Lucy Unwin, July 2023

Small-scale fisheries contribute to the livelihoods of 379 million people globally and play a crucial role in promoting sustainable seafood practices and supporting coastal communities. Their use of low-impact fishing methods, contribution to local economies, focus on quality, and stewardship of marine ecosystems all contribute to the long-term health and resilience of our oceans.

However, small-scale fishers (SSF) are facing a breadth of challenges, including competition from large industrial fishing fleets, limited access to markets and resources, environmental degradation, and social marginalisation. Addressing these challenges is no mean feat, requiring comprehensive and collaborative efforts from various stakeholders, including governments, NGOs, and the private sector, to ensure the sustainability of seafood production and the well-being of small-scale fishing communities.

In a bid to increase awareness of the issues that SSF face, the FAO declared 2022 as the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA). This was intended to bring attention to and encourage progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14b, which calls on states to provide ‘access for SSF to marine resources and markets’ by 2030. An important output from IYAFA, from the perspective of SSF themselves, was a published ‘call to action’, in which fishers and global fisher organisations outlined a set of demands that governments and their partners must fulfil in order to recognise, support, and empower SSF. Read more about the call to action here.

Small Scale Fishers in Vietnam © Quang Nguyen Vinh, 2015

The call to action, among other things, emphasises the significance of promoting fair trade and market access for SSF. This involves creating opportunities for them to sell their products at fair prices, establishing direct market connections, and supporting initiatives that promote sustainable seafood consumption among consumers. A recent report published by IIED (Authors Cristina Pita and Alexander Ford), identifies the potential of SSF to ‘deliver positive sustainable development impacts’ and highlights the role that international seafood markets and big retail chains play in providing market access to SSF.

The report collates and analyses information provided by 35 retailers, including M&S, Carrefour and Migros, about their human rights and seafood sourcing policies. While several retailers have policies outlining explicit commitments to source from SSF, ‘94% of retailers reported challenges in procuring seafood from SSF that the sustainable seafood movement is yet to tackle’. The report describes a variety of ways that retailers can use their position in the seafood market to break down these barriers and encourage progress towards SDG 14b.

Seafood Counter © Van Thanh, 2019

Challenges faced by retailers in procuring from small-scale fisheries

It has become common practice in recent years for retailers to expect suppliers to provide assurance on environmental responsibility in exchange for access to the market, for example through certification schemes allowing products to be ‘eco-labelled’. Although this can be seen as a positive step towards sustainability in seafood markets in developed countries, ecolabels can actually have a negative effect on poverty mitigation in developing countries by acting as a barrier to market access. This is because retailers will make their public commitments to source only from ‘certified’, ‘in a fisheries improvement project FIP)’, or somehow ‘verified sustainable’ fisheries, but few small-scale fisheries can afford the cost of engaging in these eco-certification schemes or the improvement required to participate, with fees ranging from ‘€1,850 to €18,500 for pre-assessment and €9,250 to €462,000 for a full assessment’. In addition, there are concerns that current eco-certification schemes do not pay enough attention to socioeconomic criteria, which is seen as critical when dealing with SSF.

Pita and Ford recommend the investment and contribution of retailers to the development of a comprehensive eco-certification scheme that is specifically designed for small-scale fisheries and includes socioeconomic standards. At present, no viable scheme exists, however, 87% of the retailers interviewed expressed an interest in supporting an SSF specific eco-certification scheme.

The report also highlights that small-scale fisheries are struggling to evidence the origins and sustainability of their products due to a lack of time or ability to gather enough data. This is already causing difficulties in accessing markets for SSF; therefore, it would be vital to provide the tools and skills to gather data of a sufficient quality to SSF as part of the SSF eco-certification scheme – otherwise an inability to gather data would still prevent SSF from accessing markets despite a specific scheme being available to them.

In order to remedy these issues, a new initiative called Community Catch is being developed by a team with extensive expertise on SSF and fishery certifications. The Community Catch initiative is developing a fishery certification standard specific to SSF that aims to align with global, social, and environmental benchmarks for fisheries. This initiative incorporates the provision of tools to help SSF achieve certification and is currently being piloted, in partnership with retailers and organisations such as Migros, M&S, Woolworths, IPNLF and Abalobi. Read more about the Community Catch initiative here.

Another barrier identified by Pita and Ford is the fact that small-scale fisheries do not always have the infrastructure or logistical capacity to store and transport their products, with communities commonly lacking infrastructure such as refrigerators and hygienic landing centres. This can result in large amounts of post-harvest losses as well as a reduction in the quality of produce. To tackle this issue, retailers can invest in practical and infrastructural support for ‘quality-improvement processes’ for small-scale fisheries; as well as the development of new pathways to utilise any by-products that might otherwise be discarded.

Fish Market in Seoul © nuu_jeed, Shutterstock

Illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing and the subsidisation of large-scale fishing are described in the report as ‘systematic challenges that present a major barrier to the fair and equitable management of small-scale fisheries’. In addition, IUU and harmful subsidies can also contribute to the overfishing of our oceans, preventing a sustainable ocean economy. Whilst the majority of retailers claimed to have policies preventing sourcing from IUU fishing, most did not have policies relating to harmful subsidisation. This is particularly problematic as these harmful subsidies are enabling IUU activities to occur through providing financial support to ‘distant-water fishing activities that would otherwise be unprofitable’. These distant-water fishing activities are therefore the highest risk for the occurrence of illegal fishing activities and human rights abuses.

There are many actions that retailers can take to combat this, including the phasing out of procurement from large-scale fisheries benefitting from harmful subsidies; and investing in and endorsing fisheries and organisation that are working to reduce these issues. Retailers can also use their political leverage as consortium members to advocate for governments and intergovernmental bodies to improve their policies on these matters and to implement the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies.

With a growing demand for sustainable seafood alongside an increasingly limited supply of available sustainable seafood, Pita and Ford highlight that time is running out for retailers to ensure that their seafood procuring strategies align with SDG 14b. Whilst it is clear that retailers can make important changes to benefit SSF’s ability to access markets, it is going to be vital that varying stakeholders, including governments, policymakers, charities and non-governmental organisations are providing support to SSF to eradicate inequality in the sustainable seafood industry.

Main source:

1. Pita, C and Ford, A (2023) Sustainable seafood and small-scale fisheries: improving retail procurement. IIED, London.

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