Slow Food Slow Food Donate Slow Food Join Us

Resources   |   Focus on


English - Français - Italiano - Español - Deutsch


Slow Fish - Good, Clean and Fair Fish

Fishermen, the Earth and the Sea: rights and responsibilities


Written in 2001 and published in the journal Economics and Humanism, this article by Alain Le Sann of the Fishermen and Development Collective is surprising for its topicality and offers a comprehensive and nuanced analysis of the situation that fishermen face the world over.  


Overfishing, degradation of the environment, competition with tourism, problems in recruiting or the explosion of the number of fishermen; the list of threats to the survival of worldwide artisanal fishing is quite long.

Nonetheless, the reality is complex and ever changing and societies and maritime communities have been working for more than 20 years to define new approaches that allow for a vision of the future for artisanal fishing communities. The issue goes beyond the world of fishing, because it represents a test on the capabilities of our societies to create sustainable development.

Faced with growing attempts to privatize their businesses, coastal fishing constitutes a test on the capacity of societies to manage common goods, for the benefit of everyone and with a priority on benefitting the less fortunate.


Artisanal and Small Scale: the basis for responsible fishing

In 1984, during the FAO conference in Rome (convened to define the new fishing policy of fishing in order to adapt to the new law of the seas based on the EEZs or exclusive economic zones), industrial fishing seemed to be the most efficient and, even though artisanal fishing was recognized as important, it was essentially due to social reasons.


And yet, the parallel conference of fishworkers, united thanks to the work of various Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and organizations of Indian fishworkers, had already recognized that "to advocate the development of small scale fishing for reasons that are exclusively social is a questionable position which is based on an erroneous analysis of reality. This kind of development is justified as well for economic, technical and organizational reasons and not merely on the basis of social considerations and well-being."


Since then, a large number of international organizations has recognized the truth of this analysis and the FAO itself, while developing its "Code of Conduct for responsible fishing" in 1995, put forward a model that was largely based on artisanal practices. Experience also shows that in the vast majority of cases, artisanal fishermen are capable of making use of a large part of the resources available on the continental shelf and sometimes even on the high sea (artisanal Breton fishermen have gradually occupied the entirety of the Bay of Biscay).


From North to South, on the other hand, there is still no uniform model of artisanal fishing: what do shore fishing and deep sea fishing have in common? And what can link traditional subsistence fishing with market oriented fishing? Yet the difference is clear between these and industrial fishing, which is based on heavy investments by absent owners, who are attached neither to a community nor to a territory, but who see their activity only as a monetary investment.


The guarantee of rights


Even though the artisanal model today is largely recognized as a solution for the future, in reality it is up against the development of the logic of privatization. The result is the development of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), or even the privatization of entire zones (the whole of certain EEZs of some African countries for example).


On the other hand, in the North as in the South, the attractiveness of coastal zones leads to the development of activities that stifle the access of the fishermen to the sea and maritime resources, as well as to the coastal areas.


Finally, the fishworkers are ever more conscious of the fact this unlimited access is no longer sustainable, since the exploitation of the natural resources meets or even exceeds the level of optimum productivity.


As soon as 1984, the final declaration of the parallel conference in Rome asked to "preserve and protect, for small scale fishing, the coastal waters and all the zones that give access to them". During the 1980s the coastal fishworkers of the Global South fought for the creation of reserved zones of various sizes, from between two and six miles or more.


In reality, these rights were nothing more than usufruct (the right to use property that belongs to somebody else) and had insufficient legal sway. Today differing claims have come forth as to the rights to common property in coastal waters. The idea was debated during the preparation for the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. An agreement was impossible to reach because the countries were unable to agree on the limits to give to these zones, but in the final edition of the Code of Conduct for responsible fishing, adopted by the FAO in 1995, the following text was inserted after much discussion (articles 6,18): "States should appropriately protect the rights of fishers and fishworkers, particularly those engaged in subsistence, small-scale and artisanal fisheries, to a secure and just livelihood, as well as preferential access, where appropriate, to traditional fishing grounds and resources in the waters under their national jurisdiction".


To consolidate this victory, this proposition must still be translated into common property law with all legal implications therein within the concerned countries. In fact, what is needed is a true agrarian reform adapted to the coastal zones. John Kurien, an Indian researcher from Kerala, working with the fishworkers of his country, in 1998 proposed that "the management of the resources of the territorial sea (to 12 miles from the coast) or of the continental shelf up to a depth of 200 meters (choosing whichever option is more appropriate) be assured by a network of rights systems based on communal property, with the coastal fishermen as co-owners"*. With such a regime, the fishermen are not only individuals who work together, but they are people who have a common history and similar ethics which constitute a collective identity.


For a co-management of resources


These exclusive community rights do not constitute on their own a sufficient condition for the assurance of good management. They must be accompanied by several other measures destined to strengthen the capacities of coastal communities. John Kurien insists particularly on the control of the sale of fish and the necessity of strict regulations**.


For Southern countries in particular, a collective reflection must determine the importance of exports, in order to avoid the destabilization of the fisheries and domestic production for the sole benefit of exporters and Northern countries (of the Global North). Such a system does not exclude the State, in so far that it remains the guarantor of equal rights and should ensure the coordination of all property rights. The role of the State must adapt to the organizational capacities of the communities and join in a framework of partnership.


Finally, the problem of co-management is not limited to the relationship between fishermen and the State; the recognition of the roles of other members of society is equally necessary. Women must be recognized as equal partners and have their place within the organizations. Consumers from both the North and the South can play a role to support the choices of artisanal fishermen. Finally, among the fishermen themselves, care must be taken to establish a certain equity among the crew members and the owners, among those who benefit from certain rights and those who are excluded: systems of taxation and compensation of the beneficiaries.


In 1994 ICLARM (International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management, Manila) joined with various research centers to coordinate a five-year program to study these systems of co-management in several countries in Asia and Africa. In nine out of ten cases, co-management improved equality. In the majority of the cases, it also led to increased efficiency in the resolution of conflicts and improved the state of the resources and respect for the rules. A response to the control of the access to resources is, therefore, possible by relying on community organizing.

Integrated management


Yet the future of coastal fishing - extended to the entirety of the continental shelf - does not only play on the capacities of the management of fishing resources. It depends largely on what happens on the land both near the shore and often quite far away, taking into account the importance of terrestrial water provisions and rivers in particular. The fishworkers must have their say on the activities that condition the state of the marine environment, be they agricultural, industrial, tourism etc.

Moreover, land development away from the coast has a serious effect on the coastal communities. Poverty and drought have always led to large migrations of people towards the coasts, destabilizing traditional communities and sometimes the natural resources.


A reasonable management of coastal fishing also obliges the fishermen to adapt themselves to the seasonality of the resources. Complementary activities must be found for the fishermen for the off season. A large number of them are, it is true, only seasonal fishermen: nearly 20 million of the 36 million as estimated by the FAO. In the zones where there are too many fishworkers today, the future of the natural resources will depend in large part on the capacity to create other land based activities to offer employment opportunities.


In both the Global North and Global South initiatives are being developed for the integrated management of coastal zones which may, under certain conditions, provide tools to protect coastal fishing. GESAMP (The Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection) thus defines integrated management: "a continuous and dynamic process that brings together the interests of governments and communities, of science and management, of economic actors and the public, for the elaboration and the implementation of integrated management plans for the protection and the development of coastal eco and social systems."


Beyond the preservation of the environment, the question must be asked : who will benefit from this management? Prioritization calls for both negotiation and technical analyses. Is the development of tourism a priority? Is the cohabitation of diverse production activities a priority, or the protection of one or more species of fish, some of which compete with the fishermen? All of these points depend on the fishermen, on their collective capacity to assert their rights and concerns.


But the reduced number of fishermen in the North in particular and the general weakness of their social position and their integration in society does not guarantee that their interests will be taken into account.


In the Southern countries (of the Global South), faced with touristic and industrial projects, the weight of the fishing communities is often insufficient to ensure the protection of their interests. The situation is the same even in Senegal, where fishworkers make up a more significant social group than is seen in other countries.


The preservation of fisheries and natural resources that they procure is essential in the context of limited resources, even in Europe, because everything hinges on local production capacities implies resorting to imports, notably in countries in the Global South, as well as in a transfer of proteins.


Apart from the preservation of fishing communities, society must come together to become more aware of the maritime dimension and the basis of its resources while taking into account its development in a project of protection and enrichment of coastal resources. If the fishworkers must invest in the land to defend themselves, then society as a whole must acquire a maritime culture that is not limited to the defense of preferred animals or recreational areas.


The maritime districts in France, an original place


Since 1995, with the Pasqua law and even more so after the implementation of the Voynet law of 1999, France has been engaged in the generalization of the "districts" which have been tried out particularly in Brittany. These are not administrative structures, but rather "project spaces" led by development councils, including elected officials and professionals, unions and associates. Together they elaborate a development charter.


These « districts » are tools of local governance where the need for them is felt more strongly due to globalization. Very generally, these "districts" are organized by associating a rural area around an urban center. Even so, some development specialists, geographers among them, advocate the establishment of maritime "districts" centered on a port city, the coast and its hinterland.


In this original space, the territory must be managed with an eye towards the characteristics of the coastal environment, particularly its openness to the sea and its fragility. If the hope is to preserve its qualities and productive capacities for fishing and shellfish farming, the hinterland must also be managed as a function of this priority: through urbanization control, the fight against domestic, agricultural and industrial pollution, watershed management etc.


These districts, which all have charters that are based on these principles, have the advantage of providing tools of governance which to often do not appear in integrated management projects of the coastal zones. They also allow, given that the organized fishermen invest in them for the defense of their priorities, the creation of places to confront and debate issues involving coastal inhabitants, people living in the hinterland and those that live in the city. These last people can even become more aware of their responsibilities as far as the maritime environment, the coastline and the people who live there are concerned.


For the States of the Global South, such tools could help to better control the problems of access to coastal resources for the development of activities that work as alternatives to fishing, or even to improve access to fish for the people who live far from the coast.


This idea of maritime "districts", forcefully affirming the priorities of the sea, can be the site of a re-appropriation of powers by the fishing communities in a context of globalization, which tends to accentuate their marginalization.


Alain Le Sann


* John Kurien, Access Rights, Resource management and governance, Center for Development Studies and South Indian Federation of Fishermen
Societies, Kerala, India, 1998


** John Kurien, For the enduring development of small scale fishing, ed SIFFS, Kerala, India










Slow Fish | Partners Lighthouse Foundation.Fondation Slow Food pour la Biodiversité

Slow Food - P.IVA 91008360041 - All rights reserved

Powered by Blulab