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Small-Scale Fisheries and Ocean Sustainability: A reflection on “Small is Bountiful” virtual event

by Ruyel Miah

The suggestions coming from the discussions indicate that all of us, including fishers, governments, non-government organizations, and academia, have roles to play in promoting the importance and contribution of SSF to ocean sustainability. We should uphold the recognition of small-scale fishing communities and help make them viable. 


Ruyel at the edge of the Bell Island, NL, Canada. ©Ruyel Miah 

Small-scale fisheries (SSF) have broad recognition in terms of employment, livelihoods, food and nutritional security. It is unfortunate that SSF are often underestimated and marginalized in many cases; for instance, in relation to the role of SSF in ocean sustainability, access to markets and resources, and the vulnerabilities of small-scale fishing communities. The event entitled “Small is Bountiful” organized by Too Big To Ignore (TBTI) and the Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) in collaboration with 16 other governmental and inter-governmental organizations was, in my opinion, phenomenal in highlighting and endorsing many issues of SSF to the world. The webinars and panel discussions covered various topics, including the issues and opportunities around SDG 14.b (i.e., access for the small-scale artisanal fishers to markets and marine resources), contributions of SSF to other SDGs, the role of human rights and SSF Guidelines for sustainable SSF, Blue Justice for SSF, and the impacts of COVID-19 on SSF. There were many things to learn and reflect on, especially, the huge opportunities offered by SSF for ocean sustainability.

My interest was on access to markets for SSF in particular, as I am working on this topic as part of my Master’s research. The SSF trade has the potential to contribute income, livelihoods, food and nutritional security for millions of people. The event helped me gain a broader understanding of how access for SSF to markets is hindered largely by the relevant governing institutions, industrial fishing sectors, and corporate systems. I heard the stories from around the world on how the actors directly involved in the SSF market chain are often overlooked in decision-making. I also learned from experts based in all six continents about how the recent outbreak of COVID-19 has created further challenges for SSF supply chains. The prevailing impacts of COVID-19 include loss of domestic and international seafood markets, a reduction on the price of valuable fish products, less demand for fish in the markets, travel bans and closure of hotels and restaurants impacting the tourism industry, and changes of consumer behaviour and preferences from frozen to fresh fish and seafood. In maintaining the social distancing and lockdown restrictions, fishers have lost or reduced their daily earnings, fish processing workers have either been laid off or worked for reduced wages, thus causing scarcity of food and loss of livelihoods to be prevalent. However, small-scale fishers have been very active in responding to the situation. They have sorted out some innovative market strategies, with some of them being increasing direct sales, some of it door-to-door, and online sales using social media marketing.

Besides, from the webinars and panel discussion, I heard about existing injustices or inequalities, for example, the maintenance of the market structure, allocation of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), dominance of industrial sector over artisanal, etc. which are, in my view, often a disservice to the SSF sector. The forms of injustice are varying based on geographical locations, for instance, in Indian Subcontinent, SSF are largely controlled by the landlord, jamindhar, dadondhar or middlemen. These groups tend to manage the small-scale fishing communities and their lives. The SSF Guidelines endorsed by the member states of the United Nations in 2014, highlighted some of the inequalities as the main point, but it is not enough to address all. The central issues covered by SSF Guidelines are rights to food, adequate standards of living, health, property, non-discrimination and equality, work and free choices of employments, labour rights, rights to social security, healthy environment, rights to indigenous peoples, legal rights and fundamental freedoms, rights to remedy and culture rights. It was saddening to know that the advancement in implementing SSF Guidelines by countries is not parallel. Some countries are struggling with the progress in achieving SDGs.

The benefits of SSF provide the foundations of many of the SDGs, and working with fishers and fish workers provides a pathway to achieve progress towards SDGs. There are lots of evidences from around the world showing that SSF provide a meaningful contribution to ocean sustainability. For example, SSF use less fuel, harvest less fish, allowing allow fish stocks to recover, contribute less to pollution, creates little to no disturbances on the ocean floor and does not destroy ocean habitats, which are some of the significant factors for ocean sustainability. The industrial fishing practices perform the exact opposite actions and bring challenges for ocean sustainability. It was surprising for me to hear that governments are providing subsidies for industrial fishing that are indirectly demolishing the hope for a healthy ocean environment.

The suggestions coming from the discussions indicate that all of us, including fishers, governments, non-government organizations, and academia, have roles to play in promoting the importance and contribution of SSF to ocean sustainability. We should uphold the recognition of small-scale fishing communities and help make them viable. To make small-scale coastal communities viable, we need to focus on some points, including identity and culture, addressing societal changes, ITQ and privatization of resources, ecological crisis narratives, IUU (Illegal Unregulated Unreported) fishing, bio-politics of the states, cross-culture and gender issues, the recent impacts of COVID-19, and facilitating multi-stakeholder engagements.


Written by Ruyel Miah

Ruyel Miah is a Master’s student in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, funded by the Ocean Frontier Institute. Currently he is working on access to markets for small-scale fisheries under the Sub-Module I-1 (i.e., Access to Resources and Markets). He has completed Bachelor of Science in Fisheries from Sylhet Agricultural University, Sylhet, Bangladesh. His research interests are on small-scale fisheries governance, markets access and value chain in fisheries, vulnerability and viability of SSF, conservation and sustainability of marine fisheries resources.

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