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A Project Concept Note 1

1 Secretariat note: Original draft prepared for Workshop has been edited and abridged for publication purposes.


Globally there are an estimated 30 million fishers of whom at least three-quarters, or 22 million, are engaged in small-scale fisheries2 (FAO, 2002; Coates, 2002). If fisheries-related activities such as marketing and processing are included in the count, a total of about 88 million people depend on small-scale fisheries and associated industries. The figure rises to as many as 150 million people if household dependants of fishers and those in supporting trades are included in the reckoning. A large number in itself, its significance lies in the extent to which these people belong to the poor and vulnerable sections of society. Even if the incidence of poverty among the fishery-dependent people only matched the average in their respective countries, there would be some 23 million fishery-dependent people living on less than US$1 per day, the World Bank’s global poverty line (FAO, 2002).

2 As defined in Annex 1.

The importance of these statistics from a development perspective is reinforced by the fact that small-scale fisheries (SSF) provide about half of the world’s fisheries production used for direct human consumption and that about 1 billion people rely on the sector for their main source of animal protein (Pomeroy and Williams, 1994). In many parts of the world small-scale fishing activities also provide an important means of income generation for the rural poor, including those who only fish occasionally and are not officially recognized as fishers. In addition to the role as a primary support, therefore, small-scale fishing also plays a role as an important “safety valve” when livelihood strategies in “non-fishing” (e.g. agricultural) communities are under threat. More generally, small-scale fisheries can also help to maintain a degree of economic (and hence political) stability, particularly for states with a heavy reliance on fisheries resources and where economic options for the populace are few.

Within the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), improving the productivity of the natural resource base on which fishers depend and working for pro-poor policies and governance will result in direct benefits in terms of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger (MDG Goal 1). Improving the income of poor fishers will also contribute to achieving universal primary education (MDG Goal 2). In many poor communities, fishing can provide one of the few sources of cash income and when this increases families are more likely to be able to educate their children. The goals to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health (MDB Goals 4 and 5) can also be promoted by improving fisheries productivity. Fish can significantly improve the nutritional status of young children, pregnant and lactating women. It can complement the carbohydrate-based diets (e.g. rice) of the poor, providing an easily digestible source of protein, which is important for growth and also essential vitamins (e.g. Vitamins A, B1, B2 and D) and minerals (e.g. iron, calcium) (Kurien, 2004). Fishing accounts for some of the greatest impacts on aquatic ecosystems, particularly marine ecosystems, and fisheries management is therefore key to ensuring environmental sustainability (MDG Goal 7).

Historically, development interventions for the fisheries sector have aimed at reducing poverty through accelerated economic growth, improvements in technology and infrastructure and market-led economic policy reform. The limited results of these interventions, however, has led to a re-examination of the causes of poverty, the recognition of the significance of vulnerability and the recognition of the need for new strategies for poverty reduction. There is increasing recognition that establishing appropriate pro-poor governance and institutions for fisheries management are central to maximizing the contribution of fisheries to poverty alleviation and food security. Pro-poor strategies that include rights-based approaches, co-management regimes and fishing capacity reduction are essential to increase long-term wealth generation within local communities.

The importance of the small-scale fisheries sector to food security and poverty alleviation was recognized by the twenty-fifth session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI, 2003). Specifically, COFI members recognized that there was a need for better understanding of the nature, extent, and causes of vulnerability and poverty among small-scale fishers and to improve the information base and monitoring approaches for determining the contribution of the sector to the alleviation of these conditions. The research agenda proposed at COFI 25 marks an important re-emphasis towards effective development strategies for SSF. In response, FAO has developed draft Technical Guidelines for Enhancing the Contribution of Small-Scale Fisheries to Poverty Alleviation and Food Security . This draft was made available for review and comments at the twenty-sixth session of COFI in March 2005.

The Strategy for Improving Information on Status and Trends of Capture Fisheries (Strategy-STF; FAO, 2003), adopted at COFI 25 and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2003, also focuses attention on SSF. The Strategy-STF recognizes that many small-scale and multi-species fisheries, particularly in developing countries, are not well monitored. As a result, the contributions of SSF are probably underestimated and consequently not adequately considered in the development of plans and policies for the fisheries sector generally.

In a recent global review of 281 national policy papers, including 50 poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) and/or interim PRSPs, it was found in only a small number of countries that fishing communities were included among the target groups and that the fisheries sector was accorded an explicit role in poverty reduction and food security (Thorpe, 2004). A review of national PRSs in West African countries (Anon., 2002) showed that small-scale fisheries were rarely or poorly taken into account, even though they produce over one million tonnes in annual catch and provide livelihoods for over seven million fishers in the region. Improved information on SSF alone will not be sufficient to reverse this situation. Fundamental changes in governance and institutional arrangements are also required. At the same time, it is recognised that improved information can help to encourage such changes. In the absence of improved information bases and supportive governance and institutional measures, policies, plans and management instruments are likely to be ineffective for or, worse still, detrimental to, the SSF sub-sector.

Characterization of small-scale fisheries*
“Small-scale fisheries can be broadly characterized as a dynamic and evolving sector 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 subsector, 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.”
* Based on the FAO Research Agenda for Small-Scale Fisheries, which endorsed with slight modification the characterization that was used by the FAO Committee on Fisheries at its twenty-fifth session
A vision for small-scale fisheries,
A vision for small-scale fisheries, in human development terms, has been developed for the ACFR Working Party on Small-scale Fisheries. It is one in which their contribution to sustainable development is fully realized and where:
  • they are not marginalized and their contribution to national economies and food security is recognized, valued and enhanced;
  • fishers, fish workers and other stakeholders have the ability to participate in decision-making, are empowered to do so and have increased capability and human capacity, thereby achieving dignity and respect; and
  • poverty and food insecurity do not persist and where the social economic and ecological systems are managed in an integrated and sustainable manner, thereby reducing conflict.

The need for a new approach to small-scale fisheries assessment

Most of the stock assessment tools available today were developed with a focus on temperate areas where fishing fleets exploit large stocks comprised of a limited number of species. As a consequence, conventional assessment approaches usually focus on single species and are very data intensive. Moreover, such approaches focus largely on the biology of the resource. Relatively little attention is paid to the socio-economic needs of fishers, the social structure and culture of fishing communities or to the institutional dimensions of management (Jentoft, 2000; 2004). This deficiency tends to limit the capacity for collaboration between research and fishing communities and to weaken the institutional linkage between fisheries science and management.

In contrast to their large-scale counterparts, SSF are often multi-gear and target multiple species with small stock sizes - features that limit the utility of conventional assessment approaches. Further complication is added by the participation of both part-time and full-time fishers, and the presence of numerous, often isolated, landing sites and varying market chains. Even if conventional approaches were appropriate, SSF data collection and monitoring is often not feasible because necessary financial and human resources are scarce. Despite the above, training of fisheries scientists in developing countries continues to be based for the most part on conventional approaches to fisheries assessments.

Further challenges emerge with growing calls to implement an ecosystem approach to fisheries management (FAO, 2003), particularly for SSF in coastal tropical areas. These fisheries are characterized by high biological diversity and by intense competition over the use of coastal ecosystems with other sectors, such as tourism, aquaculture, urban and industrial development. Moving the focus of assessment from the exploited resources to the whole range of ecosystem components and processes that affect or are affected by fishing immensely increases the data requirements for management.

As highlighted above, SSF play a key role in providing food security, alleviating poverty and reducing vulnerability.

The root causes of poverty, food insecurity and vulnerability in SSF are clearly interconnected. For example, overfishing can constrain resource availability and increase variability, while lack of access to capital, limited alternative employment opportunities and lack of appropriate technologies for fish harvesting and processing can constrain the sector. One of the most important factors influencing small-scale fisheries, however, relates to governance and policy issues over access to, and control over, resources, markets and the distribution of benefits obtained from fishing (COFI, 2003, 2005).

Assessment of the causal factors behind poverty and vulnerability within small-scale fishing communities is vital if effective fisheries-specific strategies for food security and poverty alleviation are to be developed. To obtain this understanding an interdisciplinary approach that goes beyond conventional “stock assessments” is required. The approach must be based on theories and methodologies that integrate biological understanding (at both the exploited species and ecosystem level) with social, economic and institutional/governance aspects of the fisheries. Furthermore, to ensure feasibility, the approach must be open to the use of techniques that do not necessarily rely on long-term monitoring or historical time series.

For example, better use can be made of available primary data from living standard measurement surveys and other national socio-economic household surveys through techniques such as poverty mapping.3 In addition, where historic time series of catch and effort information or incomes are not available approaches such as Participatory Rural Assessments (e.g. Mascarenhas et al. , 1991; Pido et al. , 1996; MRAG, 2005) can be used to gather information from participants in the fishery on the status of the fishery and historical trends. Although obtaining reliable data on historical trends in a fishery from the fishers themselves is fraught with difficulty owing to the selective nature of the human memory and the unintentional biases that this introduces, approaches that account for such distortions are now emerging. Local knowledge held by fishers about ecology, climate, technology, institutional organization and management systems are also extremely valuable in data-poor situations (Johannes, 1981; Berkes et al. , 2001).

3 The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (DFID, 1997) is one analytical framework that addresses some aspects of this. It is currently being applied in fisheries in 25 countries in West Africa (DFID/FAO Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Programme).

The value of fishers’knowledge to fisheries assessment and management has been emphasized not only because of its complementary role to more conventional fisheries assessments, but also for its potential to empower small-scale fishing communities by enabling them to make contributions to research and strategy implementation. Biological and ecological information from comparable regions and resources can also be accommodated in the assessment of fisheries in data-limited situations through formal meta-analysis or other semi-quantitative approaches (Hilborn and Liermann, 1998).

Implementation arrangements

The project is proposed as a four year exercise undertaken in two phases by a multidisciplinary team, whose members will share wide experience in small-scale fisheries and the application of non-conventional approaches to fisheries assessment.4 The team will also draw on concepts, theories and approaches developed in fisheries and in other fields of agricultural research (e.g. participatory methods, rapid rural appraisal, poverty profiling and mapping). The team will build on past work by updating previous reviews of the contribution of SSF in terms of nutrition, food security, livelihoods and poverty reduction. Substantial work has been done in this area by FAO, the WorldFish Center and others, the outputs of which underscore the linkages, interdependencies and synergies between the various dimensions of SSF, including environmental and socio-cultural ones, and the need for an integrated assessment approach.

4 The project team will require expertise across a range of disciplines including: fisheries bio-ecology, economics, sociology, policy and governance, geography, history and environmental science. Team members will combine experience across a range of technical and problem areas, including: fisheries and biodiversity management, common pool resources, rural development, sustainable development, ecosystem dynamics, integrated coastal area management, water basin management, sustainable livelihoods approach, ecosystem approaches, precautionary approaches, small-scale fishery technology, and trade.

The project will have a Steering Committee that includes the stakeholders and selected expert members. The Steering Committee will establish the broad vision for the project, assist in resource mobilization and review the progress and achievement of the project.

The project will have a Peer Review Panel that involves independent experts across the range of necessary disciplines. This Panel will be involved in Phase 1 in terms of reviewing the technical directions of the project, and will also review the scientific quality of the outputs of the project before they are published and disseminated.

In the first project phase, theories, methods and tools applicable to SSF assessment will be reviewed and assembled. Existing gaps and weaknesses will be identified and steps taken to resolve them through the synthesis of a draft framework for interdisciplinary assessment and development of appropriate manuals and reference materials.

In the second phase the framework and methods will be tested, using case studies within specific guidelines developed by the project. The case studies will directly engage partners from developing countries in methods development, ensuring that they are applicable and acceptable. The theoretical and methodological material will then be refined and published.

The project is global in scope but will focus, particularly for the case studies, on countries where small-scale fisheries play a significant role, particularly for the poorer sections of the community. Case study and capacity building activities initially will involve three regions: South and Southeast Asia; West Africa; and Latin America and the Caribbean.5 Work across these different regions will help ensure that the methods developed can be applied and modified to a wide range of local contexts.

5 The Research Agenda for Small-Scale Fisheries developed by the FAO Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research (ACFR) will be used as the basis for the selection of case studies. In West Africa the project will build on the experience from the Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Programme.

The outputs of the project (methodology, manuals, software, case studies, etc.) will be disseminated through a targeted information, communication and education (ICE) campaign. The audience for the major outputs, particularly the framework and methods developed, will be broad and include research and academic institutions, government fisheries agencies, regional fisheries management organizations and civil society groups that support SSF. Dissemination will take place through various means including the Internet and regional training programmes as well as on-the-job coaching and training in the course of the case studies.


The overall objective of the proposed project is the increased and ecologically sustainable contribution of small-scale fisheries to food security and the alleviation of poverty and vulnerability.

Outputs and activities

Key outputs and associated activities for the first phase of the project include the following.

Output 1 . A framework for interdisciplinary assessment of small-scale fisheries.

Activity 1.1 Pre-project agency stakeholders meeting (FAO, WorldFish, and other partners to be confirmed to refine project strategy and identify experts to serve as potential advisers or team members as well as resource needs.

Activity 1.2 Development of a draft framework and reference guide for the interdisciplinary assessment of SSF, based on available theories, concepts, and approaches developed for fisheries and other fields of rural development research.

Activity 1.3 Identification of the multidisciplinary team of experts, with experience in small-scale fisheries and rural development and in the application of non-conventional approaches to fisheries assessments, to prepare relevant documentation to serve as working papers in an expert consultation.

Activity 1.4 Expert consultation to: (i) review and synthesize available theories, concepts and methods within a common interdisciplinary framework for the assessment of small-scale fisheries; (ii) identify research needs and strategies for filling the gaps in the available methodologies; and (iii) elaborate an overarching strategy for carrying out case studies to apply the proposed framework.

Output 2 . A series of manuals/guides on the concepts, theories, methodologies and case studies associated with the interdisciplinary framework.

Activity 2.1 Production of draft reference documentation on the interdisciplinary framework and available methods for SSF assessment.

Activity 2.2 Updated review of the role and contribution of small-scale fisheries to food security and poverty reduction globally.

Activity 2.3 Develop and maintain a Web-based Clearing House Mechanism 6 with updated information on the status of small-scale fisheries and its contribution to food security and poverty reduction globally.

6 The term “clearing-house” originally referred to a financial establishment where checks and bills are exchanged among member banks, so that only the net balances need to be settled in cash. Here its meaning has been extended to include any agency that brings together seekers and providers of goods, services or information, thus matching demand with supply.

Activity 2.4 Produce and disseminate policy briefings about the role and contribution of small-scale fisheries to food security and poverty reduction.

Key outputs and associated activities for the second phase of the project include the following.

Output 3 . Case studies and targeted training and dissemination.

Activity 3.1 Testing and improvement of the framework and approaches to the interdisciplinary assessment of small-scale fisheries through the implementation of case studies in developing countries.

Output 4 . Increased staff capacity in developing countries for assessing the role and contribution of small-scale fisheries for food security and poverty reduction .

Activity 4.1 Produce a final version of the reference guide for the interdisciplinary assessment of small-scale fisheries, incorporating the review of theories, concepts and approaches and the results from the case studies.

Activity 4.2 Disseminate the reference guide and initiate the development of training programmes for the assessment of small-scale fisheries.

Activity 4.3 Promote technical and institutional capacity building for the interdisciplinary assessments of small-scale fisheries through training courses, facilitation of access to tools and information sources, and fostering the exchange of expertise and the establishment of international cooperation programs among developing countries.

Project outcomes and impact

The intended outcomes of this project are envisioned to be wide-ranging and significant, as depicted in Figure 1. The logic can be summarized as follows: by increasing the understanding, profile and “voice” of small-scale fisheries, policy makers and managers will become more aware of the importance of this sector. This increased awareness will, in turn, lead to the creation of more effective policies and management decisions that more appropriately reflect the importance of small-scale fisheries and the role they can play in rural development and poverty reduction. This policy development will be enabled by the increased capacity in developing countries to provide the information and assessments necessary for management and also by the growing knowledge base on small-scale fisheries. It is expected that the outcome of the project will also be useful for the assessment of small-scale fisheries in many parts of the developed world.

The intended impact of the project is an increased contribution and sustained role for small-scale fisheries to food security and poverty and vulnerability reduction in developing countries. The focus for delivery of this impact is poor rural communities that significantly depend on fisheries for food, livelihoods and income. Recognizing the fact that about 1 billion people rely on SSF for their main source of animal protein, and at least 23 million small-scale fishers (and their households) earn < US$1 per day, the potential for impact is large.

Fig. 1: Project impact pathway from outputs to the overall objective

Fig. 1

Project timeframe

The timeframe shown below details the order and timing of planned activities.

Preliminary budget

Activity US$ Percentage of total
Development of draft frame work and reference guide380 0008%
Clearing house mechanism225 0005%
Testing and improvement of methods2 445 00054%
Capacity building developing countries960 00021%
Miscellaneous490 00011%
TOTAL 4 500 000 100%


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Related recent and ongoing initiatives

The proposed project will build on the outputs of other initiatives and available tools and methods already developed, including those listed below.

Recent and ongoing initiatives

Approaches, tools and methods available from previous work

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