History & Culture

Managing Our Oceans: A Small-Scale Approach

In order to sustainably manage many of our large scale fisheries, we need data, scientists to analyse it, and resources to enforce our regulations on how we should fish sustainably. But these are luxuries that many of our small-scale fisheries don't have. So how can we manage the small-scale fisheries that account for around half of our total seafood production?

Every day, millions of people from coastal communities venture out to sea in small boats catching fish to eat and sell. For many of us, this image probably sounds like a more sustainable approach when compared to the image of oversized industrial vessels dragging nets that can span kilometres across. But combined with the pressures of large scale fisheries operating nearby, unmanaged localised fishing poses a very real threat to these communities. We now have a number of advanced tools to assess and manage large scale fisheries, yet the majority of these tools are not a realistic option for smaller fishing communities looking to protect their own fisheries.1 Luckily, there are some far simpler ways to empower these communities with tools leading to sustainably managing their own fisheries and protect marine biodiversity.  

What are small-scale fisheries?

While there is no single global definition covering this diverse type of fishing, there are some common characteristics that can help us understand what small-scale fishing looks like.2 Compared to industrial fishing, small-scale fishing generally involves using smaller boats, hauling smaller catches per boat, harvesting a more diverse range of species, and it occurs mostly within a close distance to the coastline. And unlike larger industrial operators, these small-scale operations tend to use a variety of gear, ranging from simple hooks on a line, to a wide range of nets and traps.

Skipper Stuart Hamilton pulls in the nets in the English Channel on August 10, 2020 in Hastings, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

But despite the name and nature of small-scale fisheries, they aren’t small in impact. Small scale fisheries play a key role in the livelihoods of around 200 million people and compose a significant percentage of our global fisheries catch.3 In fact, about half of global fish catches come from small-scale fisheries and 90% of all the people employed in our global fisheries are involved in some part of the small-scale sector - from building boats to selling the catch.4 Perhaps even more surprisingly, around half of the people involved in small-scale fisheries are women (in comparison to the ~12 percent that women account for of the total fisheries workforce).4 Still, despite being the socio-economic backbone of many coastal communities all over the world, small-scale fisheries are often overshadowed by large-scale industrial fishing - commonly perceived to be more important both in management efforts and scientific investment.4  

Large-scale solutions aren’t realistic

For a long time, industrial fisheries has been the main focus both in fisheries science and in the management of our shared marine resources. But this singular focus has left us with a set of techniques and tools designed specifically to manage industrial fisheries, with little consideration for how they could apply to small-scale fisheries.5 Especially, since small-scale fisheries often occur in far-away remote places that are difficult to access and actively manage. Due to it often occurring in distant corners around the world, there is a general lack of knowledge about the sector - from the fish populations right down to the practices used to fish them. Without the right knowledge, such as how much of each species is being caught, it is incredibly hard to effectively manage them without threatening the livelihoods and food security of the communities that rely on them.6 

Two fishermen on a boat load two boxes of shellfish  in Europe's lobster capital on 2nd June, 2021 in Bridlington, United Kingdom. (Photo by Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/Getty Images)

Surprisingly, conventional methods used to set yearly fishing quotas for industrial fisheries can only be used on around 10% of the harvested fish populations worldwide.3 So, why is this? Firstly, the assessment tools we currently use to manage industrial fisheries require a relatively high-functioning system of governance to organise and enforce the management - something that is not always present in small distant communities. Secondly, it demands a whole lot of data.7 For example, to assess and manage large scale fisheries, we use detailed knowledge of the fish biology, records of catches over time, advanced computer systems, and an expert to analyse that data. These are all needed for fisheries scientists to provide accurate advice to policy makers on the recommended sustainable allowed catch for each year. Lastly, most of the processes and practices used to understand and sustainably manage industrial fisheries require money (a lot of it). Having financial backing from the government and industry not only pays for the equipment to measure fisheries data, but it also pays for scientists to analyse it, and the authorities needed to enforce and regulate the rules that are imposed to manage those fisheries.7    

Learn about sustainable fishing quotas and how they are set

For thousands of small coastal communities that rely on fisheries for their day-to-day lives, most of these options are luxuries that local fishers and/or their governments can’t afford. For these communities, effective management needs to come from the people within these communities if it’s going to have a real impact.

Simple solutions for small-scale fisheries

With large-scale fisheries management ill suited to manage the needs of small-scale fisheries, some are looking towards more simplistic and tailored solutions. Dr. Jeremy Prince is an Australian fisheries scientist who specialises in small fishery communities in the Indo-Pacific region. Through his research organisation Biospherics, Jeremy has dedicated most of his work to finding tools that can be useful for small-scale fishing communities and his solution relies on just two key factors - simplicity and involvement.

As Jeremy explains, “equivalent to air and water, fishing is a constant for many people all over the world”. This is especially the case in smaller communities where fisheries are both an integral part of culture and a key source of livelihood. He continues, “by teaching fishers basic rules of thumb, like the concept of [population] replacement levels - like when a fish is 1.2 times the known size of maturity (when it is able to reproduce) it can replace itself - they can easily understand the concept that if all the fish they catch are smaller than that, they know they have got problems. Then they can start using that in their committee meetings. And we have seen that this concept is actually quite powerful to adaptively manage fisheries without doing the full assessment. Just by keying into what is a good size fish for different species and what is not”.

And though a simple analysis of fish size may not be enough in the case of industrial fisheries management. But, Jeremy’s research of fish populations around the Indo-Pacific Ocean have validated just how valuable this simple rule can be for small communities lacking resources or additional data to manage their fisheries.8 Crucially, this also inspires a more community-based management approach, where people within the community can simply manage their own resource. As Jeremy mentions, “it is important that the community wants it [management]”. In Jeremy’s experience, empowering these communities with the tools to manage their own fisheries encourages them to understand what is happening and how to manage their own resources more sustainably. 

Fishing boats at Jamestown Beach Fresh Festival in Accra, Ghana. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

What can we learn from small-scale fisheries?

While small-scale fisheries are vastly different in nature to industrial fisheries, there is a lot we can learn from the way they are managed. Firstly, current industrial fisheries management clumps many different fish populations into one single entity with a single allowable catch limit. But as Jeremy believes, “there is a lot more spatial structure, homing, and philopatry to the fish we catch than what we tend to recognise or account for”. Jeremy is alluding to the fact that many fish stocks actually remain in, or return to one area, and never cross paths with other stocks. In small-scale management scenarios, almost every single reef can be considered its own fishery, with its own set of rules to manage its own species and populations of fish. It is carefully localised management. Industrial fisheries on the other hand, tend to manage with a far broader brush that often neglects to acknowledge the way these fish live and interact - both with each other and their surrounding environment. In saying that, it is slowly being recognised by industrial fisheries that fish populations are often not as widely spread as we previously assumed. In an ideal world, management needs to be more biologically oriented to the species we are targeting. Setting an overall annual catch limit that covers many different fish populations, when these fish populations do not behave the same way in their surrounding environments, does not always make sense. 

Secondly, and as emphasised by Jeremy, there is a huge amount of value in bringing the knowledge of the fishers to the process of management. “This is another key to these small-scale fisheries, to really make them work is to effectively harness not only the resources, but particularly the knowledge and interest of the fishers”. Working closely with fishers brings the knowledge from the people who are in these environments directly to those who are assessing and ultimately managing the health of the fish populations. This approach also works to redress the old-standing arrogance about who can have a valid opinion about the resource in question. Neglecting to include the people who are involved will lead to wasted efforts as people will simply be less likely to care. As Jeremy puts it, “we largely neglect to include the fishers. A more collaborative, informative, and equal approach would produce better outcomes than what we see today'.

While these simple rules of community based management, like those introduced by Jeremy, we now know that it’s entirely possible to assess and manage these fisheries in a cheap and effective way. A way that provides these communities with the tools to be both self-sufficient and sustainable in the way they use their resources. And now, more than ever, we need this kind of collaboration between fishers and scientists as global fisheries face increasing pressure. This is especially important in the small-scale sector where fisheries provide far more than just employment and market value. They provide daily food and essential nutrition, employment, economic value, and a critical tie to culture and place.4



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