Sustainable Fisheries – an emerging new normal?


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Tanzania, Zanzibar fisherman. Sonu Jain / World Bank

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a ‘trilogue’ organized by the European Commission for policymakers, scientists and the private sector on the subject of fisheries. I realized very quickly that the discussion went well beyond a traditional view of fisheries and instead was focused on sustainable fishing –  no longer a long-term ambition but a real-time response to the need to grow economies and prepare to feed the additional 2+ billion people coming to dinner in the next 20 years. It seems that sustainable fishing – definitely not quickly enough and certainly not everywhere yet – is an emerging new normal. Just how has this happened?
First came political will. The recognition of fish as a form of capital critical for development finally has sunk in. The World Bank study Sunken Billions identified the $50 billion of foregone revenue from mismanaged fisheries in 2004. An updated report now puts the foregone revenues at $83 billion annually (based on 2012 figures). This is a number that resonates with Ministries of Finance. After all, it equals more than half of annual development assistance flows ($126 billion in 2012). In addition to GDP implications, the sheer size of the job market in fisheries is astounding: 37 million fisherfolk involved in harvesting, and at least another 100 million jobs – a conservative number – in related jobs. So the jobs and GDP numbers are simply too big to ignore.
Then came hungry people. Fish are a popular food source. Yes, over 1 billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein . But fish aren’t simply a staple for survival. Fish are a favorite for consumers who are conscious about what they eat, and will spend more on fish to eat healthier. Together, these are two of the many reasons why fish are the number one traded commodity globally. But while everyone loves fish, not all fishing practices are equal. Popular sentiment divides fishing into the good (artisanal and small-scale fishing), the bad (industrial fishing) and the ugly (aquaculture). Eating fish has become for the middle classes an arduous adventure in decision-making, and for the poor, a rapidly disappearing but ever more important staple.
So sustainable fishing is emerging as a pragmatic response to the political imperative of growing the blue economy to diversify land-based economies, and to the growing public appetite for more fish.
If these have been key factors in raising a cry for sustainable fisheries, how is the reality of sustainable fisheries beginning to take shape? Think markets and money. 
First came stricter access to key markets underpinned by tighter standards and the resulting incentives for industrial and export-oriented fishing to transition away from a race to the last fish. This isn’t business-as-usual yet, but international markets that demand attention to traceability, consumer transparency, and reliability of supply are helping pivot industrial fishing towards sustainability.
Then comes the potential for greater access to finance for small-scale and artisanal fisheries. These fisheries catch half of all fish that is sold in markets and make up almost 90% of the labor. Nonetheless, they are traditionally excluded from access to finance that would help them flatten the oscillation from boom catches to bust times, or allow them to transition to safer or more sustainable equipment to save lives, time and natural resources. New prospects for access to finance are predicated on a growing interest among public financiers – the World Bank included – in supporting small-scale fisheries as well as the entry of social-impact capital into the blue economy. Both types of financial capital are looking for triple bottom line wins (defined as economic, environmental and social sustainability), thus are investing to allow small-scale fisheries to transition towards sustainability, move up the value-chain, or even transition out of fishing altogether.
So as political will and public appetites opened the door, markets and money are fast building new muscle memory in the fishing sector. But a key ingredient is still missing. For these potential levers to be successful and to rapidly make the call for sustainable fisheries a reality, shareholders need more certainty to model returns on any investments in this transition. Small-scale fishermen need to know that they can continue to access fish stocks later if they reduce their fishing efforts now to allow the stock to rebound. Investors need to know that the rules of the game will not change tomorrow if they invest in market infrastructure today.
Key markers on the critical path to certainty are improved science, technology and data, and improved governance. Whether it’s in assessing stocks, developing traceability schemes or designing apps that allow fishermen to know market prices before they fish, science, technology and data are a critical underpinning of the move towards sustainable fisheries. So too is good governance; having a coherent policy framework that can be implemented and regulated by a credible institution is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of ever-closer certainty. And without certainty, there can be no sustainability.


Valerie Hickey

Biodiversity Specialist

Join the Conversation

Agi Kiss
March 10, 2016

Thanks, Valerie – very interesting.
I agree with your characterization of the current public perception, that aquaculture is the "ugly" approach, but to me it raises the question: does it make sense for fish to be effectively the last major food source that humans obtain mainly through “hunting and gathering” rather than almost exclusively through cultivation? If so, why? For every other source of nutrients (and other human needs, e.g. timber) we have basically shifted to some form of farming. Is it because on a global basis the natural marine and fresh water fisheries are so huge that it makes sense to depend on “extensive” natural production rather than intensive cultivation? Or because we don’t believe that aquaculture can be done on a sufficient scale without unacceptable environmental impacts (either technically impossible to do, or economically/politically impossible to regulate)?

May 23, 2019

Agi - you bring up an excellent point. We simply can't get to where we need to get to in terms of food production or fish stocks (or managing excess fishing capacity for that matter) without aquaculture. This means rebranding aquaculture, in part by making sure we have the knowledge and know-how to make it sustainable. We have been working on the question of sustainable aquaculture, and are testing new ecosystem-based approaches in different countries. As we show proof of concept - that aquaculture can be productive and sustainable - I hope we can build a better reputation for this important sector.

Dane Chauvel
March 18, 2016

Valerie - you've nailed it. We're Canadian fishermen ( who were early adopters of sustainability and value-added handling practices and have taken links out of the supply chain on the journey from ocean to plate. We have received broad support from the top chefs who were finding it virtually impossible to confidently identify seafood that incorporates intrinsic attributes such as taste, quality, and nutritional benefits, as well as characteristics linked to wider values such as respect for the marine environment, social and humanitarian issues. These tastemakers have contributed to making this model a resounding (triple bottom line) success that is helping to reinvigorate coastal and First Nations communities and enabling their people to regain their dignity and connection to the ocean.

August 02, 2016

This is mijan from Bangladesh at Asian countries. lets me know about myself. am surprise to see that massage to all. anyway i want to do something for world for poor people. who is unable to do work. i am always with them, i want to learn them how to make earn easily. i want to learn them free as they want.

August 15, 2016

Valerie - this was such a great article! I agree with AGI KISS on the statement wether or not it makes sense for fish to be the last major food source? You mention in your reply that we need rebranding of aquaculture, how will you do so? In my opinion, it is better to catch the fish in the wild rather than harvesting them at certain farms? But is it possible to allow fishermen freely to catch fish?
What other choices do we have?
Chris (DK),

Abel Udoekene
October 21, 2016

Wonderful write up Valerie, as a fish scientist, I believe Sustainable fishing should be a concern for everyone. There are many species of fish that are endanger, we owe the next generation that duty to preserve them,not forgetting that people will not starve themselves for this to be a reality

December 08, 2016

Small scale fisheries are not only excluded from access to finance, but also to scientific analysis, which is a key aspect of biological sustainability and a necessary component of reducing uncertainty to attract investment. I have developed stock assessment models (4 papers published so far, 1 more in the pipeline, in mainstream scientific journals) that are specifically oriented to carry out stock assessment of small scale fisheries with very low investment in data collection. I think my models (I wrote the software as well, freely available and open code) would contribute to the goal of small scale fisheries sustainability and long term economic viability. I advertise my work this way because I have a dream of it leading to the evaluation (as in stock assessment) of all small scale fisheries, bringing the power of science to their management and development.

Deepen Modi
May 23, 2019

Dear Mr. Ruben,
It was great to read about your work.
Introducing ourselves, we are 'Aquatic Livelihoods', which is a social enterprise started last month in India, by 5 of us Social Work graduates who specialized in 'Livelihoods & Social Entrepreneurship' from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Based on our fieldwork experiences over last 2 years, we endeavour to provide sustainable livelihoods to artisanal fishing communities in India, while nudging them towards sustainable fisheries practices.
Based on your work which you've described, we are exploring some possible synergies. Kindly provide us with your contact details so that we can take this discussion forward.
Thanks & Regards
Deepen Modi
[email protected]

January 06, 2017

Ruben - I couldn't agree with you more that access to information is critical to make best use of the small scale fishers' limited time and resources (including but not limited to capital). Information around stock assessments, particularly in a climate changing world, is especially important (so too of course is access to information on market prices to optimize returns on small scale fishing efforts at the quay). Good luck with your work!

Deepen Modi
August 24, 2017

Dear Ms. Valerie,
Kudos for writing a holistic article, which touches upon all the problems acting as bottlenecks for sustainable fisheries ecosystem. We, at Aquatic Livelihoods, are trying to address some of these issues, in India.
Based on my field experiences with artisanal fishing communities here, out of all the problems mentioned in your article, the biggest issue I would like to highlight is- current lack of 'good economics' for sustainable fisheries.
One example I would provide in this regard is that of mud crab (sycalla serrata) aquaculture in India. Because of high capital cost involved (around 1.5 million USD),there is currently only 1 functioning mud crab seed hatchery in India (with max. installed capacity of 1 million instars), where as the demand is many times higher. Therefore, leaving many artisanal fishers with no other option but to harness mud crab wild-stock, to make their living. Given the current demand as well as export potential, it makes good sense to start a mud crab hatchery, but, artisanal fishers lack financial resources to start one and there is not enough incentive for them to follow sustainable practices for mud crab fishing, voluntarily. So, despite all the concerns they have for future catch size of mud crabs amidst dwindling wild-stock, it is bad economics for them to follow sustainable fishing practices now. At the same time, expecting small & marginal fishers to carry out this burden, would be unfair on our part.
That is why, Aquatic Livelihoods is focusing on linking these fishers to markets where sustainable fisheries practices are incentivized, leading to faster adoption of such practices.
Again, many thanks for writing this article and sparking a meaning discussion.
Thanks & Regards
Deepen Modi
[email protected]