For people interested in small-scale fisheries, the above title captures well what is recognized about the sector. It is not easy, however, to convince others whose interests may lie elsewhere.
Making the case for small-scale fisheries in the policy arena is challenging. This is due, in part, to the lack of available evidence to illustrate their essential contributions to food security, poverty alleviation, employment and conservation- beyond what is observed locally. Unlike their large-scale counterparts, no systematic data collection and information system exists to capture key details about small-scale fisheries. Their highly diverse, complex and dynamic nature, along with the wide geographical spread, including in remote areas, make it extremely difficult to know how many small-scale fishers there are at a certain time, what happens to their catches and what portion is consumed in the households, how big of a market share small-scale fisheries possess, etc.
According to some estimates, about 90% of the people directly or indirectly involved in fisheries are small-scale. This number alone means that they are simply too big to be ignored. However, the reality is unfortunately the opposite. When the term ‘fisheries' is used, it is normally the large-scale, commercial sector that is referred to, not the small-scale, which can be for commercial purposes but also for subsistence use. In discussions about the contribution of fisheries to society, it is often presented as a percentage of GDP, export value, and through jobs and employment numbers.
To a large extent, policies and decisions related to fisheries are made based on what is understood about large-scale fisheries, and in response to their needs. For example, in many areas of the world, including Canada, fishing agreements, quota allocations, user rights and government subsidies are often made in favor of industrial fisheries. These policies often either generate conflicts with small-scale fishing people or displace them altogether. This undermines the ability of small-scale fisheries to be competitive and adaptive to global change (including climate change), inhibits the services they provide to their communities, and ultimately, affects their basic rights to exist.
Where there is a coastline or substantial body of water, there are usually small-scale fisheries, however they are defined. Small-scale fisheries supply food and income to fishing households and give them a meaningful way of life. These aspects are not captured in the GDP calculation, making their contribution seem low. They are key members in the communities, serving, in many instances, as a critical social safety net and cultural heritage. There is also abundant evidence showing the contribution of small-scale fishing people to the conservation and stewardship of the aquatic environment.
Small-scale fisheries are essentially too important to fail. This needs to be reflected in fisheries policies that pay full attention to the significance of fishing livelihoods to small-scale fishing communities, along with the different contributions they make to the society at large.
An information system designed to capture key characteristics of small-scale fisheries, in-depth research to answer critical questions affecting them, and avenues for interactive policy discussion focusing on small-scale fisheries are aspects of an ongoing initiative, Too Big to Ignore. Through funding from the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada and with contributions from community organizations, governments and researchers around the world, this research partnership is organized to enable its members to work collaboratively in identifying problems and finding local and global solutions.
There is certainly much more to do beyond information sharing, research, capacity building and policy dialogue. But the sharing of lessons, knowledge and experiences in small-scale fisheries- the basic goal of the partnership- is an important first step that can help elevate the profile of small-scale fisheries and highlight their importance.
Author: Dr. Ratana Chuenpagdee is the project director for Too Big to Ignore: Global Partnerships for Small-Scale Fisheries Research and the Canada Research Chain in Natural Resource Sustainability and Community Development.
First published on smallscale.ca