Illuminating Hidden Harvests (IHH), a new study by FAO, Duke University and WorldFish, sheds important new light on the jobs in the neglected sector of small-scale fisheries (SSF). More than 110 million workers get their livelihoods from the sector—that‘s close to half the global total of international migrants. Five insights deserve our attention.
Lack of data has reinforced marginalization of the sector
Representative and reliable data on SSF and their role in employment, poverty reduction, and nutrition are scarce. As a result, ill-informed perceptions often live on uncontested, as highlighted in “Agriculture in Africa – Telling Myths from Facts.” This has also led to the marginalization of the SSF sector in policymaking. Many claims about the sector, such as that people engaging in SSF are the “poorest of the poor,” are not supported by sound empirical evidence and have promoted stereotypes that the sector has low productivity and that it is unable to alleviate poverty.
SSF provide employment for millions of people
The IHH report estimates that, globally, 52.8 million people engage in SSF harvesting, or processing for own consumption, while an additional 60.2 million people are employed along the SSF value chain, in fish processing, transport, and wholesale and retail-related activities. Yet, while the global number of livelihoods (113 million) supported by SSF is on a similar scale to the number of international migrants (250 million), SSF have attracted much less attention from policymakers. In Sub-Saharan Africa, SSF employ 13.6 million people. This number appears comparatively small, but hides the importance of SSF at the local level: SSF provide job opportunities to more than one-fourth (27 percent) of the population living within 5 km from the coast or inland fishing ponds. Sub-Saharan African households engaged in small-scale fisheries were further 9 percentage points less likely to be income poor than households engaged only in agriculture.
Benefits may extend beyond income and those involved in SSF
Evidence from Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda based on high-resolution, geo-referenced household survey data from the Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS) shows how SSF may also improve health and nutritional outcomes. Households involved in SSF consume up to 300 grams more fish per week per adult equivalent than those not involved in SSF (730 versus 430 grams per week per adult equivalent respectively if living less than 5 km from a body of water and 341 versus 198 grams if more than 5 km away from water). The benefits also extend beyond those directly involved in SSF, with non-SSF households close to water bodies consuming more than twice as much fish compared to those living further away. With fish an important source of high-quality protein and micro-nutrients in environments where animal-sourced foods are typically scarce, regular fish consumption helps increase dietary diversity (and thus nutritional outcomes) for adults and children alike.
SSF also help buffer against shocks
Least appreciated is likely the role SSF play as a “bank in the water.” Many marginalized people enter and exit small-scale fisheries at relatively low cost, often as a livelihood coping strategy to reduce their economic vulnerability or cope with environmental shocks. In African countries, it is estimated that one-third of the total number of people engaged in SSF are subsistence workers who retain much of the catch for final consumption. This aspect highlights the safety net function of SSF: absorbing excess unskilled labor in some contexts and supporting occupational pluralism, often combining agriculture (crops and livestock) with fishing.
Environmental pressures are real but can be mitigated
Although SSF must be part of the solution to generate jobs for the poor and increase food security, population growth, alongside increasing demand for aquatic food, are expected to expand the SSF sector, eventually leading to fishing pressure and overexploitation of common resources. Promoting rules that prevent the overexploitation of aquatic resources, while at the same time improving fishing efficiency of underexploited resources and ensuring a fair distribution of the economic benefits, will help expand the sector while preserving its long-term sustainability. The IHH study shows that SSF have a better chance at reaching this equilibrium than large-scale fishing.
Clearly, the impact and potential of small-scale fisheries for improving welfare is anything but small. The International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture offers an opportunity to raise awareness of the important role that SSF can play. Giving SSF their place on the international policy agenda will help boost local advocacy initiatives and enable SSF to realize their full potential in good job generation, environmentally sustainable poverty reduction, and better nutrition. For that, continued investment in data on SSF, for example through the inclusion of adequate fishery modules in multi-purpose household surveys like LSMS, will be equally necessary.
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