Arowana Impact Capital

Life Below Water (Part II):
How Small Fishing Villages are Helping to Save the World's Oceans

In the second edition of a three-part series, Arowana Impact Capital dives deep into the effects of overfishing on the life and livelihood of coastal communities. 

Teach one how to fish and you’ll feed them for a lifetime – but teach an entire village how to fish sustainably and you’ll feed them for generations. This is the story of small fishing communities in Southeast Asia and other regions of the world that are often overlooked in the narrative of marine conservation and livelihood development.

While most small-scale fishing practices are closely intertwined with the local culture and are believed to be more sustainable in the long run, large-scale commercial fishing has tipped the balance towards more exhaustive – if not destructive – fishing methods.

Economies have reaped billions of dollars in GDP out of the bounty of the ocean, yet most government policies tend to favour the industrial fishing sector to help commercial groups keep up with the world’s growing appetite for fish and other products derived from the ocean. In a span of just three decades, fish consumption worldwide has risen 122%. This happened alongside an increase in the global production of capture fisheries to a record 96.4 million tonnes. Out of this figure, marine capture constituted 84.4 million tonnes, according to the latest figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“Marine capture fisheries’ resources are usually considered close to full exploitation worldwide with about half of them fully exploited, one quarter over exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, and one quarter only with some capacity to produce more than they presently do,” the FAO reported.

The impact of overfishing and illegal fishing
Overfishing, as well as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, is being undertaken at the expense of the environment and the millions of people in rural communities who depend on marine resources for their own livelihood and food security.

Southeast Asia, for example, accounts for a quarter of the global fish production. However, up to 64% of the region’s resource base is facing a “medium to high risk” of overfishing, based on data cited by The Asia Foundation. Failure to manage marine resources – in the face of increasing global demand – has sparked a vicious cycle of destructive fishing, marine resource depletion and environmental degradation.

IUU fishing comes in various forms, from poison fishing and blast fishing, to trawling the seafloor, a practice that damages coral reefs in the process. These fishing methods are banned in Southeast Asia, yet a number of fishing groups continue to defy regulations. Overall, the region loses the equivalent of over 2.5 million tonnes of fish from illegal activities, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 on “Life Below Water” sets out to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. It tackles fishing practices under SDG 14.4 and 14.6:

SDG 14.4. By 2020, effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics

SDG 14.6. By 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognising that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies negotiation. 

Fishing boats closing the bosphorus entrance
Overfishing and illegal fishing also impacts millions of people in rural communities who depend on marine resources for their own livelihood and food security. Photo from iStock

Supporting small-scale fisheries
The environmental crisis is prompting a multi-sectoral and interdisciplinary approach to protecting and conserving marine resources.

“Just as solar panels and electric vehicles were once ‘niche innovations’ in our energy and transport systems, there are technological and governance innovations in oceanic systems that could be the seeds of a transition to sustainability and equity,” said Edward Allison, Research Chair for Equity and Justice in the Blue Economy for the research firm WorldFish.

The Marine Stewardship Council, for its part, has also been leading efforts towards sustainable fishing by establishing the certification process called the MSC Fisheries Standards.

“Fisheries don’t stop improving once they become MSC certified. They make a long-term commitment to sustainability and to keep up with global best practice,” the council said.

“To be certified as sustainable, fisheries must score an average of at least 80 out of 100 for each of the MSC Fisheries Standards three principles: sustainable stocks, environmental impacts and effective management.”

Protecting the world’s oceans goes beyond regulating commercial activity. Support also has to flow directly to the fishers who live in coastal communities and who are first to be affected by depleted resources and environmental degradation.

Rare is an example of a conservation group that works directly with small fishing villages on how to live and fish sustainably. The group has partnered with over 600 coastal communities in the Philippines for its Fish Forever initiative.

“We must work with fishing communities to ensure they are included in the blue economy dialogue and negotiations – it makes good economic sense.”

“Small-scale fishers’ average catch per day has decreased steadily for decades; they now spend more time at sea, going further and further from home, for smaller yields,” the group said. “Fish Forever in the Philippines works with fishing villages and municipal governments to build and strengthen community-based coastal fisheries management of the Philippines’ municipal waters.”

Efforts to develop sustainable small-scale fisheries that promote simpler and more eco-friendly fishing methods provide hope for saving the world’s oceans.

“In developing countries, small-scale fisheries produce over half the fish catch, and 90% to 95% of this is consumed locally in rural settings where poverty rates are high and access to nutritious and safe food is needed,” said Dr. Gareth Johnstone, director-general of WorldFish.

“By 2050, fish demand is expected to double. If we are to find sustainable solutions to this growing demand, we have to recognise the vital role of small-scale fisheries and the legal rights of fishers,” Dr. Johnstone said. “Equally, we must work with fishing communities to ensure they are included in the blue economy dialogue and negotiations – it makes good economic sense.”

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