Reflections from Asia Pacific and North America Regional Congresses

Written by: Madu Galappaththi, University of Waterloo, Canada

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend two Regional Congresses of the ongoing 4th World Small-scale Fisheries Congress Series (4WSFC) — Asia-Pacific Congress held in Shizuoka, Japan in May; and North America Congress held in St. John’s, Canada in June. I was well positioned to participate in both these congresses as a PhD student based in Canada with an empirical research focus on fishing communities in Sri Lanka.

It was with much excitement that I prepared to share my research findings at these venues, from a thesis that I had just finished drafting, and also to explore how my findings can link with policy and practice. Needless to say that I looked forward to in-person interactions after two plus years of virtual meetings; better yet, to do so in two of the most charming cities in the world: Shizuoka with stunning views of Mount Fuji and St. John’s nestled in the easternmost edge of North America.

In Shizuoka, I contributed to a plenary on gender, co-chaired a session on dried fish social economies, and Zoom-hosted several other sessions, all organized under the congress theme ‘Building Forward Better’. In St. John’s, I presented a paper on women’s contributions to governing small-scale fisheries and attended multiple sessions that explored the many dimensions of change, vulnerability, and sustainability of small-scale fisheries under the theme ‘Getting It Right’.

Although both the Congresses provided opportunities to share my research findings, I had slightly different expectations about each congress. During the Asia Pacific congress, my goal was to familiarize with the issues and challenges faced by fisheries systems similar to what I studied in Sri Lanka, especially localized fisheries in Japan. While the diverse lineup of sessions helped build comparative insights, for me, the highlight of the congress was a plenary titled ‘Adjusting the Food Lens’, a session that creatively brought the voices of local resource users to the centre of conversation. The panelists in this session were the actors participating in local seafood chains. They were fishers, seafood traders, processors, and even chefs and were also active members of local Fishing Cooperatives. While showcasing their cooking skills using their own fresh catches (e.g., Sakura shrimp, whitebait, and horseshoe mackerel; local species with high socio-cultural and economic significance), favourite recipes, and local ingredients, they each had a unique story to tell. Their stories not only exemplified their intimate connections to local resources, livelihood traditions, and associated meanings but also their hopes and fears for the future. Hearing those stories on their own words (while also devouring the seafood they served!) was the best way to get a glimpse of local fisheries and the people who depend on them. The way how this session deviated from a typical academic conference program left a lasting impression among all of us in attendance that day.

As I looked forward to the North American Congress in St. John’s, my focus was more on science-policy linkages — to familiarize with ongoing policy dialogues, initiatives, and emerging directions. In particular, I wanted to better understand if and how the issues and themes that I had studied in Sri Lanka can apply within the North American context. During the congress, many sessions in fact provided insight into the priority areas of policy focus, trends, gaps, and challenges within the contexts of both Canada and the US. For example, a plenary titled ‘Getting Blue Economy Right’ provided a first-hand look at Canada’s own Blue Economy Strategy and the US National Seafood Sector Strategy, both currently under development. The deliberations that followed this panel brought together policymakers, researchers, and fishers who collectively shed light on the many perspectives, gaps, and areas of concern by drawing from the realities and challenges faced by fishing communities. For me, the key message that emerged through this deliberation was process related — that is the critical need for all stakeholders to work together to craft solutions to confront the issues that matter to them. Evidently, this message also resonate with a key learning from the Asia Pacific Congress, which emphasized that building forward better is about building ‘together’ — ‘ichi-danketsu’, a Japanese word we all learned in Shizuoka.