Vulnerability of small-scale fishing communities

Vulnerability of small-scale fishing communities:
Global reflections on lived experiences
Estuarine Setbag in the Sundarbans mangrove forest, Bangladesh by Mahmudul Islam

Globally, small-scale fishers face challenges that come from a broad array of complex environmental, economic, and political pressures and changes that make them vulnerable. This multifaceted vulnerability has become increasingly evident and serious during this time of pandemic. While the impacts of Covid-19 pandemic are unprecedented and affecting societies at large, it is clear that small-scale fishers and their families, whose livelihoods depend solely on fisheries and who may already be living in poor conditions, are among the most affected groups. For many, the fishing way of live and the daily work came to a sudden halt, throwing them into a dire situation of food insecurity and health risks. This urgency drove the' SSF Vulnerability Assessment Team,' comprising of international graduate students at Memorial University under the supervision of TBTI and OFI team leaders, to conduct a global rapid assessment to identify factors and processes that magnify vulnerability of small-scale fishers in 25 countries in Africa, Asia and Oceania, North America and South America.

The sources of vulnerability of fishery-based livelihoods can be divided into three main categories: environment, socio-economics, and governance. Small-scale fishers depend on fishery resources that are subject to environmental variability, which could cause stress and commotion such as change of migratory route of hilsa shad fishery in Bangladesh, and macroalgal dominance in Belize that deteriorate coral reef’s health. Depletion and fluctuation of resources, and changing frequency and severity of extreme events also affect small-scale fisheries. These are common concerns in several locations around the world. For example, in Peru, El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is responsible for changing patterns of abundance and distribution of various species like the Peruvian anchoveta and the Peruvian hake, creating economic burden on small-scale fishers with increased travel time, fuel usage, and ice consumption to locate fish. Small-scale fishers in Myanmar face a range of vulnerability issues from flooding, storms, high winds, storm surges, and hypoxia in coastal areas that negatively impact fisheries. Coastal erosion often washes away the settlements of small-scale fishers in Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Vanuatu, and Colombia.

Lack of assets and income are endemic in small-scale fisheries among many countries, particularly in the global south,which makes fishers less resilient to any setback. In Bangladesh, many fishers earn less than 4 USD per day. Small-scale fishers usually have a very low percentage of attendance and completion of secondary-level studies, as in the case of Peru. Consequently, illiteracy becomes a barrier to developing capacity and entrepreneurial skills. In Ecuador and Cambodia, fishers are settled in places with no access to basic social infrastructures and good sanitation. In Nigeria, facilities such as cold storage and processing plants are poorly developed. This gross under-capacity of infrastructure and improper handling, especially during the peak period of fishing, may result in low quality fish and thus a price drop of the catch.Small-scale fishers also face intense competition in their fishing space. In Thailand, Senegal, Brazil, and Venezuela, conflicts arise due to competition for fishing grounds and destruction or losses of artisanal fishing gears caused by industrial fishing. Externalities due to pollution also disproportionately affect small-scale fisheries in different parts of the world. For example, in Colombia, lobster and anorchia crab disappeared after the incident of petroleum spill in San Antero in 1994. As a result, fishers experienced a dire situation of no-catch.A similar event (in 2007) also happened in Mexico. In the Philippines, the flux of anthropogenic sewage, siltation from agriculture and forestry runoff, and coastal development are contributing to disappearance of fish species.

In some societies, small-scale fishers are unprivileged in the context of wider society as the fishing profession is seen as 'lower profession.' Fishers are also underrepresented in policy arenas. In Colombia, neither the national government nor the Colombian citizens recognize or respect the critical role of fishers in society. Small-scale fishers also become vulnerable when government adopts fishery and development policies without due consideration to fishers' needs and concerns. Coastal development programs such as tourism development in Fiji displace fishers from their fishing space and living places along the coast. In Papua New Guinea, the socio-economic condition of fishers deteriorated in recent years after national closure of the sea cucumber fishery. While small-scale fishers in many developing countries face a constant struggle for survival in settings beyond their control, in developed nations, small-scale fishers are also disadvantaged compared to many other fellow citizens.In the context of different social challenges and low environmental stocks in the Newfoundland fishery, Canada, Neis et al. (2013) quote one fisher describing the fishery as "harsh suffering."

The case studies from 25 countries across the globe illustrate the wide range of contexts, factors, and consequences of vulnerability among small-scale fishing communities. Vulnerability undermines the role of small-scale fisheries as providers of sustainable livelihoods, good health and wellbeing, food security, and economic development, thus hindering different targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from being achieved. While context-specific case studies produced by this research show unique aspects of life and struggles of small-scale fishers, a common threat of their vulnerable livelihoods is clearly identifiable.