Small Fisheries, Big Impacts: Artisanal Fishers Hook in Hope for Alleviating Poverty

Global figures don’t do justice to the role that artisanal fishing plays in many developing countries. In Indonesia, it’s estimated that 95% of the fish catch is from small scale fisheries. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Earth Tree

Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton.

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A Maldivian fisherman returns from fishing, with a large barracuda. Even in fisheries aimed at international markets – like the Maldivian pole and line tuna fishery – lower value species don’t go to waste but are sold on the local market. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Greenpeace

Many of my photographic assignments have taken me to the front lines of industrial fishing, often happening beyond national borders. In these distant waters there’s less control over how fishing is done, and often ocean wildlife ends up being netted, hooked or even harpooned during these wild west fishing practices. Crew on such vessels are also at the mercy of fishing companies and captains, and horror stories abound of abuse, slavery and squalid conditions dealt out in the pursuit of profit.

Catches are sold at a busy fish market in Sorong, Indonesia. Women make up around half of the workforce in small scale fisheries, mainly in processing and marketing the catch. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Earth Tree

But like the ‘one percent’ we hear of in economic terms, commercial operations are the ‘ten percent’ of fisheries. Only one in ten fish workers globally are in industrial fisheries, the vast majority work in artisanal fisheries. The two sectors each take roughly half of the global fish catch, but small scale fisheries contribute much more to employment and to food security in developing nations.

A Mahi Mahi is pulled up alongside a boat in the Pacific. Exporting high-value catch can be a way to lift fishers and communities out of poverty, but increasing demands for sustainability certifications and the investment needed to achieve them mean the catches of artisanal fishers are often unable to compete for high-end markets. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Greenpeace

In Indonesia the importance of artisanal fishing is even greater–95% of the country’s fish catch is taken by small scale fishers. The country’s government has taken a tough stance against illegal fishing in recent years, going as far as blowing up fishing boats caught breaking the law. But the focus on industrial fishing leaves most of the artisanal fleet under the radar.

Fishing communities fish with nets along the coast in Sangihe Archipelago, Indonesia. Fishing by hand or on a small boat is often a solitary activity, however fishers have a lot to gain from cooperating in the management of the resource and marketing of their catches. Photograph: Paul Hilton/WCS

Most fisheries laws, national or international, are established with industrial fishing in mind. But with such a substantial part of the catch taken by small-scale fishers, their collective impact is too big too ignore and shouldn’t be underestimated. Artisanal fishers struggle to comply with laws that are simply not designed for the type of fishing they do–many fish without boats, or with small vessels below the minimum size the government’s vessel registry deals with.

Colourful reef fish for sale in Jimbaran fish market, Bali. Catches from small-scale fisheries are often diverse, but very little is wasted – compared to an estimated 8 to 20 million tonnes of discards from large scale fishing. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Earth Tree

Last week I joined a group of NGOs, scientists, finance experts and government officials that came together for a think tank in Bali to investigate ways that small-scale fishers can be supported to fish legally and responsibly, and give them the means to prove it. The event was hosted by Masyarakat Dan Perikanan and backing it was the Walton Family Foundation, which offered up seed funding to be awarded to the best emerging idea in support of small-scale fishers.

Fishers clean their nets on the beach in Sri Lanka. Small scale fisheries employ nine times as many workers as the industrial fishing sector. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Earth Tree

Experts from Madagascar to the Maldives to Mexico discussed the common challenges facing their artisanal fishing communities, and attempts that had been made to overcome them.

A yellowfin tuna caught by hand line off Sangihe Island in Indonesia. There’s a growing appetite for seafood that is caught in sustainable and responsible ways. Many small-scale fisheries do just that, but lack the ability to prove that they’re fishing legally, reporting their catch and complying with regulations. This puts sustainability and fair trade certifications out of their reach. Photograph: Paul Hilton/WCS

I was familiar with some of the examples, like the success story of the Maldives pole and line tuna fishery. Faced with a clear market demand for sustainably caught tuna, the entire national fishery made the transition from unregulated fishing to legal, reported and regulated fishing in just a few years. But for every success story there were many more examples of setbacks and frustrations.

Fishers enjoy a lot of independence, choosing where, when and how much they catch. Regulations like seasonal closures, catch limits or reporting requirements can be seen as an unwelcome imposition if governments do not involved fishers in their development or communicate what they’re for. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Earth Tree

Often, answers lie in the better sharing of information and adapting processes to suit a small and widely spread fishery. Right in front of the meeting venue itself was such an example. We visited a fishing community that, by default, was fishing illegally. Their small boats are designed to be launched from the beach, but the nearby port was the only designated site at which they could officially land their catch. Without using that port, they lacked the port exit and entry permits to match with the fish catch that they reported.

Exporting high-value catch can be a way to lift fishers and communities out of poverty, but increasing demands for sustainability certifications and the investment needed to achieve them mean the catches of artisanal fishers are often unable to compete for high-end markets. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Greenpeace

However, it’s not just a matter of adjusting the rules and systems to be more accommodating to small scale fishing. The image of artisanal fishing may be one of small colourful boats and fishers in harmony with their local reefs and bays–but there are real problems that won’t be solved without change happening on the water. Cyanide and blast fishing are examples, practices that can be conducted on a very small scale and can become rife in the very areas that have the least official oversight.

Blue tang and other tropical species are held in cages for export in Maluku, Indonesia. While most artisanal fishing puts food on the plate, the aquarium trade is worth $4 – $5 billion per year. Millions of clown fish were collected after the movie Finding Nemo, and the sequel Finding Dory raised concerns for the more vulnerable blue tang. Photograph: Paul Hilton/WCS

Many of the solutions raised in the think tank related to breaking the cycle of poverty in fishing communities. When fishers are barely earning enough to provide for their families, putting back an undersized fish or staying outside of a protected area is a hard rule to follow.

Small-scale fishing can come with significant impacts on oceans and wildlife. Destructive fishing techniques like blast and poison fishing occur in remote locations and vulnerable species may be targeted or make up part of a mixed catch. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Earth Tree

Seed funding was allocated to a project aimed at identifying losses and generating better income from existing catches. The peak value of a fish is at the moment it is caught, but without good handling from that moment to when it is sold, it can lose quality and fall critically below the lucrative ‘export quality’ level.

Small catches are collected on the beach in Sri Lanka. Artisanal fishing is critical to food security in developing countries. In Indonesia, around half of the animal protein consumed is seafood. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Earth Tree

One Philippine tuna company estimated that 70% of the tuna brought onto boats was export quality at the time it was caught, but by the time it was collected only 3% met export standards to high value European markets.

Sri Lankan fishermen offload their catch for drying. Small scale fisheries take as many fish as the industrial sector – around 30 million tonnes per year. But in terms of regulation, they operate largely under the radar. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Earth Tree

With a selling price six times higher for export than on the local market, even simple steps to keep the fish in top condition–ice, careful handling and protection from the sun–will considerably boost the earnings of the fisher. This in turn allows them to break cycles of debt, and gives the financial breathing space and incentive to fish in ways that are both legal and sustainable.

The Maldivian pole and line tuna fisheries in action. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Greenpeace

Everybody wins if we find and fund solutions that allow small fishing communities to prove that they’re fishing legally and sustainably. The fishers themselves benefit through better income, healthier reefs and fish stocks and access to export markets; fisheries managers gain through more date on what’s being caught, while consumers enjoy access to seafood that is caught in some of the most ocean-friendly and people-friendly ways.

Fishers develop close relationships with the ocean and are highly skilled in their chosen fishing techniques. This fisher from Sulawesi, Indonesia, is renowned in his pole and line tuna crew for fishing with a pole in each hand. Here, he catches octopus for village consumption as a sideline to the tuna caught for export. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Earth Tree

More information of the Small Scale Fisheries Think Tank and its outcomes can be found on the Masyarakat Dan Perikanan Indonesia (MDPI) website: