Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton.
This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
Many of my photographic assignments have taken me to the front lines of industrial fishing, often happening beyond national borders. In these distant waters there’s less control over how fishing is done, and often ocean wildlife ends up being netted, hooked or even harpooned during these wild west fishing practices. Crew on such vessels are also at the mercy of fishing companies and captains, and horror stories abound of abuse, slavery and squalid conditions dealt out in the pursuit of profit.
But like the ‘one percent’ we hear of in economic terms, commercial operations are the ‘ten percent’ of fisheries. Only one in ten fish workers globally are in industrial fisheries, the vast majority work in artisanal fisheries. The two sectors each take roughly half of the global fish catch, but small scale fisheries contribute much more to employment and to food security in developing nations.
In Indonesia the importance of artisanal fishing is even greater–95% of the country’s fish catch is taken by small scale fishers. The country’s government has taken a tough stance against illegal fishing in recent years, going as far as blowing up fishing boats caught breaking the law. But the focus on industrial fishing leaves most of the artisanal fleet under the radar.
Most fisheries laws, national or international, are established with industrial fishing in mind. But with such a substantial part of the catch taken by small-scale fishers, their collective impact is too big too ignore and shouldn’t be underestimated. Artisanal fishers struggle to comply with laws that are simply not designed for the type of fishing they do–many fish without boats, or with small vessels below the minimum size the government’s vessel registry deals with.
Last week I joined a group of NGOs, scientists, finance experts and government officials that came together for a think tank in Bali to investigate ways that small-scale fishers can be supported to fish legally and responsibly, and give them the means to prove it. The event was hosted by Masyarakat Dan Perikanan and backing it was the Walton Family Foundation, which offered up seed funding to be awarded to the best emerging idea in support of small-scale fishers.
Experts from Madagascar to the Maldives to Mexico discussed the common challenges facing their artisanal fishing communities, and attempts that had been made to overcome them.
I was familiar with some of the examples, like the success story of the Maldives pole and line tuna fishery. Faced with a clear market demand for sustainably caught tuna, the entire national fishery made the transition from unregulated fishing to legal, reported and regulated fishing in just a few years. But for every success story there were many more examples of setbacks and frustrations.
Often, answers lie in the better sharing of information and adapting processes to suit a small and widely spread fishery. Right in front of the meeting venue itself was such an example. We visited a fishing community that, by default, was fishing illegally. Their small boats are designed to be launched from the beach, but the nearby port was the only designated site at which they could officially land their catch. Without using that port, they lacked the port exit and entry permits to match with the fish catch that they reported.
However, it’s not just a matter of adjusting the rules and systems to be more accommodating to small scale fishing. The image of artisanal fishing may be one of small colourful boats and fishers in harmony with their local reefs and bays–but there are real problems that won’t be solved without change happening on the water. Cyanide and blast fishing are examples, practices that can be conducted on a very small scale and can become rife in the very areas that have the least official oversight.
Many of the solutions raised in the think tank related to breaking the cycle of poverty in fishing communities. When fishers are barely earning enough to provide for their families, putting back an undersized fish or staying outside of a protected area is a hard rule to follow.
Seed funding was allocated to a project aimed at identifying losses and generating better income from existing catches. The peak value of a fish is at the moment it is caught, but without good handling from that moment to when it is sold, it can lose quality and fall critically below the lucrative ‘export quality’ level.
One Philippine tuna company estimated that 70% of the tuna brought onto boats was export quality at the time it was caught, but by the time it was collected only 3% met export standards to high value European markets.
With a selling price six times higher for export than on the local market, even simple steps to keep the fish in top condition–ice, careful handling and protection from the sun–will considerably boost the earnings of the fisher. This in turn allows them to break cycles of debt, and gives the financial breathing space and incentive to fish in ways that are both legal and sustainable.
Everybody wins if we find and fund solutions that allow small fishing communities to prove that they’re fishing legally and sustainably. The fishers themselves benefit through better income, healthier reefs and fish stocks and access to export markets; fisheries managers gain through more date on what’s being caught, while consumers enjoy access to seafood that is caught in some of the most ocean-friendly and people-friendly ways.
More information of the Small Scale Fisheries Think Tank and its outcomes can be found on the Masyarakat Dan Perikanan Indonesia (MDPI) website: http://mdpi.or.id/a-think-tank-and-a-shark-tank/