Solving the Global Overfishing Crisis

As depletion of the world’s oceans poses growing threats to coastal ecosystems and fishers’ livelihoods, a recent study suggests that co-management of local fisheries by communities, governments, and NGOs might offer a way forward.

Image by David Lowis

As the saying goes, give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach someone to fish and you feed them for a lifetime. This could not ring truer today: some 260 million people world-wide are in some way involved in marine fishing. Yet, small-scale fishers in particular have been coming up against challenges which have made fishing increasingly difficult, diminishing their livelihoods and leading to conflicts. Population and city growth have resulted in water pollution, contributed to the erosion of coastal ecosystems, and have led to an increase in industrial (over-)fishing, depleting the number of fish species.

These trends are bound to continue as global climate change will further negatively impact coastal ecosystems, and with large-scale fishing set to increase as populations keep growing. Fishing is a particularly crucial source of income and food in the least developed countries. The most vulnerable of them are responsible for 20% of the world’s fish exports and are heavily reliant on fish as a source of protein. In spite of this, governments are slow to deal with the issue due to focusing on sectors with higher economic potential and having limited capacity to develop effective ways of supporting diverse and complex local fishing systems.

However, as George W. Bush once poignantly remarked, “human being[s] and fish can coexist peacefully”. And his prediction might come true sooner than we may have expected, as so-called “co-managed smallholder fisheries”, which are increasing in prevalence across the developing world, seem to offer a solution to the problems faced by small-scale fishers in the 21st century. This approach to fishing involves getting actors from local communities, governments, and NGOs together to decide on fishing rules in their particular contexts. It promises to improve conservation and fishery goals through encouraging participation, defining clear fishing rules and rights, and incorporating local practices into the formal management of fishing.

In a recent study, Spanish scientists reviewed whether co-managed fishing actually lives up to its promises. Analysing 91 different case studies of co-managed smallholder fisheries from 37 different countries, they found that the introduction of co-management often leads to improvements in ecological conditions, for example resulting in an increase in the abundance of fish species. Additionally, their study shows that co-management benefits participation, encourages fishers to learn from one another, and improves compliance with fishing rules.

Looking at the different approaches to co-management, the study found that the most important factor in setting up a successful co-management partnership seemed to be including diverse people with differing interests. Co-management projects which engaged with diverse interest were 14 times as likely to result in positive outcomes. When a co-management project included fishers from different socio-economic levels, this led to a particular increase in rates of compliance with the fishing rules established by the project.

Often, participants in the co-management schemes discussed and refined existing fishing rules, such as implementing quotas and limiting fishing to certain time periods. As a result of these deliberations, fishers increased their knowledge and were more likely to agree with the rules. They also tended to then engage with the available natural resources in a more sustainable way: remarkably, in cases where illegal fishing was an issue, positive ecological outcomes were 30 times as likely.

However, there are some caveats: in regions with a presence of industrial fishers, who have less of an incentive to cooperate, ecological and social outcomes were less positive. Furthermore, the relationship between conflicts and co-management is under-researched. Since conflicts — for example competition between fishers — have the potential to harm collaboration, this needs to be addressed in further research. Additionally, since most co-management initiatives included in the study have been running for 10 years or less, data on socio-economic outcomes like fishers’ incomes is still sparse.

The study results are still certainly a cause for celebration, showing that co-management approaches to fishing are more than a policy fad: with the right legal and institutional framework, they offer a promising prospect of how to best govern small-scale fishing, resulting in positive outcomes for both the environment and fishing communities. When co-management partnerships implement adaptive practices, they are also able to respond quickly to environmental changes, showing a distinct relevance in the face of climate change, with the ability to adapt being a crucial factor in determining a region’s vulnerability.

Perhaps, then, we should rethink the saying: give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; help someone set up a co-management fishery and you benefit their community for years to come.