How aid can support sustainable fisheries for a food-secure world

A fisherman is silhouetted by the sunset in Malaysia. World Fisheries Day calls for a renewed focus on crucial challenges faced by millions of small-scale fishermen of the developing world. Photo by: WorldFish / CC BY-NC-ND

On World Fisheries Day, we have traditionally discussed the challenges fisheries face and the threats to their sustainability. However, we need to shift the focus to solutions that will ensure a continuing supply of fish for the millions who rely on them for both livelihoods and food security.

It is tempting to think about big, commercial boats catching the fish we see on the plates of consumers in the developed world. But while this form of fishing and the fish stocks these boats exploit are important, the crucial area we must address is the millions of small-scale fishermen along the coasts and on the inland rivers and lakes of the developing world. It is these small-scale fisheries that supply about 56 percent of the fish for human consumption in developing countries and support 95 percent of the 500 million people around the world whose livelihoods depend — in one way or another — on fishing.

There is no doubt that overfishing is a problem whether boats are large or small. However, when we think about over-fishing by small-scale fishermen, the calculus of right and wrong is more complicated because there are many circumstances where fisheries serve a welfare function in areas that governments cannot reach with social protection measures.

In these cases, over-exploiting a fishery is the defensible thing for vulnerable people to do. When crops fail because of drought, a typhoon or civil conflict, or when no other economic opportunity exists, turning to fishing as a source of ready cash is often the only option for earning income and providing food. Such circumstances almost inevitably lead to overfishing.

Of course, this is a far from ideal state of affairs. It is far better to have healthy, well-managed fish stocks that supply as much food and generate as much economic benefit as possible. What is often not recognized, however, is that getting to this situation requires a focus on rural development as much as it does on the fisheries themselves. Indeed, the international aid community has far more to offer in solving fisheries problems than it realizes.

I firmly believe that the surest route to sustainable fisheries will come from focusing on improving the linkages between fisheries and the rest of the rural economy and placing the fisheries challenge in a rural development context. Among other things, this will require governments and aid agencies working together to develop opportunities for absorbing labor into other economic activities; improve infrastructure and social protection systems; build capacity at multiple levels in both government and civil society to enable more effective engagement and participation; and most importantly, empower women and ensure their equal opportunity.

These efforts go well beyond fisheries, but without them and without economic growth and broader rural development success we will continue to see chronic overfishing and lost opportunity.

So on this World Fisheries Day, we thank our partners in the international development community for their efforts and encourage them to continue their work that will help us make fisheries sustainable for a food secure world.

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About the author

  • Stephen Hall

    Stephen J. Hall, WorldFish director general, previously headed the Australian Institute of Marine Science and was a member of the prime minister’s Steering Committee on Mapping Australia’s Innovation System from 2003 to 2004. A former professor of marine biology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Hall has published extensive scientific and development research on tropical fisheries and aquaculture.