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Figure 1: Graphic definitions of small-scale, artisanal and industrial fisheries as a function of vessel size and relative technological investment
Figure 1: Graphic definitions of small-scale, artisanal and industrial fisheries as a function of vessel size and relative technological investment
FAO/Fisheries Department

Key features of small-scale and artisanal fishing

Defining small-scale and artisanal fisheries is a challenge as the terms have been used for decades by fishery politicians and administrators, legal officers, biologists, economists, sociologists, engineers, fishers, non-governmental organizations and the media to represent different points of view and socio-economic dimensions in different national contexts. Trying to combine all the characteristic dimensions of these fisheries, the FAO Glossary indicates that artisanal fisheries are:

"traditional fisheries involving fishing households (as opposed to commercial companies), using relatively small amount of capital and energy, relatively small fishing vessels (if any), making short fishing trips, close to shore, mainly for local consumption. In practice, definition varies between countries, e.g. from gleaning or a one-man canoe in poor developing countries, to more than 20-m. trawlers, seiners, or long-liners in developed ones. Artisanal fisheries can be subsistence or commercial fisheries, providing for local consumption or export. They are sometimes referred to as small-scale fisheries".

While small-scale and artisanal fisheries clearly differ from industrial and recreational fisheries, the subtle distinctions between them are hard to pin down. The FAO Glossary tends to equate "artisanal" with "small-scale". From a technological point of view, however, these are connected but have somewhat different concepts related, on the one hand, to the size of the fishing unit (the scale) and, on the other hand, to the relative level of technology (or "artisanality") expressed as the capital investment / man-on-board.

The term "small-scale fisheries" is more frequently used by Anglophones. For technologists it automatically implies a relatively small vessel size and sometimes has the added connotation of low levels of technology and capital investment per fisher. A nine-meter fibreglass lobster fishing boat in the USA, for example, would be "small-scale", but might well be fairly "high-tech" - that is, equipped with an inboard diesel motor, VHF radio, GPS, sonar, emergency immersion suits and an inflatable liferaft. By contrast, a seven-metre wooden rowboat fishing herring with a gillnet in a coastal inlet in the same country would also be "small-scale", though much more "artisanal" and with a far lower capital investment per fisher.

The term "artisanal fisheries" is often used in French and Spanish-speaking areas to mean relatively low levels of technology, sometimes paired with low levels of organization and industrialization, but with little reference to size. A twenty-meter open-deck Senegalese fishing canoe, for example, with a crew of 18, a half-kilometre of purse seine, an eight tonne fish capacity and one 40 HP outboard motor is considered "artisanal", but is certainly not "small-scale".

"Relatively" is the key term to bear in mind when trying to determine if a given fishing operation is small-scale, artisanal, or industrial. The best test is to graphically combine both the vessel size and degree of technology. This is illustrated in the accompanying figure which plots two axes:

  1. relative scale (or vessel size), as measured by tonnes of displacement; and,
  2. relative technological complexity (the inverse of "artisanality"), as measured by the relative capital investment in boat and equipment per fisher on board.

Within a given region, with homogenous socio-economic characteristics, all boats which fall somewhere within the lower left-hand quadrant with smaller size and lower technological investment per fishers are usually considered as being small-scale and/ or artisanal. Boats which fall within an intermediate range of size or technical complexity may be called modern artisanal or semi-industrial. Beyond this range they will fall into the industrial category. Although the position of the graphical boundaries between the small-scale/ artisanal, the intermediate, and the industrial categories will vary among different regions, the general graphical shape and position of these zones and their relation with each other tends to remain unchanged.

A range of fishing methods also considered small-scale/artisanal, but requiring no vessel, exists at the graph's starting point where the boat size is zero and the level of technology is lowest. These include beach seines, various cast and lift nets, fishing by hook and line from shore, fish traps and weirs (large and small), and manual harvesting (seaweed, bivalves, crabs, etc.) in coastal zones.

Subsistence versus commercial fishing

An image that springs immediately to mind is that of a small canoe with one fisher bobbing his hook and line up and down in the water, fishing to feed his family. Although this type of fishing is widespread and frequent - just about all fishers (artisanal, semi-industrial, industrial, and recreational) do in fact take home some fish for their family - they also sell (or barter) catch if there is a good market for it and the price is right. It is more a question of opportunity rather than attitude. Given the opportunity, which may be blocked by prohibiting laws, most small-scale/artisanal fishers are "commercial" at least part of the time, especially considering that about 50% of the fish supply for human consumption is indeed produced by them.

Part-time versus full-time fishing

Small-scale and artisanal fisheries contribute greatly to employment - over 90% of fishers involved in capture fisheries operate in small-scale/artisanal fisheries. As most fisheries resources show distinct seasonal cycles of abundance or availability, fishing is most profitable only during certain periods of the year. If fishers participate in other activities outside these periods, for instance cultivating cassava roots, they may be considered "part-time". Inversely, full-time fishers, who may use practically the same gear and methods for the same species, fish during most of the year. They may also modify their methods and gear throughout the year to follow a sequence of different species with different periods of abundance, e.g. targeting pelagic species with driftnets during one period and shifting to hand-lining bottom fish another or harvesting clams along the shore during inclement weather conditions.

In many countries, and in many fisheries programmes, there is a prevalence to consider mostly the full-time fishers as the legitimate stakeholders in a fishery and to exclude part-timers from resource management allocations and other benefits. This can sometimes lead to unexpected results, as discussed below.

Small-scale fishing as part of a livelihood

The family (household) livelihood strategy tends to combine various ways of earning a living. The most dynamic livelihood strategies rely on the largest possible range of approaches and available assets, thus reducing risks created by natural or market vagaries. One proven fisheries livelihood strategy is, as mentioned above, harvesting various fisheries resources with different gears depending on the season. Another is simply doing nothing during the "dead" period (particularly when the climate is very harsh) provided enough resources are generated during the active season.

This skindiver off the coast of Madagascar uses spears to catch fish
This skindiver off the coast of Madagascar uses spears to catch fish

Still a third - and particularly frequent and solid strategy in the rural areas - is to engage in fisheries during the "peak abundance" main season and to undertake another productive activity the rest of the year, such as transplanting rice, raising pigs or repairing farm tools for the village. However, these people might be considered only part-time fishers ( and part-time farmers) and as such be excluded by modern administrations from a number of development schemes and benefits despite the fact that they might be the more robust and efficient contributors to society. Furthermore, multiple livelihood sources help reduce the catastrophic effects fisheries management measures can have where a fishery must be closed or reduced due to the state of resources.

Advantages of small-scale/artisanal fisheries

Small-scale and artisanal fisheries often compete, and conflict, with industrial fisheries. The pros and cons depend on local contexts and are difficult to generalize. Some of the relative advantages of small-scale and artisanal fisheries in certain conditions are discussed below. Where opposite conditions exist, industrial fisheries may be more competitive.

Lower running costs and fuel consumption In general, having less mechanical power than industrial fisheries, they tend to optimize human power and reduce fuel costs, using more passive gears and practices such as handlining, longlining, gillnets, fish traps and light attraction. Although, as the cost of engine power drops, small-scale fisheries may adopt mobile gear such as trawl nets - sometimes even with sailpower as in Sri Lanka - but these are still exceptional.

Lower ecological impact While artisanal/small-scale fishers may, and do, use destructive methods (such as poison and dynamite), it is usually agreed that their environmental impact is reduced because they employ mainly passive gears. However, this does not mean that they cannot overfish available resources.

Higher employment opportunities Being more labour-intensive, artisanal/small-scale fisheries are naturally suited in rural areas with high demographic growth, providing employment in catching as well as processing and trade of fish and fishery products. Still, without proper user rights and control of fishing capacity, overfishing is easily possible.

Higher versatility Shallow draft, small-scale fishing boats can, and often do, operate from small ports and landing sites relatively close to the fished resource. In addition to the more open areas along the coast, small-scale vessels can also exploit more restricted waters that would be difficult, even dangerous, for larger vessels.

Lower construction costs As small-scale boats do not usually stay out long, nor go far offshore, they can be relatively lightly (and inexpensively) built and either stay ashore or else run for nearby cover when the weather turns foul. Inversely, due to high fixed costs, industrial vessels must be better built (costing more) in order to travel longer distances, move faster and resist bad weather. The negative side is that safety on board of small fishing crafts is often poor.

Less expensive technology Artisanal fisheries require relatively low investment in technology and equipment and are consequentially more competitive in most developing regions where labour is cheaper than equipment. In such cases, resources within the technical reach of the small-scale sector are usually most profitably harvested, with superior returns on the capital invested as compared to industrial fishing.

Looking ahead

In many countries small-scale/artisanal fisheries are still developing rapidly-expanding markets (e.g. export markets) and adopting new technologies (multifilament nets, echo sounders, satellite positioning systems). In many others, however, they are experiencing difficulties. Except where these fisheries contribute substantially to exports (as in northwest Africa), have strong ethnic links with the political leaders or involve most of the population (as in island countries), it is generally not given priority consideration in a country's modernization and development process. Artisanal fisheries are often thought to be backwards, sometimes because of a lack of data and understanding on real trends and socio-economic impact. They are difficult to administer in the conventional top-down mode because of their physical scattering along the edges of the aquatic systems, rivers, lakes and marine shores, including in difficultly-accessible areas. This last characteristic explains the severe constraints faced by these fisheries in terms of management, access to modern technology, capital, health care, markets, electricity, education, manpower, etc. These constraints are furthermore compounded by the lack of mobility out of the sector and the area (except perhaps through migrations).

Small-scale/artisanal fishers face two main trends. On the one hand, the decentralization process offers them opportunities to control their own development through forms of community-based management or co-management. On the other hand, the inexorable globalization - with its overriding political and economic consequences - is affecting their lives well beyond their control. Another set of constraints and threats is added by the high pressures exerted by manifold coastal activities causing water pollution, destruction of fish habitats, and increasing competition and high prices of coastal land. Pollution affects human health and safety as well as fish product quality. Removal of coastal mangroves and other coastal habitats does not only negatively affect fisheries resources, especially during the most vulnerable life stages of many species, but also results in an immediate threat to coastal communities because of their high exposure to the vagaries of nature such as storms and floods.

Moreover, with the constant pressure of continued population growth, migration from the hinterland and development of industrial fishing, the "survival" of small-scale/artisanal fisheries depends to a large extent on the recognition and protection of traditional or acquired fishing rights. The extent and nature of these rights (individual or communal, transferable or not) are still hotly debated and there is a danger of exporting industrial-sector solutions aimed at maximizing individual profits. To develop and maintain the advantages of small-scale /artisanal fisheries, the system of diversified family livelihoods characteristic of the sector should be protected and strengthened through rights of access of the communities to a sustainable matrix of productive activities.

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