Solutions in Focus

Small-scale fisheries – towards an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future

The importance of small-scale fisheries 

With a rapidly growing world population, the small-scale fisheries sector is attracting more and more attention from the international community. Small-scale fisheries contribute about half of global fish catches and it is estimated that the sector employs more than 90% of the world's capture fishers and fish workers. Therefore, its potential to contribute to food security and nutrition, poverty eradication and equitable development is being increasingly recognized.

However, overexploitation of resources threatens species and ecosystems around the world, raising the pressing question: How can we improve the socio-economic conditions of small-scale fishing communities while ensuring an environmentally sustainable fisheries management?

Innovative examples presented by the PANORAMA – Solutions for a Healthy Planet initiative can provide answers. 

Cover Photo Credit: GIZ / Volker Koch

Small-scale fisheries, often also referred to as artisanal fisheries, are difficult to define unambiguously, as the term tends to apply to different circumstances in different countries. In general, they are traditional fisheries involving households (as opposed to commercial companies), using relatively small amounts of capital and energy, relatively small fishing vessels (if any), making short fishing trips close to shore, mainly for local consumption. 

- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 
Photo Credit: GRID-Arendal / Rob Barnes


In general, the limited access to essential facilities such as health, education, roads and communication infrastructures increases the vulnerability of small-scale fishers, especially in developing countries. The close connection between human and environmental well-being adds to the socio-economic instability that many in the sector are facing. The overexploitation of marine resources makes small-scale fishers particularly vulnerable to decreases in production and threatens the livelihood of whole communities. Inadequate governance structures and limited participation in decision-making processes often hinder the possibility of improvement and change. 

One of the initial challenges for the implementation of effective small-scale fisheries management is the lack of data and statistics. Large proportions of catch remain unrecorded. Under these conditions, it is impossible to accurately account for small-scale operators' participation and difficult to take appropriate steps to adapt fisheries policies in favor of the small-scale sector. The following examples show existing approaches, which aim to address similar problems in different parts of the world.  

ABALOBI: ICTs for small-scale fisheries governance

The ABALOBI initiative tackles one of the core problems concerning small-scale fisheries management: the lack of data. This participatory research project takes scientific data as well as local knowledge into consideration and allows small-scale fishermen in South Africa to manage their own catches. 

As part of the transdisciplinary research and social learning venture, different stakeholders, among them local fishermen, were constantly involved in the development of an app. Fishers, observers and cooperatives have actively recorded catches and associated variables in daily logbooks and dashboards. Regular workshops have assisted in fine-tuning the recording and reporting functions and use of the dashboard. One crucial component of the process was the creation of a common knowledge base through social learning, which opened the door for genuine co-management. In 2015, the South African Fisheries Minister endorsed ABALOBI as the official catch management system for the implementation of the new Small-Scale Fisheries Policy.



Enhancing reporting on small-scale operations is a crucial step towards a more efficient and just fisheries management. Even though this development has just begun, a real drive towards more participatory and decentralized governance with improved multi-stakeholder involvement can already be observed in some cases. A focus on strengthening community-based and professional organizations in the small-scale fisheries sector empowers stakeholders to organize and participate in development and decision-making processes. Another important aspect is the improved bargaining power of small-scale operators along the value chain and the access to markets - certification schemes have become a popular tool. 

The debate on certification has evolved. There is a growing importance of certification and links to traceability. The issue now is how to engage and how to ensure that the small-scale sector and the artisanal sector are able to take part and get their products and their fisheries certified. We know that this is not easy. 

- Audun Lem, Deputy Director of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division, FAO
Photo Credit: GRID-Arendal / Rob Barnes

Fostering change – Certification

Seafood demands in western countries have grown rapidly in recent years, resulting in increasing exports to those countries. Eco-labels and certification facilitate the access for exporting countries to those markets. Their goal is to inform consumers whether a fishery is sustainably managed or not, thereby forcing poorly managed fisheries to improve management practices. Social and economic criteria, however, are often not considered. The high costs associated with certification as well as the potential costs for necessary modifications of fishing methods and gear have made it very difficult for small-scale fisheries to achieve certification. Therefore, voluntary certification schemes may have the unintended effect of excluding uncertified fisheries from international markets. But exceptions are out there and improvements to these systems are underway.

MPAs and certified sustainable small-scale fisheries 

The Nicoya Peninsula artisanal snapper fishery is the first of its kind to enter the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) assessment process in the world and the first Central American fishery to enter full MSC assessment. Additionally, the project's initiative led to the establishment of 35,000 hectares of multi-use marine protected areas at Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast. 

Illegal exploitation of marine resources by industrial fishing fleets and long, antiquated chains of custody resulted in low earnings for the district of Bejuco's artisanal bottom longline fishermen. In order to find methods to address these issues properly, catch composition data and fishers’ ecological knowledge were methodically collected. The project then analysed the environmental impacts of bottom longline use as well as the socio-economic conditions of this artisanal snapper fishery. The data was used to devise a management plan and subsequently to develop two multi-use MPAs to better manage the local snapper stock. The designated areas allow for the use of artisanal bottom longlines and hand lines but prohibit any other unselective fishing methods.

Project stakeholders have applied for international sustainability certification (MSC) to promote the fishery's development. At this stage, it is important to ensure that everybody understands the benefits of certification and constant communication is essential to keep the process moving forward. Once certified, the project plans to use the label to cater to tourist resorts and restaurants that are interested in supplying locally sourced, sustainable snapper to their environmentally conscious guests. These new markets will ultimately promote the fishery communities’ economic progress. 


Fostering change – Further opportunities

Obtaining certification is not the only way to foster sustainable small-scale fisheries management and to integrate the sector into markets. There are other options and possibilities to improve both, the economic and ecological sustainability. All of them have one aspect in common: They recognize cultural values as part of the "goods and services" provided by small-scale fisheries and consider their characteristics in the design and implementation of policies and programs. 

Chaos – that is the best way to describe the corvina fishery some years ago. Now we have more fish in the water, more food on the plate and a more prosperous community.

- Francisco Dominguez,  fisherman in the Gulf of Santa Clara. 
Photo Credit: EDF México

Catch Shares: A framework for sustainable fisheries 

The Catch Shares (MCC) framework for sustainable fisheries management empowers fishing communities in Mexico to manage their resources more responsibly, to participate in decision-making and to comply with legislation.

Unsustainable and illegal fishing has led to a severe decline of fish stocks in the Upper Gulf of California. Additionally, the level of involvement of fishermen in decision-making and implementation processes was very low. Therefore, there were no incentives for fishermen to decrease harvesting, regardless of the market saturation and price breakdown. In the attempt to break this vicious cycle, access rights turned out to be effective in avoiding overfishing and helping fish populations to recover. Individual quotas or territorial use rights assure fishermen stable fishing over time and exclusive benefits from sustainable management, increasing their stewardship and compliance.

Fishermen, fishing and environmental authorities, scientists, buyers and NGOs now participate throughout the management process, from design to evaluation. This strong focus on stakeholder involvement is one of the project's success factors and builds trust between the different parties. Trust is fundamental to establish strategic alliances. It is important to invest time to develop and strengthen them since a broad network of strategic alliances diminishes the risk of project failure. 

Thanks to the region's initiative, catches were reduced by 40% while prices increased by 22%. To promote sustainable fishing, it is necessary to create partnerships that foster behaviour change, throughout the value chain. A partnership between fishermen and buyers brings mutual benefits such as better prices and higher quality products. 


EcoGourmet: Bringing sustainable fish to your plate 

EcoGourmet facilitates the signing of fair agreements between suppliers, fishing cooperatives and restaurants and sensitizes fishermen as well as consumers to sustainably caught fish. 

In Colombia, local fishing communities generally live in isolated areas, far away from cities and markets. They have limited infrastructure, means and knowledge to properly produce and handle fish products that meet the high quality and sustainability standards big markets require. This results in unsustainable fishing practices, high production costs and low income for local communities. Thanks to the work of the EcoGourmet project, it is possible to overcome some of these obstacles, to reduce negative impacts on ecosystems and to increase profits for local fishers.

An important aspect of the initiative is the signing of trade agreements between restaurants and local organizations that promote a fair compensation, recognizing the actions taken in favour of conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. Customers of these establishments are sensitized to responsible consumption via workshops and restaurant placements containing information about sustainable fishing. The project has reached thousands of consumers with messages emphasizing the importance of preserving marine resources. 

Good practices for fishing, manufacturing, storage and marketing of fish products were implemented together with artisanal fishing communities and cooperatives like Red de Frío, which oversees the community-based Cold Chain Network.

Today, no one in Bahia Solano has NOT heard of responsible fishing. - Emilio Medina, member of Red de Frío

Responsible fishing practices ensure the purchase of the product by the commercial partner. Without committing to these sustainable guidelines, fishermen from Red de Frío would have to fish an additional 83 tons to meet their current level of income.


Reduce overfishing and improving livelihood of artisanal fishers – SmartFish 

SmartFish International helps to improve the social and environmental future of artisanal fishing in Mexico through the creation of new markets for sustainable seafood and a reward system for sustainable practices.

With 80 percent of Mexico's fish stocks being fully exploited or overexploited, strict management plans are urgently needed. In many regions, however, low standards of living and low fish prices force local fishers to capture more and more fish to be able to sustain their livelihoods. SmartFish aims to address this multilayered problem by empowering fishing communities to overcome the vicious cycle of overfishing.

Deeply embedded fishing and economic practices make it difficult to modify behaviour and ensuring the compliance of local communities. Therefore, SmartFish integrates the stakeholders of each fishery and encourages generational knowledge transfer. Another crucial component is to establish commercial relationships only with cooperatives (co-ops) that are willing to commit to certain measures such as closed seasons, fishing quotas and marine protected areas. It is rather difficult to identify suitable co-ops, but a strong local network with a high degree of peer and regulatory oversight contributes immensely to the project's success. 

A range of sustainability measures must be adopted by the fishermen to benefit from the programme’s advantages. Partnerships between co-ops, NGOs and restaurants empower fishermen and their families to increase economic value by catching and producing the best quality, sustainable seafood. This cultivates demand for their exquisite seafood among distinguished costumers and allows for the access to new markets.


Photo Credit: Carlos Aguilera

A topic of interest and discussion

Identifying measures that enable small-scale operators to participate in social, economic and political processes and promote sustainable fisheries is of global interest. A webinar on the topic of the "Certification of small-scale fisheries in developing countries: Opportunities and Challenges" attracted the attention of attendees from 34 countries. The Blue Solutions Initiative hosted the session on July 27, 2017 as part of the PANORAMA - Solutions for a Healthy Planet webinar series. Dr. Audun Lem (FAO), Camila Zambrano Esguerra (Fondo Acción), Hoyt Peckham (SmartFish) and Daniel Suddaby (Ocean Outcomes) discussed issues surrounding small-scale fisheries but also presented successful approaches to achieve both human and ecosystem well-being.

In the evolving debate, the issue of sustainability has gone beyond that of focusing entirely on the environmental issue but also going more and more towards the social issue. And we will see that in the future. 

- Audun Lem, FAO

Learn more about PANORAMA – Solutions for a Healthy Planet! 

PANORAMA – Solutions for a Healthy Planet is a partnership of five organizations to document and promote examples of inspiring, replicable solutions across a range of conservation and sustainable development topics, enabling cross-sectoral learning and inspiration. 

Learn more about Blue Solutions!

The Blue Solutions Initiative coordinates the marine and coastal theme of the PANORAMA – Solutions for a Healthy Planet partnership.

Blue Solutions is being implemented jointly by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), GRID-Arendal, the International Union for Conservation for Nature (IUCN) and UN Environment (UNE). It is funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) through its International Climate Initiative (ICI).


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HLPE. 2014. Sustainable fisheries and aquaculture for food security and nutrition. A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security. Rome. 118 pp.

FAO. 2014. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014 . Rome. 223 pp.

FAO. 2015. Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication. Rome . 18 pp.

FAO. 2016. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016 . Contributing to food security and nutrition for all. Rome. 200 pp.