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Around the world, it is increasingly recognized that ocean resources are finite, and that fisheries need to adopt sustainable practices if they are to have any long-term future. It estimated that small scale fisheries (SSF) account for over half of the global catch and 95 % of the world’s fishers. As a result, there is a growing push to include them in fisheries management—to understand how much is caught, which species and where. Added to which, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has stated its intention to work with regulatory authorities to end illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing by 2030. Small scale fisheries account for the great majority of the unregulated catch.

But for many reasons, the approaches currently used to regulate large scale industrial fisheries are simply not going to work for SSF.

Economic Barriers

Monitoring industrial fishing has been possible because it’s been partly funded through fines for rule-breakers and through permits and licenses sold. By comparison, few traditional fishers can afford the same tracking technology or permits. The economic model for SSF, therefore, must be different and the technology made affordable.

Scale: Fishers and Data

Identifying all the small-scale fishers to impose management practices upon them in the same way is going to be virtually impossible. The resources don’t exist to apply this kind of enforcement to 50 million people.

Moreover, a flag state will need to scale from tracking a few thousand vessels to upwards of tens or hundreds of thousands, with their vessel IDs, licenses, time and zones of fishing, catch reports and so on. This will generate a very large volume of data, far exceeding the capacities of existing systems. Adapting for SSF means not just adding more vessels; we must redesign monitoring software to pre-digest all that data and present it in ways that are actionable.

Traditional Fishing

In addition, small-scale fishers’ everyday work differs considerably. For example, they can fish any species they find, and they use different and traditional fishing gears. They often fish in groups. Many are not full-time fishermen (they are also farmers or raise livestock outside of fishing season). They don’t necessarily have an expensive boat, gear or investments to amortize, so they think of their fishing activity differently. If we simply copy the industrial model, regulating things like mesh size of the net, or quotas based on a limited list of species, it clearly won’t work.

A whole new approach is needed.

There are clear benefits to better SSF monitoring, but the approach must be collaborative. Traditional fishers need to be involved in developing these systems, getting their feedback from the beginning. Not only does this ensure it meets their needs, but they also see the benefits. This would encourage them to adopt new practices and foster greater stakeholder engagement.

A Different Economic Model

We have to think of new ways to finance SSF monitoring. Recent technology advances have enabled new transmitters that are more affordable and better suited to SSF needs. But who will pay for them? In some cases, an NGO or international development agency will step in. This is good news for the fishermen, but raises questions about the long-term: how will this work when the project is finished and the agencies (and their funding) leave? In other areas, we’ve seen the fishermen’s association play a large role, paying for the monitoring technology for their members. Or in another case in Peru, the fishermen’s union wants to set up a Quality Label for their catch; the higher prices from selling directly to consumers would pay for the monitoring systems.

Managing Scale

From the IT infrastructure point of view, the last decade has seen great progress in Big Data analytics. This enables us to face the challenge posed by the huge volume of data generated by SSF monitoring that must be processed, stored and the relevant indicators extracted.

Moreover, problems of scale can be addressed by thinking locally more than nationally. The involvement of communities (local governments, agencies, fishermen associations) will be key. For example, in several countries with very large numbers of SSF, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, they have decided to hand over SSF vessel registration to local authorities.

Taking into Account the Benefits

Such an approach should secure the support of the fishers. For example, most SSF communities have experienced loss of life at sea, so technology that enhances their safety is often well received, especially as many have to fish further from the coast beyond mobile phone range.

Increasingly, market considerations are also a compelling reason for SSF to adopt monitoring.  Consumers are demanding to know more about the supply chain, traceability and sustainability of the food they consume.  Even a small-scale fisherman may now be asked by the hotel he supplies to state the location and details of his catch and more importantly, whether it’s sustainable. Securing local fishers’ engagement will then support collaboration moving forward.

The European project STARFISH 4.0 is an example of this approach in practice.  It trials new VMS technology for small-scale fishers that will be further developed with their feedback. Europe chose this project precisely because it is participatory, building a culture of compliance among traditional fishers before regulation. Fishing communities, CLS, local partners, and fishermen’s associations will all work together to develop a system that has value for fishermen.  In effect it secures engagement, building positive productive relationships long before any regulation comes into effect.

All around the world, governments, regulators and NGOs are trying to work out how to monitor SSFs effectively.  SSFs are extremely diverse and numerous; the approach taken with large industrial fisheries simply won’t work.  A new ‘working together’ mindset along with the necessary new technology is needed, with SSF and regulators working collaboratively to achieve sustainable fisheries management.

A version of this article appeared in Undercurrent News, January 20, 2020

Michel Dejean, Director of CLS Fisheries Division

Michel DejeanMichel joined CLS in 1997. Over his career, he has worked in almost every aspect of fisheries management solutions with governments, NGOs and fishermen around the world.  From 2012 to 2018 he was the head of CLS’ Indonesia office, and was named Director of CLS’ Group Fisheries Division in 2018. Over the last 22 years, the main change he has seen has been in the attitude of fisheries and regulators, from confrontational opposition in the past, to increasing convergence as fishers and regulators acknowledge sustainability has to be the end goal for all—a change he welcomes.