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Recognizing and Protecting our Small-Scale Fisheries


Sharmane Allen, the author of this article first published by , is a PhD student at Memorial University’s Geography Department and member of the Too Big To Ignore initiative. She focuses her research on the future of small-scale fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador.


Small-scale fisheries are the cornerstone of many of Canada’s coastal communities. A current initiative undertaken by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) calls on Canadians to recognize and protect this cornerstone by adopting the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication.


Sometime during the winter of 2014 the FAO will reconvene member states to begin the second round of technical consultations on the Guidelines. As a companion to the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the objectives of the Guidelines are “... to provide advice and recommendations, establish principles and criteria, and information to assist States and stakeholders to achieve secure and sustainable small-scale fisheries and related livelihoods”.  While nations have elected to make the Guidelines voluntary and focus special attention on the needs of developing countries, this initiative represents concerted efforts to recognize and protect the economic, social and cultural importance of small-scale fisheries (SSF) throughout the world.


The final draft Guidelines are expected to be presented for adoption at the 31st Session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) in July 2014.  The attention then will turn to when and how nations will implement the Guidelines with their SFF, and, equally importantly, in their interactions with the SSF of other nations.


My interest in the Guidelines was sparked at the inaugural meeting of Too Big to Ignore (TBTI) partnership in September 2012. Both initiatives are concerned with stopping the marginalization of SSF in national and international policies. Some months later, the Canadian Fisheries Research Network (CFRN) provided me with opportunity to observe the first round of negotiations at the FAO in Rome (May 20-24) and to participate in the two-day Civil Society Preparation Meetings that preceded the event.


Some say a picture is worth a thousand words – well this opportunity was worth infinitely more and I was extremely grateful for the opportunity. As a PhD student studying SSF in Newfoundland and Labrador, this opportunity was invaluable in many ways.  Not only did I meet many wonderful people equally concerned about the future of SSF and learn about the issues in their respective countries, I also realized how insular one can become by primarily focusing attention on fisheries issues in their own country. The following are some key insights I gained from this experience and definitely areas that I plan to explore more fully in my research.


Common Struggles...


First of all, it was apparent from the civil society meetings that many SSF throughout the world are experiencing similar difficulties. These are variously related to the encroachment of coastal fishing grounds by industrial fleets; loss of quota and licences; barriers to entry associated with the costs of  buying access and harvesting rights; insistent pressure to leave the fishery; eco-labeling processes that are not affordable, applicable, and/or desirable; and a lack of understanding and appreciation about their way of life. Coastal tourism, aquaculture, and recreational fisheries have placed more pressure on the sustainability of SSF.


At the root of many of these processes are political ideologies and accompanying policies that favour industrialization, privatization, and economic diversification while discounting the importance of SSF, often deeming them inefficient and ineffective relics of the past. While the effects of these policies vary from country to country, they may be felt more acutely in countries where SSF are a direct source of food, and/or access to alternative livelihoods and/or state-sponsored safety nets are not available. As one delegate from South Africa put it to me, ‘No fish – no food’!


Shifting Images...


This leads me to a second insight about the shifting image of the fishery from ‘rights-based management’ to ‘human rights based management’.  Both the FAO and the civil society delegation support this shift, and indeed this is a fundamental concept of the Guidelines.  Fundamentally, it calls for nations, markets and civil society involved in fisheries governance to respect and protect the human rights of small-scale fish harvesters when developing and implementing polices that directly and indirectly impact them and the fishing communities where they live. In the context of SSF, this would require that genuine attention be paid to the economic, social and cultural rights associated with access to food, fish stocks and grounds, employment, equal remuneration, education and adequate standard of living, along with the right to form and join trade unions and to participate in cultural life. I am particularly interested in exploring the concept of ‘human rights based management’ in relation to the rights-based management approach adopted by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) whereby access and harvesting rights are practically privatized in many commercial fisheries (i.e. can be traded in the market).


Where do Canadians Stand?


This experience has also prompted me to wonder how the Canadian Government, the Provincial and Territorial Governments, and Canadians in general will respond to the Guidelines.  As a former federal public servant with DFO and as someone who has studied Canadian fisheries for nearly a decade, I am concerned that there is a general lack of interest and understanding about the importance of Canada’s SSF in terms of employment, food security, sustainable coastal communities, and cultural heritage. I am uneasy about this indifference and the consequences for current and future generations. There is virtually no debate among our politicians about the short and long-term impacts of repeated rationalization processes on SSF and coastal communities.  Likewise there is little debate about food security issues, the privatization of fishing rights, and the impact of free trade agreements in relation to these fisheries. The fact that we import fish products from other countries while the high-quality fish caught and processed by our own fish harvesters and fish workers is exported is worthy of national debate and action.


Being Vigilant…


It is important that Canadians from coast to coast to coast pay close attention to the SFF Guidelines and the involvement of the Canadian Government in the technical consultations. Likewise, it is essential that we be vigilant of Canada’s implementation of the Guidelines once they are adopted by COFI.  Framing this whole process is the FAO’s vision for  SSF where: (1) the contribution of small-scale fisheries to sustainable development is fully-realized; (2) small-scale fishers and fish workers are not marginalized; and (3) the importance of small-scale fisheries to national economies and food security is recognized, valued and enhanced (FAO 2013).  Does the current reality of Canada’s SSF align with this vision and more specifically the forthcoming Guidelines?  These are important questions for Canadians to consider and debate if indeed we want our SSF and coastal communities to survive and thrive.


This article was orginally published by





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