Date released
19 July 2022

To help draw attention to the role and importance of small-scale fisheries, the United Nations has marked 2022 as the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture.

For ACIAR Research Program Manager for Fisheries, Professor Ann Fleming, this is good news. Most ACIAR-supported fisheries research is focused on supporting the livelihoods of those dependent on small-scale fisheries, including both marine and inland fisheries. Knowing its importance to food security and its value to people’s culture and community economies helps ensure research is prioritised appropriately.

‘We do need to collect evidence that demonstrates the significance of small-scale fisheries and traders, who are often women, and their importance to food security, nutrition and income. We are focused on understanding the role of fisheries in contributing to resilient livelihoods in the face of climatic shocks and global disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic,’ Professor Fleming says.

‘And it’s important not to just focus on the collecting and harvesting of fish and other seafoods such as crustaceans, molluscs and seaweeds, but also their processing and trade. There’s a whole lot of enterprises and small business opportunities for people from diverse social identities that trade fish.’

While there is no internationally agreed standard definition of small-scale fisheries, Professor Fleming describes them as including subsistence fishing and the limited use of technology.

A matrix of factors that consider technical, social and cultural characteristics of a fishing activity can be used to help consider what is a small-scale fishery. This can include factors such as type of fishing gear, boat length and size, catch rates, significance of fishing as a livelihood and the ethnicity of the people fishing.

Preliminary findings from the FAO’s ‘Illuminating Hidden Harvest’ report, which is due out in late 2022, shed some light on the importance of small-scale fishing. It reports that 40% – or 37 million tonnes – of the global fish catch comes from small-scale fishing, with the proportion in Asia being much higher. So, while in one sense it is small in scale, in another, it is anything but small.

Fisheries sustainability

The impact of small-scale fisheries therefore not only has an impact on the many people who catch and consume fish but also on the health of the fish stocks and their environments.

According to Professor Fleming the ‘jewel in the crown’ of ACIAR-funded freshwater fisheries research is the fish ladder work that started in Lao PDR and is now being rolled out in Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Fish ‘ladders’ allow fish to traverse rivers freely to feed and breed despite obstacles such as dams and weirs, built to aid water management for agriculture. Their development and implementation with local communities across South-East Asian countries has helped to increase fish stocks in small tributaries and wetlands supporting better environmental and human health outcomes.

Small-scale fisheries not only have an impact on the many people who catch and consume fish, but also the health of fish stocks and their environment.

‘The focus of our fish ladder work is to support local communities manage the fish passages and the sustainability of their local fisheries resource. The fish ladders return those stocks to their breeding grounds. It is a form of community-based fisheries management,’ says Professor Fleming.

‘While there is a technical intervention to improve river connectivity, the community focus of the work is about sustainable harvests.’

In June 2022, on the back of the success of the work, the Australian Government announced more funding to support fish ladders across the Mekong region.

Involving women

A key message and thematic component of the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture is to acknowledge the central role women play in small-scale artisanal fisheries and aquaculture.

Professor Fleming explains one of the unique roles of women: ‘Traditionally, women have responsibility, knowledge and ownership of the intertidal zone, harvesting vertebrates, seaweeds and small fish for example.’

She adds that the role of women in processing fish also has great potential to evolve into value-adding.

‘In one ACIAR-supported project in Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste we are working with communities to innovate new ideas of value adding with fish products, with a specific focus on women’s enterprises,’ she says. ‘In this way we focus on better utilising the fish catch and minimising waste loss rather than promoting more fishing pressure on already stressed stocks’.

‘For instance, producing fish powder by drying, grinding and packaging fish. The powder can then be sprinkled on meals. That’s really very important because it can be used in baby foods and for younger children to help them get access to key nutrients during their first critical 1,000 days of life when the brain, body and immune system is developing.’

Such fish powders can be locally produced and their development taps into local enterprises and particularly women’s expertise.

In an interview conducted for the limited podcast series ‘ACIAR Voices’, Dr Meryl Williams – former Director General of WorldFish and gender equity advocate – reflects on the growing appreciation of the role of women in small-scale fisheries.

‘The roles of women are really starting to come out,’ says Dr Williams. She credits the ‘careful work’ of ACIAR that has ensured women have been substantially involved in fisheries projects, notably in the Pacific region.

‘I’ve seen the work in the Pacific bear fruits with actual projects. But more than projects, of course, farms and community group enterprises in places like Fiji and Tonga… [have led to] people actually prospering because of the work that ACIAR did. I’ve seen it grow into the gender policy, which now informs the whole of ACIAR work.’

With both women and small-scale fisheries as a whole getting more attention for the role they play in supporting communities and healthy environments, it is anticipated both will continue to flourish.