaborate technical guidelines on increasing the contribution of small-scale fisheries to food security and poverty alleviation and to also develop an adopted [adaptive] ecosystem approach to fisheries tool box on small-scale fisheries [words in brackets are my interpretation of the original wording]. This COFI recommendation arose from a fuller ACFR that called for case studies on a range of fisheries in developing and developed countries to learn how the ecosystem approach to fisheries can be used in practice, and to use the case studies to build a toolbox of scientific and management approaches, including such tools as rapid appraisals, participatory research and data gatherings, conflict resolution tools, integrated resource management training, community-based and co-management, information sources, monitoring, evaluation and feedback.

Conceptual framework for understanding small-scale fisheries

There are a large number of papers and reports relating to the issues inherent in the development and management of small-scale fisheries. Bénéref 2 provides a useful summary of the literature as it relates to small-scale fisheries and poverty. He paraphrases the two main paradigms that have been advocated in the recent literature on poverty and fisheries as: (i) “they are poor because they are fishermen” and (ii) “they are fishermen because they are poor” (see Figure 1).

The first paradigm in Figure 1 is called conventional wisdom and relates to the open access nature of fisheries that allows more and more people to enter the fishery which, because of the “tragedy of the commons” leads to economical (and often biological) overexploitation of the resource, the dissipation of rent and finally impoverishment of the fishing community. This is the classical Malthusian concept of poverty: overexploitation of the resource results in low catch, which equates with low income and poverty. From this perspective, therefore, the problems lie solely within the fishery subsector itself and the solution is better fisheries management.

Figure 1: Relationship between small-scale fisheries and poverty as conceptualised in the literature (redrawn after Béné (2002))

The second is the low opportunity paradigm. Poverty is explained by using the concept of low opportunity incomes due to the lack of alternative incomes outside of the fisheries subsector that drives (or keeps) fishermen’s income to a low level. Thus, the causes of poverty lie outside the fisheries subsector and the solution is to improve the economic situation outside the subsector. In this scenario, it is important to note that a small-scale fisheries subsector, is extremely mobile with people moving into and out of fishing, both seasonally and over longer time spans, depending on the relative attractiveness of other activities compared with fishing at any given time.

Linking these two paradigms creates the perception that fisheries, because of their “open-access” nature, as well as lack of alternative opportunities, often offer employment of last resort. Some see this safety valve aspect of small-scale fisheries as a desirable aspect and not necessarily an undesirable attribute as espoused by the conventional wisdom. All these arguments, however, end up with the same conclusion that “small-scale fisheries = poverty”.

Béné (2002 and pers. comm.) and others (eg Allison, pers. comm.) are currently examining the extent to which the hypotheses linked to the two paradigms are verified by empirical data. This is a high priority research topic (see below - issue 2), but regardless of the outcome, Figure 1 does serve as a useful conceptual model to examine strategies to improve the contribution of small-scale fisheries to sustainable development, and allows the issues to be thought of as those (i) within the fisheries subsector and (ii) outside of the fisheries subsector, noting that both have to be addressed to make any significant progress.


The first section of this paper addresses the first ACFR recommendation and presents a framework to facilitate the development of a research agenda that will assist FAO implement its strategies for increasing the contribution of small-scale fisheries to human well-being and sustainable development. It does this through identifying the key issues and options for improved management in the context of multiple uses of marine, estuarine and inland waters and the ecosystem approach to fisheries, with special emphasis on poverty alleviation and food security in developing countries and provides discussion points for elaborating a draft research agenda.

Some issues highlighted below are external to the fisheries sector but impact on it, while others need to be dealt with within the sector itself, and yet others span across both. In order to provide a framework for the development of a research agenda, the issue is first described, activities and interventions currently in place to address the issue are then briefly presented and the research needs associated with the issue presented as a basis for further discussion by the Working Party.

2.1 Issue: Effectiveness of development policy to small-scale fisheries

Over the past 50 years a significant amount of development aid sponsored by national, bilateral and multilateral funding has been provided to raise the standard of living of small-scale fishers and their communities in developing countries. No recent estimates are available but an earlier estimate reported a total of US$3.73 billion in the period 1974-85. FAO currently has projects that involve small-scale fisheries valued at US$80 million (Neilandref 3).

During the past decade or so, development policies and thus, the focus of development aid have changed radically. Originally the dominant policy favoured structural adjustment in the form of trade liberalization, deregulation and stabilization, in which it was assumed that the poor would benefit along with other sectors of society. More recently, the need to focus more directly on combatting and eradicating poverty has been realized, although initially, poverty was considered as a fairly simple concept that could be measured by a single economic indicator, such as the international poverty line of US$1/caput/day. It is now accepted that poverty is a complex issue characterized by low income, poor health, low literacy levels, under-nutrition, inadequate housing and living conditions. It is also extremely dynamic with people moving in and out of poverty, and it is highly correlated with social exclusion, marginalization, vulnerability (susceptibility to falling into poverty) and lack of power. This focus on poverty eradication was further endorsed at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) where a plan of action to halve the level of poverty by 2015 was adopted (as measured by income, level of hunger and access to safe drinking water)ref 4.

The main aim of most interventions in supporting these changing policies for small-scale fisheries over the past two decades was to promote “fishery development” based on the assumption that these interventions would lead to poverty alleviation and increased food security. Interventions have included:

In general, the consensus is that these interventions have not been that successful with respect to small-scale fisheries (with some exceptions), although the causes of failures are very varied and range from poorly formulated policy to poor implementation of strategies, poor monitoring and lack of follow-up. It is, therefore, not possible to conclude that the intervention itself was not worthwhile. However, history has clearly demonstrated that because poverty and the causes of poverty are extremely complex, it is apparent that they can not be addressed by simply transferring technology and capital investments and that an integrated set of interventions is needed, not just one or the other. For example, if overfishing is the problem, restocking may be an option, but this would need to be complemented with seeking supplemental livelihoods and re-directing fishing through some incentive scheme during the period of stock rebuilding.

The changes in development policies have tended to come about through trial and error but they have far-reaching effects. As well as direct influence in terms of supporting various interventions, the dominant paradigm of the day also serves to set national policies and their incentive and disincentive schemes. For example, based on some of the earlier “fishery development” interventions, many developing countries are either subsidizing large-scale fisheries to promote their development at the expense of the small-scale subsector, or assisting small-scale to adopt more modern technologies in the belief that they will then become more “modernized” larger-scale operations or, in some cases, even subsidizing both.

In fisheries, policies that have promoted increased economic growth at a national level have tended to favour the development of large-scale approaches over small-scale ones and the resources being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. There is some indication that during periods of sustained economic growth (e.g. in Asia), the level of poverty has reduced, but these findings tend to be based on simple economic indicators (e.g. income/caput/year) at the global level, and there is very little information on how changes in economic growth affect poverty in fishing communities. Some countries have shown rapid economic growth but have not shown corresponding improvements in human well-being, as measured through one or other of the accepted poverty indices. It is obvious that in countries where policy implementation is poor and where the power is concentrated in the wealthiest section of the society, the flow-on effect to the poor will be negligible.

Interventions that have attempted to establish some sort of property rights for the fisheries, followed by appropriate management and governance systems have had more success, although they often fail when local conditions and constraints have not been taken into account and linkages between national policy and on-the-ground management objectives not tightly linked. An important success criteria should be that they become sustainably funded from rents generated in the fisheries and not dependent on development aid. This has rarely occurred.

Research implications

The major research question is to what extent the current paradigm of development policy takes into account the nature and characteristics of small-scale fisheries, especially the common property nature of the fishery resources, the fact that they are renewable but limited, and that they are part of a complex web of multiple uses and users. In terms of poverty alleviation, are small-scale fisheries a useful entry point at all? Do they have any real capacity to reduce poverty and if so, which of the above interventions have worked best and why? Many causes of previous failures will be found, including whether a particular intervention was based on an inadequate analysis of the causes or whether it was fragmented in nature and aggravated rather than being fixed problems etc. Research could possibly provide better overall analyses of these approaches to guide future development assistance.

Research on the objectives, approaches and impacts of donor-funded projects operating within the current development policy paradigm should enable a better understanding of the socio-political circumstances, the policy and legal frameworks and the local conditions in which interventions are likely to succeed or not. Review and analyses of project and programme evaluations should also provide some insights into the causes of failure and point to alternative approaches.

A follow-up question is whether the modern development paradigm of focussing on poverty reduction will yield better results than some of the old paradigms, especially basic fisheries management paradigms. Many texts, including the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF) and its international plans of action (IPOAs) advocate a reduction in fishing effort and capacity to increase the yield from the resources and gain improved economic and social benefits. Should the development focus all be directed towards finding ways to remove excess fishers and vessels from small-scale fisheries? Are there are other interventions that could be more successful, especially if they include capacity building and handover of processes to existing institutions? More socio-economic research should be carried out to better understand the links between macro economics and livelihoods. This coupled with indicator development should provide a better analysis of what is often not revealed in the common practice of simply reporting on economic indicators. It will obviously need to include studies on the distribution of wealth in both developing and developed countries and build on the work of the many publications already published on this topic. Very few of these, however, focus on one or other of the resource sectors and there are few devoted to looking at small-scale fisheries, how they are structured and how power is distributed.

2.2 Issue: Measurement and understanding of the causes of poverty as it relates to small-scale fisheries

Although Figure 1 provides a convenient conceptual framework for small-scale fisheries and their link to poverty, all the ideas embraced in this model are based on various hypotheses and assumptions that have been recently questioned. For example, some recent research suggests that most small-scale fisheries have some degree of access restrictions and are not necessarily characterized as being the employment of the very poor, or, in fact, the activity of last resort. Because development policies on poverty and poverty reduction are based on these perceptions, as noted by the third session of the ACFR, a top priority is to obtain a better understanding of the nature, causes, dynamics and extent of poverty as it relates to small-scale fisheries.

Improved methods for measuring poverty are developing quickly. A number of single indicators of poverty that focus almost exclusively on the health, the education, or income have been advocated as a measure of the extent to which the inhabitants of a country are experiencing poverty. A number of composite indicators have also been developed that allow several indicators to be aggregated together to give a more general measure of poverty and living standards. The United Nations defines poverty as “denial of choices and opportunities most basic to human development - to lead a long healthy, creative life and enjoy a decent standard of living, freedom, self esteem and the respect of others” and advocates the use of a Human Poverty Index (HPI) that is aimed at measuring the level of deprivation and poverty being experienced in a country. There are two HPI indices most commonly used; one for less developed countries and one for the rest.

It appears that although these indices exist, there are very few studies that focus on assessing and identifying the extent, nature, causes and dynamics of poverty in situations where small-scale fisheries are involved (Macfadyen and Corcoran ref 5).

Research implications

The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) is a useful analytical tool that can be used to understand fisher communities, their level of dependence on the fish resources, their ability to engage in alternative livelihoods activities as well as the broader legal and institutional constraints in which they operate. It is a multi-sectoral approach based on participation of the stakeholders that makes it particularly relevant to identifying the nature and causes of poverty in the context of small-scale fisheries. It should be able to test some of the hypotheses advocated over the years. For example, is small-scale fishing an “activity of last resort”, to what extent are the resources “open access”, etc?

By design, SLA is usually applied in situations where one is dealing with geographically small units. The development of realistic participatory poverty measurement methodologies that can be used to evaluate poverty-reduction policies across broader scales will also be needed. Related techniques used include Participatory Poverty Assessments, Well-being Analyses, Poverty Mapping, Wealth Ranking and Poverty Profiling. The sectoral approach outlined in the FAO technical guidelines on developing a set of agreed indicators to evaluate how fisheries contribute to sustainable development (FAO ref 6) could provide a complementary methodology but needs to be tested in the context of small-scale fisheries.

Development of these methodologies will assist in answering important questions such as: What is the proportion of people in transitional and chronic poverty in small-scale fisheries. How are different members of the community affected? What are the main contributing factors to poverty, and what type of policy intervention is necessary to address them.

Macfadyen and Corcoranref 5 list a large number of other areas requiring further research within the SLA framework including: better analyses of the linkages between different types of assets; increasing the value of information, especially that derived from traditional and local sources; understanding cross-sectoral linkages as well as more research on the process itself in terms of obtaining better participation and links between SLA and other more traditional economic appraisal techniques.

2.3 Issue: Competing policy goals

A key factor in strengthening governance and institutional support for small-scale fisheries will be to assist countries in resolving the competing policy imperatives of:

(i) optimal and sustainable use of fish resources and their supporting ecosystems;

(ii) economic objectives, especially in relation to either small- or large-scale fisheries;

(iii) social objectives, including maximizing employment and improving livelihoods;

(iv) objectives related to equity, including access for only small-scale fisheries, and

(v) any other objectives (for example trade liberalisation, market access etc.) which may impact on this subsector.

Very few fisheries, either large-scale or small-scale have adequately considered and resolved the trade-offs among these objectives that need to be agreed upon in setting clear policy in which fisheries management can be framed. For example, trade-off agreements need to be reached on:

In fisheries, this lack of clarity with respect to the objectives often leads to conflict among competing subsectors (e.g. small-scale fishing vessels vs. large-scale fishing vessels) resulting in many management interventions implemented to fix the symptoms, not the problem itself.

Research implications

Many countries in the world have agreed to a number of high level principles relating to fisheries and ecosystem management (e.g. the CCRF). Within these principles, however, decisions need to be made on how countries are going to address the issue of poverty in the context of small scale-fisheries.

Policy and decision-makers require some sort of decision support system based on cost/benefit analyses to make the necessary trade-offs, coupled with data collection activities to monitor and, if necessary, modify decisions. For example, how do the potentially high costs associated with small-scale fisheries management compare with the cost of resource depletion, loss of employment, income and food security, both in terms of economic and societal values, if no management system was in place? What compensation might be necessary to reduce fishing capacity of large-scale fisheries (e.g. buy-back scheme) and how does that compare with the potential benefits that may be derived from the small-scale fisheries? One approach to answer these questions and scenarios is to develop fairly well-elaborated models of the system and input of, at the very least, basic economic data to gauge benefits and costs under different scenarios. However, useful results could also be achieved through the sharing and exchanging of existing experience and knowledge, the so-called participatory research approach. More work is needed to examine the impacts (particularly social impacts) of policy such as supporting aquaculture as an alternative to fisheries management. The approach also needs to involve the broader sets of policies such as trade policies that impact on small-scale fisheries and which could play a major role in changing the status quo. These research findings need to be fed back to the policy-makers.

The FAO Technical Guidelines on Fisheries Management and the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (Supplement 2) refs 7,8, recognizing that these sorts of decisions and trade-offs are difficult to make at the higher policy level, and recommends that the best approach to the paradox of competing objectives is to adopt a participatory approach to translate the higher level policy goals into operational objectives at the fishery level and resolve conflict with the stakeholders in terms of how the fishery can best contribute to sustainable development at the level of management interventions. This recommendation needs to be explored in the context of small-scale fisheries.

More institutional and legal research is needed to provide better advice on how to set up successful institutional and legal frameworks. The FAO currently has a compendium on fisheries legislation but it is incomplete and out-of-date. If these databases were updated, analyses of these data could lead to better guidelines on how to construct legislation to support small-scale fisheries and how draw up complementary law to support traditional law and government policies, such as decentralization.

2.4 Issue: Profile of small-scale fisheries in national policies and international development initiatives

Small-scale fisheries are often marginalized and ignored in national and regional planning and policy development. Recent analyses have shown that many of the national Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) that are being developed do not, in general, include small-scale fisheries and given the importance being placed on these documents, this is a serious concern. Two sub-issues are important here: (i) inadequate information; and (ii) lack of understanding of the overall policy and planning processes to be able to influence decision-makers, even if adequate information was available.

There are many statistics on the contribution of small-scale fisheries but all are qualified in that they are not accurate. The basic statistics are often informed guesses, or in many cases simply not collected at all. Most fishers are not licensed and operate on part-time or seasonal basis. A large number are also involved in the processing, marketing, transportation and other service sectors. Coatesref 11, for example, demonstrated that the total world figure of 4.5 million people employed in inland capture fisheries was easily exceeded by an in-depth study of eight countries in Asia alone. Data collected from projects conducted in the Mekong Delta indicate that the production is several time higher than that officially reported. Similar project information from the coastal waters of the Philippines and Viet Nam suggest that actual production may be as much as three times that reported. Seilartref 12 calculated that on the basis of census data for the Philippines up to half of the whole population of that country were involved in some way in artisanal fisheries, a figure that underlines the importance of artisanal fisheries to the rural poor.

However, even if we rely on these underestimates, it is clear to see that small-scale fisheries provide significant employment, household income and food for a large percentage of the world’s population. Of the top seven fish-producing countries, five are developing countries. Three of them (China, India and Indonesia) have populations of nearly 1 billion people living below the UNDP poverty line of US$ 1 per day. It is currently estimated that the global fisheries production has reached 130 million tonnes in 2000, 36 million of which is produced in aquaculture (FAOref 9). Current figures suggest that artisanal, small-scale fisheries contribute more than 25 percent of the world’s catch and account for more than half of the world’s direct human consumption (FAOref 10). It is also estimated that there are at least 35 million people employed in the marine and fresh-water production components, of which 80 percent work in Asia and approximately 80 percent of these are small-scale or artisanal fisher folk. In terms of GDP, however, the small-scale subsector is a minor contributor.

There are many reasons that could be put forward as to why small-scale fisheries have tended to be overlooked and marginalized over the years, despite the overwhelming evidence that they are important. The first is the institutional make-up of the ministries and departments themselves, which has often been based on those of developed countries (for example, fisheries are often only a small section of a larger agriculture department). The backgrounds senior staff and Minister are often in agriculture and fisheries have not been part of their training or past experience. A further reason is that, small-scale fishers are often from the lowest economic strata and have little voice, except when there are crises.

Policies are often economically driven and, as and because small-scale fisheries are insignificant contributors to GDP, they are largely overlooked. Commercial fisheries are seen as a source of tax while small-scale fisheries do not attract much public attention and remain relatively unknown. On the political front, attempts to impose management regulations on small-scale fishers often leads to unfavourable political exposure due to the perception that the livelihoods of the poor fisher are being threatened.

In general, small-scale fishing is perceived by planners and policy- and decision-makers as a subsector that takes care of itself. A long-held view (still held in some countries, especially in Latin America) was that these fisheries could be “modernized” and the larger-scale commercial fisheries have been systematically favoured in the belief that the benefits derived from the newer fisheries would flow through the economy to the original participants. Another mis-directed policy has been that aquaculture will grow at such a rate that it will be able to compensate for the reduced supply of fish resulting from poor management and again the original participants would be better off by taking up fish farming. However, despite these efforts, small-scale fisheries have not been displaced in either developed or developing countries. In fact, there are now more small-scale fishers producing protein for human consumption than ever before and the need for solutions to the many issues is even more urgent.

Research implications

Two related research needs arise from this discussion. The first is how to measure the contribution small-scale fisheries (addressed in section 3 in more detail below) and the second is policy research to gain a better understanding of why small-scale fisheries are often ignored in policy development and implementation processes.

It is obvious that better estimates of the contribution of small-scale fisheries are urgently needed. Conventional methods of sampling and data collection as used to collect information on large-scale fisheries are impractical or too expensive to apply to the very widely dispersed fishing communities and markets throughout the world. They also focus on one sector - fishing and tend to overlook the multiple use and multiple user nature of aquatic resources.

Several hypotheses as to why small-scale fisheries have tended to be ignored in the past are put forward above. Much more work is needed to test these hypotheses, identify the real reasons for their marginalization and seek mechanisms for integrating this subsector into mainstream policy and planning processes. The role of the different government of non-government agencies, especially national and local planning bodies needs to be much more clearly defined, in the context of aquatic multiple use and developing country’s poor governance.

2.5 Tailoring fisheries management to small-scale fisheries

It is well-recognized that fisheries management based on scientific information, stock assessments and controls on the harvesting of target resources (with appropriate monitoring and enforcement) that has formed the basis of fisheries management in the northern hemisphere (and more recently transferred to the southern developed countries) is often not applicable to small-scale fisheries that are multi-geared, multi-species and characterized by a mobile group of harvesters. In general, it is concluded that this type of management is too expensive, too uncertain, and not practical.

Despite this, fisheries managers in developing countries have typically looked to the fisheries science emanating from developed countries for solution to their problems. Among these managers, there is still a widely held view that management and management planning cannot proceed until the stocks have been assessed, yield estimated and management reference points in terms of catches and fishing mortality have been established. This approach has been re-enforced by the training and extension programmes supporting formal stock assessment through LSFA (length frequency stock assessment and ELEFAN (electronic length-based assessment analysis). However, in most small-scale fisheries, this approach is simply not applicable or practicable and has delayed the introduction of fisheries management based on setting management objectives supported by a broad range of research to assist in policy formulation and broader fishery assessments.

Noting the failure of these more conventional fisheries management approaches, especially in developing countries, a range of alternative approaches have been advocated. These include:

The introduction of one or other of these alternative approaches pre-supposes that the policy trade-offs have been made and legal framework exists to implement the required management. For example, applying a management regime that results in the re-allocation of resources through the introduction of access rights in whatever form, presupposes that there has been a decision made that the long-term increased ecological and economic benefits for the fishery as a whole outweighs the social disruption and un-employment that will result in the short-term.

Many of the alternative approaches would appear to be, in fact, much closer to the systems that existed prior to colonization. In many countries, these traditional approaches involving right-based access to the resources, rules and regulations governing their uses and an agreed set of sanctions have been made dysfunctional through the development of more central government control mechanisms. Some advocate the need to re-adopt some of these, but in the context of the modern more globalized world, dominated by increasing technology, markets and economic paradigms, this may not be appropriate. For example, in the inland fisheries of Bangladesh, when the state attempted to transfer property rights over fishing grounds through the fisheries co-operatives, it was the leasees (fish merchants and money lenders) that captured the right and benefited from the rent generated (Toufiqueref 13).

Many case studies throughout the world have highlighted the problems associated with a top-down central management regime, especially in countries where the types of fisheries are extremely diverse, scattered geographically and employ large numbers of people. In more recent years a move towards co-management has lead to greater involvement of communities with the setting of management objectives, rules and enforcement/incentive schemes. However, in many of these cases the role and responsibilities of the different players (national governments, state/provincial governments, local governments/councils, communities, fishery organizations, individuals and NGOs) is often unclear and there is often a very tenuous link between central agencies and community activities. In addition, although governments may indicate support for co-management, they are often implemented without full adoption of the principles of co-management, appropriate regulations, administrative procedures and authority structures.

A broad range of measures will need to be considered including modified rights based approaches, (possibly including traditional rules and regulations), ecosystem-based measures such as Marine Protected Areas, stock restoration and integrated solutions looking to solve fishery issues through working in other sectors. Different approaches will need to be tried and tested through a process of learning and adaptation. Costly command-and-control systems will need to replaced with more incentive-based systems and Governments will need to invest in providing long-term benefits by compensating for short-term losses.

Research implications

A major research thrust needs to be applied in estimating the costs and benefits of any form of fisheries management in the context of small-scale fisheries. Again this requires clear policy goals on what management is trying to achieve but it should be possible to examine the costs and benefits with respect to both the social and economic dimensions. Research should lead to a simple “narrative” or message that says that if governments and communities invest say 10 percent of the money earned from selling fish into improving the management of the fishery, then they will benefit to the tune of 40 percent. This type of simple message could form the basis for change. Alternatively it could be put in terms of what would be lost if small-scale fisheries were not better managed. Even in subsistence fisheries, it will be necessary to demonstrate convincingly that reducing the number of fishers could result in an increase in the amount of fish available for food. This appears counter intuitive to most and it is difficult to argue against the commonly held view that an increase in the amount available for food will result if we have more fishers with more efficient gear.

There is a general lack of understanding on the effectiveness of all the alternative approaches but this could be gained through trial and error, given sufficient time. In one practical approach to speed up this learning process is, as recommended by the ACFR (endorsed by COFI for small-scale fisheries) to set up of a series of demonstration case studies where one of the alternative approaches (i.e. the ecosystem approach to fisheries) can be tested and used to develop a tool kit of science and management measures including rapid appraisal techniques, participatory research, and data gathering, conflict resolution tools, integrated resource management training resources, community-based and co-management, governance and institutional regimes, monitoring and evaluation of management performance and feedback.

Examining case studies where alternative forms of management have been implemented is another way of increasing our learning. For example, studying the socio-economic impacts of management on livelihoods of the fisheries communities (Jallowref 14), examining strengths and weaknesses of different co-management approaches along the lines of Sverdrup-Jensen, and Nielksonref 15 and the World Fish Centre (WFC) (formerly ICLARM) and providing more information on how central government policy and institutions can be linked to the older more traditional approaches would be useful.

More basic social research is required to better understand existing social networks and traditional forms of management as a basis for developing alternative governance regime as has been recently considered across a number of countries by FAOref 17. In particular, research on existing traditional management systems, even if such systems are now eroded by so-called modern systems, could also be useful in building better co-management. This might result in a better understand of changing power bases and incentives for certain types of behaviour, such as undermining the authority of traditional leaders and uptake of community-based fisher’s organizations and the participation of fishers in planning and management.

2.6 Issue: Impacts of globalization and increased fish trade

Although globalization and increased fish trade is lauded by some as having many benefits in terms of national and global economies, it is also well known that inequities exist in terms of the beneficiaries.

One view of globalization, as supported by IMF and the World Bank, views it as a positive phenomenon. It argues that because the private sector is more efficient than the state, liberalization will lead to greater global competition that in turn will cause national companies to become more efficient. Globalization is seen as inevitable and unavoidable and national economies and institutions will have to adjust by making themselves more efficient. Since the market is (almost by definition) efficient, there is little or no need to regulate it. If a country does not benefit, it is suggested that the in-country policies need to be reviewed and institutions need to be reformed.

Globalization as seen by others as part of a process by which the rich developed countries in the northern hemisphere are attempting to retain the economic advantages and powers they enjoyed during the colonial era. Liberalization of finance, trade and investment has allowed the industrial countries’ goods and firms to enter into and take over a significant portion of the markets of developing countries. Many warn of the dangers of the private sector replacing the state. The benefits and losses of globalization, therefore, are very unevenly spread and it is easy to see that the small-scale fisheries in developing countries may not be the winners.

Research implications

The extent to which these two paradigms is reflected in terms of small-scale fisheries warrants serious research. Better information on distribution pathways and market trends for fish products may assist policy decision-makers capture the benefits for all sectors of the economy and shield small-scale fisheries from adverse impacts.

Again with many of the issues addressed above, the issue of distribution of wealth is central to this issue and needs to be addressed. Other possible research topics include the extent to which international protocols and agreements protect the rights of the small-scale fisheries subsector and how agreements/protocols be reformed to address their concerns and vulnerability. Also interesting to ask is to what extent these agreements/protocols are complied with and how does the subsector feed into these international and regional policies processes and agreements.

2.7 Issue: Implementing the IPOAs on capacity and IUU fishing

The Johannesburg Plan of Action, a key outcome of the WSSD states that the FAO IPOA to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing needs to be put into effect by 2004 and the IPOA on the management of fishing capacity by 2005. To date, the main focus of the IPOAs has been on large-scale commercial fisheries but many of the objectives and actions required apply across all types of fishing. Implementing these IPOAs in small-scale fisheries will require some form of customization in the small-scale fisheries context. For example, because many of the vessels engaged in small-scale fisheries do not come under a licence scheme, the term “illegal” is not particularly relevant. The issue of unregulated fishing/unreported catch (see 3 below) is wide-spread and should be central to the development of national IPOA plans and policies.

Implementing the IPOAS will also imply reconciliation of the many policy trade-offs considered above (for example, reducing capacity in small-scale fisheries would displace a large number of fishers who would require alternative employment/livelihoods). It is now widely recognized that the capacity (both labour and capital) in small-scale fisheries is excessive and it needs it to be reduced but if the social impacts are also unacceptable, how can this be done?

The second issue in implementing the IPOAs will be the impact on the small-scale subsector when they are implemented in large-scale fisheries. In theory, implementing the IPOAs should reduce the pressure on the world’s fish stocks. However, if left to market forces, the open access nature of many fisheries could result in any benefits being quickly eroded by the displacement of large-scale fisheries to the detriment of the small-scale sector.

Research implications

In terms of the direct impact of implementing the IPOAs in small-scale fisheries, policy analyses are urgently needed to determine how the reduction of capacity and IUU fishing would impact on the socio-economic conditions of small-scale fisheries. We will also need to understand the indirect effects that removing IUU fishing and capacity in the large-scale fisheries will have on small-scale fisheries. The distributional pathways of the intended benefits will need to be understood and the costs and benefits more fully analysed.

2.8 Issue: Technological advances

Technological advances in fishing gear and fishing vessels have been one of the major goal in development aid policies in the past, although the introduction of technology without a better understanding of its impacts on limited natural resources, except in emergency situations is now being questioned. Other technological advances at the post-harvest stage, which enhance the value of the product or the working conditions of the fishers remain desirable and should be encouraged, based on better research and knowledge. For example, improved efficiency in small-scale fisheries post-harvest systems, marketing and the promotion of exports of products from small-scale fisheries could provide greater returns on the existing level of catch. Food quality and food safety, both in terms of their impact on price as well the risks for human health will continue to be a major issue and one that will increase in complexity as markets, especially export markets expand.

Research implications

A range of post-harvest technological research for more cost-effective solutions is needed, as well as research on the impacts and implications of post-harvest practices on the environment. Market research focusing on more efficient post-harvest processing, value-adding and distribution of products would be useful. Although much has been done in developing techniques for converting fish for agriculture and fish feeds, the Working Party should look at ways this can either be improved or implemented to support rural poverty and food security. Research into alternative ways of utilizing the catch is still needed.


The issue of how to undertake an evaluation of the role and importance of small-scale fisheries is discussed in this second section of this paper. Further details are included in the background papers “Contribution of Small-scale Fisheries to Rural Livelihoods in a Water Multi-use Context” and “Improving the Collection, Analysis and Dissemination of Information in Small-scale Fisheries”.

Although small-scale fisheries are recognized as having a very important role as a source of employment, nutrition, food security and income, there is a serious lack of information regarding this subsector. The beneficiaries of small-scale fisheries are not just the fishers themselves but the contribution needs to be considered in the broader context of:

In this context, the contribution of small-scale fisheries needs to be examined at both a macroeconomic level and at a community level.

In the past, attempts have been made to estimate the importance of small-scale fisheries using measures and methods developed for large commercial fish stocks that are landed in a small number of landing sites by a relatively small number of people who often have to provide the information as part of some sort of management system. Based on this conventional approach, the role and importance of the subsector has been examined by trying to estimate:

a) total catch;
b) number, age and gender of people employed in harvesting and processing;
c) income of the harvesting and processing sectors;
d) amount of fish supplied for direct consumption (i.e. not sold);
e) amount and value of fish sold locally;
f) amount and value of fish exported/imported;
g) total amount of fish consumed;
h) nutritional value of fisheries products in diet;
i) social and cultural importance of fisheries (e.g. life style, religious linkages, etc).

However, the complexity in terms of the multiple uses and users of the resources, as well as the geographical spread of the subsector makes this traditional sector approach very difficult logistically and statistically to implement without an enormous budget and personnel. It is no wonder, that there is a general lack of information. What is available at a national level is also difficult to access, even from national government offices and is often unreliable. Some data sets collected at community level are available, but these are often associated with short-term aid projects and are not very useful at broader spatial or temporal scales.

The approach to evaluate this subsector needs to be broadened out to a more integrated assessment approach in which the contributions of different sectors need to be considered together. As pointed out in Béné’s background paper, several complementary approaches are available (e.g. economic efficiency analysis, economic impact analysis and socio-economic surveys and sustainable livelihoods). What seems to be required is better coordination and closer working relations with the different Departments and agencies that collect data as well as new innovative data collection techniques. A real network approach based on people with the skills, personal networks and time available to undertake this type of study will also be required. It will also have to be based on both quantitative and qualitative data.

Once the type of information needed by the various users has been developed, there are a number of ways the data could be collected. The survey techniques required for multi-sectoral socio-economic valuations have been used for agro-pastoral and ago-forestry systems now for many years, including poverty profiling, institutional analyses and multi-sectoral activity analyses.

Some ideas on newer approaches to data collection which might be considered in obtaining the necessary information are presented below.

Use of co-management partners

Provided the right incentives are provided, the non-government partner in a co-management endeavour is often in a better position to collect and make available basic data on landings and other information useful for management. An excellent example is provided by the DFID-funded Integrated Lake Management in Uganda where authority for management has been devolved to Beach Management Units who each have a data collection role and provide information back-up to Government. Fishery associations can be used to collate information from their members, fishing companies can be used to supply information to governments, and intermediate buyers and sellers usually keep good records that can be utilized.

Agriculture surveys

With the inclusion of appropriate fishery-related questions in national agriculture surveys, it may be possible to provide structural and other social and economic data on small-scale fisheries. Some developing countries are starting to apply these kinds of questions (e.g. In Viet Nam, answers to the question of source of income revealed that nearly 70 percent of households engaged in some fishery and aquaculture activities).

Household consumption surveys

Household consumption studies are increasingly used to estimate regional and/or national consumption of fish. Despite the difficulties in obtaining representative data, for example obtaining accurate data from women and children and other less-empowered minorities, these types of surveys show considerable promise. They can be coordinated with other sectors, thereby reducing costs and can have extensive coverage. The data can not only be used to estimate the dependence of rural communities on fish but can also be scaled up to give estimates of total yield.

Market surveys

Market surveys at landing sites (where fish is often first sold) as well as markets themselves can be used to give indications of value and can also provide data on trade, imports/exports, trends in the types of food landed, etc.

More details on use of these methods as well as some others are discussed for the Asian region in FAO Fisheries Technical Paper No. 401ref 17.

In addressing this topic, the Working Party will have to decide whether the evaluation of the subsector should be a one-off snapshot of the contribution, or whether a longer-term strategic framework for monitoring trends in the future should be put in place. A good example of a one-off snapshot has recently been provided by Gameriro and Wilsonref 18. If a longer-term strategy is envisaged, this will need to complement the FAO strategy on the “Status and Trends Reporting in Fisheries”, already endorsed by COFI (Evansref 19).


In the third section of this paper, the manner in which that the transition to responsible fisheries can be facilitated is considered. Much of the work covered by the Working Party under recommendations A and B above will result in ways to facilitate this transition and more details concerning EAF are given in the document “Promoting the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries in the Context of Small-Scale Fisheries”. The ACFR also provided considerable guidance on the way forward when it recommended:

FAO has now recently published their Technical Guidelines on the ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF). EAF is the merging of the paradigms of ecosystem management and fisheries management in a fisheries context and, as such, seeks to address all issues relating to the management of a given fishery in a holistic manner, using a participatory approach. With complementary work being carried out using the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA), especially in countries where there is considerable experience and knowledge already built up, FAO can gain valuable experience which would be of assistance to all its members, especially developing countries.

In addition to the contents of the toolbox, more experience in policy analyses and institutional strengthening will be gained that will assist in directly building capacity in participating countries and also be of benefit to all through the dissemination of the toolkit.

Outputs/outcomes from such activities would include:

a) EAF management plans for selected fisheries;

b) staff and institutions of demonstration fisheries with improved capacity for EAF and implementation of IPOAs;

c) annual performance reports for selected fisheries (triple bottom line - ecological, social and economic);

d) summary of demonstration case studies - lessons learned;

e) tool box of management approaches.

It is envisaged that many donors and partner agencies could be identified for this type of practical approach and that FAO should take the lead to start the initiative.

From a research perspective, another major issue which needs to be addressed to ensure a smooth transition towards responsible fisheries is the issue of implementing and applying research results. Over a period of many years, a range of authors have commented on the large gap between research providers and research users, especially in developing countries and this was the subject of a special paper during the Fifth Fisheries Development Donor Consultation held in Rome, Italy, 22-24 February 1999 (Cunninghamref 20). It is widely recognized that research has not contributed as effectively as it could have done to supporting improved fisheries management and poverty reduction. As far back as 1992, a study of international fisheries research concluded that research was largely “disengaged from the needs of national development objectives and from policy needs in general”.

Based on an analysis of the contribution of research to the sustainable livelihoods of artisanal fishing communities, Hussein and Zoundiref 21 identified the following actions to address this concern:

In designing the Policy Advisory Programme (PAP) for the fisheries of Lake Victoria, the Strategy for International Fisheries Research (SIFAR) suggested that, in the long-term, a major improvement in the relationship between research and policy will probably need a change in the institutional arrangements and a change in the approach to research. It recommended the formation of an interface group to act as a facilitator between policy and research (a similar model has worked very successfully in Australia for a number of years). In its model the policy analysis would create a demand for certain types of information, which would be supplied by researchers. This information would certainly involve a greater emphasis on economic, social and institutional research and a greater participation of a full range of stakeholders in the research process, including developing research priorities, data collection and analyses and solutions for solving problems. This in turn would require more “action research” that would meet the client needs.

An important task of these liaison or interface units would be to explore and expand on the range of development narratives which underlie fisheries policy. For example, the standard narrative that explains that “increased fisheries production would lead to poverty reduction” could be countered by another narrative based on contemporary science that says “because natural systems all have an upper limit to their productivity, poverty reduction in fisheries depends on institutional change (e.g. more co-management), a re-distribution of benefits and alternative employment opportunities, rather than production increases”.

Communicating science results requires the skills broader than those conventionally provided by fishery biologists who typically make up the bulk of the research organizations staff. Again the recommendations of the ACFR are relevant when they recommend the formation of multidisciplinary teams who would work with local counterparts in implementing the newly published EAF guidelines in a number of fisheries from developing and developed countries and then building a toolbox of appropriate management and science approaches. This could build on a number of field projects being implemented by FAO and partner agencies (e.g. SEAFDC). For example the ACP Fish II feasibility study being designed by FAO/SIFAR advocates the initiation of a structure to provide coordination, support and knowledge based on practical learning and capacity building. This could provide an excellent opportunity to provide a more “hands-on” capacity building environment based on learning and training to improve the fisheries management of a given range of demonstration sites.

The need for better communication and adoption of research should link strongly with the research agenda developed in the first recommendation, for without a way of implementing the new knowledge gained, any research agenda in the end simply becomes an academic exercise that may generate a large number of research papers but little else.


1 FAO. 2003. Paper COFI/2003/9 presented to the Committee on Fisheries, 25th Session - Rome, Italy 24-28 February 2003.

2 Béné, C. 2002. Poverty in small-scale fisheries. A review and some further thoughts. 1950 In: Small-scale fisheries, poverty and the code of conduct for responsible fisheries. Report of an international workshop organized by CEMERE as part of the DFID/FAO Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Programme (SFLP) Cotonou. Benin. November 2001. FAO. Rome.

3 Neiland, A.E. 2002. Fisheries development, poverty alleviation and sample-scale fisheries: a review of policy and performance in developing countries since 1950 In: Small-scale fisheries, poverty and the code of conduct for responsible fisheries. Report of an international workshop organized by CEMERE as part of the DFID/FAO Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Program (SFLP) Cotonou. Benin. November 2001. FAO. Rome.


5 Macfadyen, G & Corcoran, E. 2002. Literature review of studies on poverty in fishing communities and of lessons learned in using the sustainable livelihoods approach in poverty alleviation strategies and projects. FAO Fisheries Circular No. 979, 93 pp.

6 FAO. 1999. Indicators for sustainable development of marine capture fisheries. FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries No. 8, 68 pp.

7 FAO. 1997. Fisheries management. FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries No. 4, 82 pp.

8 FAO. 2003. Fisheries Management: The ecosystem approach to fisheries. FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries No. 4, Suppl.2, 112 pp.

9 FAO. 2002. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2002. FAO Fisheries Department. FAO, Rome. 150 pp.

10 FAO. 1998. Integrated coastal area management and agriculture, forestry and fisheries. FAO guidelines, FAO Sustainable Development Department. FAO, Rome. 267 pp.

11 Coates, D. 2002. Inland capture fishery statistics of South East Asia: Current status and information needs. Asia Pacific Fishery Commission, Bangkok. Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Publication No. 2002/11, 114 pp.

12 Sielert, H. 2002. Regional synthesis on the current status of small-scale fisheries management in Asia. In: Interactive mechanisms for small-scale fisheries management - report of the Consultation, Bangkok. 26-29 November 2001. Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Publication No. 2002/10.

13 Tofique, K.A. 1997. Some observations on power and property rights in the inland fisheries of Bangladesh. World Development No. 25. pp. 457-467.

14 Jallow, A. 2002. The socio-economic impacts of different fisheries management strategies at local level. In: Small-scale fisheries, poverty and the code of conduct for responsible fisheries. Report of an international workshop organized by CEMERE as part of the DFID/FAO Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Programme (SFLP). Cotonou. November 2001. FAO, Rome.

15 Sverdrup-Jensen, S. & Nielson, J.R. 2002. Co-management in small-scale fisheries: A synthesis of Southern and Western African experience.

16 FAO & MRC. 2003. New approaches for the improvement of inland capture fishery statistics in the Mekong Basin. Ah hoc Expert Consultation. Udon, Thailand. 2-5 September 2002. 145 pp.

17 McGoodwin, J.R. 2001. Understanding the cultures of fishing communities. A key to fisheries management and food security. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper No. 401, 287 pp.

18 Gameriro, M.F.S & Wilson, J.D.K. 2003. The importance of marine fisheries to coastal community livelihoods in SADC countries. Final consultancy report. 12 pp.

19 Evans D.W. 2001. Status and trends reporting in fisheries. A review of progress and approaches to reporting the state of the world fisheries. FAO Fisheries Circular No. 967, 74 pp.

20 Cunningham, S. 2001. Towards the increased policy relevance of fisheries research. A discussion paper prepared for the Fifth Fisheries Development Donor Consultation. Rome. 22-24 February 1999. FAO Fisheries Circular No. 964.

21 Hussein, K & Zoundi, J. 2003. The contribution of research to the sustainable livelihoods of artisanal fishing communities. Overview and final report of a study conducted in West Africa (Cameroon, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal). Cotonou. Sustainable Livelihoods Programme in West Africa SFLP/FR/14, 49 pp.

[1] Note: the focus was originally on marine capture fisheries but was later extended to freshwater and estuarine systems.

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