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Women play an important role in artisanal fisheries. Among other things, they often sell the fish at market
Women play an important role in artisanal fisheries. Among other things, they often sell the fish at market

Defining small-scale fisheries

Small-scale fisheries, often also referred to as artisanal fisheries, are difficult to define unambiguously, as the term tends to apply to different circumstances in different countries. In general, they are traditional fisheries involving fishing households (as opposed to commercial companies), using relatively small amounts of capital and energy, relatively small fishing vessels (if any), making short fishing trips close to shore, mainly for local consumption.

In practice, the definition varies between countries, e.g. from gleaning or a one-man canoe in poor developing areas, to more than 20-m. trawlers, seiners or long-liners in developed ones. Artisanal fisheries can be subsistence or commercial, providing for local consumption or export. As well, while most artisanal fisheries produce fish that is shared and consumed directly by the fisher's kin rather than being bought by middle-traders and sold at the next larger market, some are truly export-oriented (e.g. cephalopod pot fisheries in Mauritania). However, it can probably be said, that pure subsistence fisheries are rare as part of the products are very often sold or exchanged for other goods or services.

Artisanal fisheries can be very specialised but, in general, target a very wide range of species, using a broad variety of gears, generating diverse fishing strategies and flexibly adapting to seasonal or inter-annual natural variability.

Importance of artisanal fisheries

Artisanal fisheries are important for many reasons. Globally, they produce about 50% of the world capture fisheries' harvest used for human consumption and as such contribute significantly to food security, particularly in rural areas. They also provide significant employment. Although available statistics are extremely poor, FAO estimates indicate that there were close to 29 million fishers - artisanal and industrial - in 1990 and that this number has been holding steady since. Artisanal fishers represent the lions' share - a guestimate would put the figure at around 20 million. In addition, downstream industries and support services generate possibly another 80 million jobs, ensuring some livelihood for 200 million people (assuming a ten-to-one ratio).

Locally, artisanal fisheries often provide an economic activity and livelihood of last resort for the poorest strata of the rural - and even sometimes urban - populations. In cases of exceptional conditions, such as severe droughts in Africa, they may be the only occupation possible for displaced peoples. Close to urban centres, they often provide a livelihood for the jobless. This is made possible both by the traditional cultures of mutual assistance as well as by the free and open access nature of many of the small-scale fisheries. Access to small-scale fisheries is most often neither limited nor really controlled by central fisheries management authorities. However, in many areas, traditional regulations and relationships exist by initiating access control through local ethnic groups or communities such as fishing fees by foreigners and the right to establish a fishing camp.

Artisanal fisheries are difficult to administer because they are largely scattered along the edges of aquatic systems, rivers, lakes and marine shores, including difficultly- accessible areas. This characteristic explains the severe constraints faced by artisanal fisheries in terms of management, access to modern technology, capital, health care, markets, electricity, education, manpower, etc. These constraints are compounded by the lack of mobility (out of the sector and the area) and the fact that many small-scale fishers are also part-time farmers.

Characteristics of artisanal fisheries

Contrary to the impression often obtained from a superficial visit, artisanal fisheries are often extremely dynamic. In some countries (e.g. China, Guinea) they have recently expanded rapidly. In others (Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire) they are stagnating after a very vigorous expansion the past two decades. In others still (Japan, Malaysia), the number of artisanal fishers is declining, following general trends in demography, economic development and availability of better paid jobs, or as a consequence of urban drift. Artisanal fisheries technology is also evolving rapidly with the adoption of modern materials such as fibreglass boats, multimonofilament nets, outboard and in-board engines, echo sounders, satellite global positioning systems (GPS).

The role of women in fisheries is particularly important, especially in the areas of fish processing, distribution, wholesale and retail marketing. These activities contribute substantially to the maintenance and development of the household. Intermediaries play a major role in the development of artisanal fisheries as fishmongers traditionally control the market outlets and represent the only source of credit available for very cash-strung fishers. Interest rates are inclined to be high and, despite the reality of the grave financial risks taken by these informal bankers, tend to be considered excessive.

Artisanal fishers in a typical canoe in Senegal
Artisanal fishers in a typical canoe in Senegal

Migration is a common characteristic of many artisanal fisheries. Fishers often move seasonally to follow fish across their migratory routes, inside a country (e.g. between north and south Senegal) or between countries (e.g. Senegal and Mauritania; Ghana or Mali and Côte d'Ivoire). They may also move more permanently, creating quasi-permanent settlements abroad (e.g. Ghanaian fishers found all along the Atlantic coast of Africa).

Artisanal versus commercial fisheries

Artisanal fisheries often fare well when compared to their more commercial or industrial counterparts. They use much less fuel and generate more employment per tonne of fish produced. Their economic performance, often underestimated and sometimes ignored by national governments, can be very high, particularly considering that this sector receives very little subsidies, if any. While most contribute to local markets, some are actively export-oriented towards regional or international markets (e.g. Senegalese processed fish to the Gulf of Guinea; South African abalone to Asia; Northwest African high-quality fish and octopus to Japan or Europe).

Their environmental impacts on fish stocks and fish habitats are often less than that of commercial fisheries largely because of the widespread use of selective and stationary fishing gear, as well as the overall lower fishing power exerted than in industrial fisheries. However, this statement should be qualified, on several counts. Firstly, there is the fairly widespread use of destructive practices such as poison (cyanide) and explosives (dynamite and other "home-made" explosives) in some small-scale fisheries, especially in tropical reef areas. Secondly, some artisanal fishing gear are very unselective, such as small-meshed beach-seines and some types of trammel, lift and cast nets. Thirdly, the sheer density and intensity of fishing off highly populated coastal areas can contribute to serious levels of overexploitation of vulnerable fish stocks such as long-lived demersal resources.

Practically everywhere, artisanal fisheries tend to be confronting, severe competition from commercial fisheries for fishery resources and fishing areas, markets, financial support from governments. Conflicts are spreading with significant consequences for household economies (such as gear destruction, market losses) and, sometimes, peoples' life. In the past, these conflicts have been very violent in some areas (e.g. Southeast Asia). Overall, the political power of the small-scale sector depends on its size, degree of organization (within a powerful association, for example) and ethnic relationships with political leaders.


During the 1960s and 1970s, artisanal fisheries received substantial support from international funding institutions and development agencies for modernizing fishing techniques -dramatically increasing fishing capacity - and improving fish processing and marketing - reducing post-harvest losses and introducing value-adding). Fisheries cooperatives were developed together with associated community institutions. In many countries, this support was progressively reduced during the 1980s and 1990s when the extension of jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles shifted governments' focus to the potential of industrial and offshore fishing. Fortunately, at the time, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) significantly increased their influence and demanded that more attention be placed on artisanal fisheries. These NGOs have also often contributed to a decentralization process whereby local communities were given progressively larger responsibilities and decision-making power over fisheries management and community affairs.

Today, artisanal fisheries are caught between two trends. On the one hand, the decentralization process offers more opportunities to control their own development through community-based management or co-management. On the other hand, the inexorable globalization, with its overriding political and economic consequences, is affecting the lives of artisanal fishers well beyond their control. The high pressures exerted by manifold coastal activities that cause water pollution, destruction of fish habitats, and increasing competition and high price of coastal land adds yet another set of constraints and threats.

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