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On World Food Day, Ensuring Fish For All

Fishing on Boat
Photo credit: Jonas Bendiksen

“The growing role of fish farming for meeting the world’s demand and need for fish is clear. We need to support that growth in ways that minimize environmental impacts and make fish affordable for poor consumers.”

Globally, more than one billion poor people obtain most of their animal protein from fish, and 800 million depend on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods.

Fish is a superfood. It is a rare source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Recent large-scale studies indicate that consuming 203g of fatty fish a week can reduce death by heart disease by a third. Pregnant women who consume 340g per week can improve the cognitive development of their children.

In developing countries, studies have shown that consumption of fish, especially of small indigenous species, can be a vital source of micronutrients (zinc, iron, calcium and vitamin A). Fish is also an important source of high quality protein.

Clearly, fish is a healthy option for all of us, but it is especially beneficial for poor and vulnerable groups in developing countries. In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 171 million children (167 million in developing countries) were stunted. Child stunting remains a scourge, which greater consumption of fish can also help address.

The growing role of fish farming for meeting the world’s demand and need for fish is clear. We need to support that growth in ways that minimize environmental impacts and make fish affordable for poor consumers. In doing so, however, we must not forget the role of fishing wild stocks because about 50 percent of the world’s fish supply for direct consumption is wild- caught. In developing countries, the proportion of wild-catch fish is much higher.

The role that these wild caught fish play in food and nutrition security has led many to argue that we must prevent over-fishing in order to sustain wild-catch fisheries. On the surface, this argument makes perfect sense. But dig a little deeper and matters get more complicated.

In policy circles, the current belief is that fisheries should be reformed to provide some sort of property or access right to the fish in order to prevent over-fishing. The argument states that without such ‘Rights Based Fishing’ (RBF), exploitation will be unconstrained and fisheries will become economically inefficient. In other words, there will be less fish caught and food and nutrition security will be compromised.

The complicating factor is that such policies often result in the concentration of fishing rights among a small number of actors with the exclusion of large numbers of small-scale fishers. In South Africa, for example, fisheries reforms adopted in 2005 led to the exclusion of 90 percent of the country’s 50,000 small-scale fishers.

Photo credit: Michael Cowan

While policies such as this may lead to more fish being caught, the questions of who has access to those fish and what other impacts these policies have should be asked.

Consider this, the coastal fishery in Ghana supports about 10,000 canoes, each with a crew of about 12 people. Over-fishing is undoubtedly taking place and it would be easy to assume that reforms are needed to consolidate the sector. With enforced regulations, this might indeed lead to increased overall catch. However, a consolidated, more market-driven fishery may then choose to supply export markets at the expense of local consumers. Moreover, if the number of canoes supported by the fishery are reduced by 50 percent, more than 60,000 people would become unemployed and most would be unable to take home fish to their families.

Of course, maintaining the status quo is far from ideal. Our goal should be to have healthy well-managed fish stocks that supply as much food and generate as much economic benefit as possible.

The most reliable path to both food security and sustainable fisheries will come from ensuring that reforms are appropriate to the socio-economic context in which fisheries operate. Effective stakeholder dialogue about the goals for each fishery and devolving responsibility for management and decision-making to levels where incentives for fisheries to meet these broader societal objectives are highest are key to ensuring success. These should be pre-conditions for any development support to reform fisheries.

Successful reform of many small-scale fisheries will also require a focus outside of the fishing sector to improve other issues such as: developing alternate livelihood activities, improving social protection systems and empowering women.

Our vision of success: a fish on every plate.

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