Economic justice in the small-scale production of blue food

Confronting economic barriers in the small-scale production of blue food

Written By Jennifer Rey-Goyeneche, TBTI Research Assistant

The challenge of feeding and nourishing a growing world population is not only a matter of quantity but also quality and sustainability. While the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [1] was a global landmark achievement for addressing food insecurity, little progress has been reported towards meeting Zero Hunger (SDG 2) targets [2]. In 2020, around 800 million people experienced hunger and over 2.3 billion were unable to access adequate food [2]. This is despite the on-going efforts to ensure food security by 2030 through an increase in agricultural productivity and in income of small-scale producers (Target 2.3). Although fishers are mentioned in the list of key food producers, guidelines and directions specific to fisheries and aquaculture are absent [1, 3]—fish seem to be considered a dietary supplement and a resource to conserve (SDG 14) rather than an indispensable food to alleviate food insecurity [3].

Photo credit:  Alice Ferrer; Dipolog City, Philippines, 2013

The cross-sectoral importance of fish and its production has been gaining public and academic attention. The 2021 Borlaug Dialogue event (19th October), hosted by WorldFish and CGIAR, pivoted on the work of Dr Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, 2021 World Food Prize winner, to highlight the intersectionality between fish, aquatic food production systems, and nutrition [4]. Various key messages were conveyed by government representatives, development funders, and researchers speaking at the event. First, aquatic foods are superfoods that could help tackle hunger and malnutrition on a global scale—they are sources of essential nutrients and fatty acids [4, 5]. Secondly, small-scale aquaculture systems (e.g., salmon, sardines, bivalves, seaweeds) are a more sustainable alternative with a lower carbon footprint than land-based animal production (e.g., livestock) [4, 5]. Lastly, inland and marine food production systems support the diversity of livelihoods and cultural traditions of some of the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations such as coastal communities, women, and Indigenous peoples [4].

We have learned a lot from the COVID-19, which has brought up the important role of aquatic foods in rural areas, especially when the global and local food chains failed. Many coastal communities turned to local fisheries resources as the main source of subsistence at the peak of the pandemic. [4]

 Joyce Njoro
Lead Technical Specialist, Nutrition - International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

Photo credit: Ratana Chuenpagdee, Chembe Village, Tanzania, 2011

Nevertheless, aquatic foods are overlooked in food policies, resulting in a lack of investment in the just development and governance of these productive systems [3, 4]. In line with the contradictions between rhetoric and action on equitable food access [6], small-scale fisheries and small fish farms struggle to access financial assistance and aid, and are further challenged by industrial and corporate interests that continue to eclipse their rights. According to a bottom-up study on the distribution of fisheries subsidies, the large-scale sector receives about 84% of the total global fisheries subsidy amount [7], and most of them are considered harmful, which perpetuates a vicious cycle of economic injustices.

The lack of access to financial resources has proved detrimental to smallholders and small-scale fish farmers who need substantial up-front capital to invest in land or sea space, infrastructure, inputs (seeds), services (transport, storage), supportive technologies, and technical assistance [8]. Injustices become more notorious when small-scale producers are required to keep up with costly certification requirements and cleaner, innovative systems [9]. Undeniably, the potential of the small-scale aquaculture sector is hindered by common blue growth models that focus on profit maximization rather than social wellbeing [8].

A holistic look at food production system and better governance of fisheries and aquaculture is imperative to support small-scale fishers and fish farmers, and to transform the small-scale sector into equitable and inclusive value chains [8, 10]. For example, fish farmers could receive remuneration for pursuing higher levels of vocational training, mobilizing collective partnerships, and rewarding sustainable practices through nutrient credit bank [10, 11]. From the governance perspective, the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries [12] contain many key guiding principles that State could implement to enhance the contribution of small-scale fisheries and small-scale aquaculture to nutrition and food security, while addressing injustices. With 2022 being the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture [13], it is time to do better, and more, for this important sector.


[1] UN. (2018). The 17 Goals. Retrieved from

[2] FAO. (2021). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. Retrieved from

[3] Bennett, A., Basurto, X., Virdin, J., Lin, X., Betances, S. J., Smith, M. D., ... & Zoubek, S. (2021). Recognize fish as food in policy discourse and development funding. Ambio, 50(5), 981-989.

[4] WorldFish. (2021, October 20). 2021 Borlaug Dialogue: Aquatic foods for healthy people and planet. YouTube.

[5] Cross, D. T. (2021, September 21). “Sustainably produced ‘blue food’ could feed billions of people”. Sustainability Times.

[6] Command, R. J. (2021). Food from climate-friendly fish farms? Balancing aquaculture development and sustainability in feeding the world. OFI Governance.

[7] Schuhbauer, A., Chuenpagdee, R., Cheung, W. W., Greer, K., & Sumaila, U. R. (2017). How subsidies affect the economic viability of small-scale fisheries. Marine Policy, 82, 114-121.

[8] Kaminski, A. M., Kruijssen, F., Cole, S. M., Beveridge, M. C., Dawson, C., Mohan, C. V., ... & Little, D. C. (2020). A review of inclusive business models and their application in aquaculture development. Reviews in Aquaculture, 12(3), 1881-1902.

[9] Paddison, L. (2021, November 1). Fish farmers grapple with sustainability challenge. The Financial Times.

[10] Gonçalves, F. H. (2018, August 21). “Impacting the sustainability of fish farming through increased governance: Small farms, big change”. Global Seafood Alliance.

[11] Gutman, D. (2021, October 26). “Argentina’s Small Farming Communities Reach Consumers Online”. IPS-Inter Press Service.

[12] FAO. (2015). Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication. Retrieved from

[13] FAO. (2021). International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022. Retrieved from