• From local to global:
    How research enables resilient
    and sustainable small-scale fisheries

    WorldFish research on fisheries governance and food security is helping fishers
    and traders improve the resilience and productivity of small-scale fisheries
    and gain a voice in global and regional policy.

Small-scale capture fisheries—where fishers operating from the shore or small fishing vessels use simple methods to catch fish from inland or coastal waters—are an often irreplaceable source of nutrition and income in the developing world. Ensuring the sustainability of these fisheries will require coordinated, multi-scale and research-backed governance of ocean and inland aquatic systems that balance the needs and interests of all users.

Governance systems, however, have been developed with a primary focus on the more profitable large-scale commercial fishing sector, as well as powerful interests from the tourism and oil and gas sectors. This means the largest group of resource users—the 108 million small-scale fishers and traders in developing countries, and the billions more who derive critical nutritional value from the resource—are overlooked in the determination of policies that have a direct impact on their lives.

To better recognize the needs of this large constituency, WorldFish together with partners conducts research on-the-ground with small-scale fishers and traders to determine appropriate governance and technical solutions. These insights are then used to influence global and regional policies to better support more equitable economic, social and ecological outcomes.

As part of the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems, these efforts will together improve the resilience and productivity of small-scale fisheries systems, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) around sustainable use of marine resources (goal 14), improved food security (goal 2) and responsible production and consumption of food (goal 12).

The vast benefits of small-scale fisheries

Small-scale fisheries offer vast benefits to society at large, but especially to developing countries, including economic stability and growth, food and nutrition security, and buffering against extreme poverty and vulnerability.

Globally, the fisheries sector employs 120 million people. Of these, 97 percent of fishers live in developing countries and 90 percent work in small-scale fisheries. In these settings, hundreds of millions more engage on a seasonal, occasional or opportunistic basis. Inland, river and delta fisheries (often overshadowed by more visible coastal and marine fisheries) contribute half of the wild-caught fish consumed in developing countries, and employ over half the workforce. And, women play a major role in the fisheries sector, comprising almost half of the total workforce. In developing countries, women manage up to 90 percent of secondary fisheries activities such as processing and marketing.

The majority of small-scale fishers are self-employed and their catch is often consumed directly by their household or community. Income generated by individuals, households or small enterprises contributes to local economies.

Nutritionally, fish is an important source of protein and in developing countries fish is often cheaper and more readily available than other protein sources. In some coastal and island countries, fish accounts for up to 70 percent of the population’s intake of protein. Fish is also a rich source of nutrients and minerals that are critical to good health and cognitive and physical development, especially in the first 1000 days of life.

A key feature of small-scale fisheries is that fishers can move in and out of a fishery, or rely on it relatively more or less as particular needs, challenges or opportunities arise. This flexibility allows poor and vulnerable households—when they face a sudden economic, environmental or social shock such as a natural disaster or decline in income for example—to engage in fishing, processing or trading activities as a safety net to sustain their livelihood and avoid some of the effects of falling into poverty.

Threatened small-scale fisheries are under-reported and undervalued

Competition for resources, over-harvesting, pollution, environmental degradation and rapid development have all played a role in eroding the benefits of small-scale fisheries in the last three to four decades.

In many instances, ill-considered governance reforms or a lack of governance capacity have favored powerful, well-resourced actors and restricted access to resources, political processes or market structures that small-scale fisheries need to remain viable. Indeed, many high-level efforts to combat the perceived global environmental crisis have come to focus on designating ‘no-fishing’ areas or assigning commercial and individual fisheries access rights. While these approaches can have a place within a suite of governance strategies and management tools, they also carry risks for some resource users notes Dr. Pip Cohen, leader of the WorldFish program on Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries.

“These approaches often concentrate power and generate wealth for a relative few, fail to recognize the diverse rights and flexibility of small-scale fishers, and interrupt mechanisms that previously distributed economic and food security benefits broadly—particularly to those most in need,” she says.

Better data are critical says Cohen: “It’s hard to capture just how much small-scale fishery activities—which are mostly part time or informal and happen in remote areas—are contributing to food security, employment and national food production. Unfortunately, this information deficit means that efforts to improve governance around small-scale fisheries are under-resourced.”

WorldFish has been conducting research on small-scale fisheries for over 20 years in countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malawi and Solomon Islands.

“WorldFish research is grounded and applied, and is generated through learning-by-doing; so that means testing and refining solutions with fishers,” says Cohen. “Through this, WorldFish researchers help determine how to improve fisheries governance so it leads to more equitable economic growth, improved human nutrition, and fisherwomen and fishermen having a greater voice in decisions that affect their lives.”

Fishing is often seen as a man’s domain, meaning in developing countries that women’s contributions often go unseen and women are excluded from decisions on small-scale fisheries governance. Dr. Pip Cohen, Program Leader of the Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Research Program at WorldFish, explains how WorldFish works to overcome these barriers.


To inform lasting solutions to the complex role and potential of fisheries-for-development, WorldFish generates and shares its research findings with fisheries managers and policymakers at the local, national, regional and global levels. This ultimately influences and improves global and regional policies and the ways they are implemented.

While fishing activities can be very localized, fisheries governance involves many stakeholders such as regional and national government and non-government agencies, fishers, fish workers, consumers and fishing communities. By working across multiple scales, WorldFish hopes to ensure all governing bodies share the responsibility for managing fisheries and for realizing improved outcomes for fishers and for fishing communities.

How research can affect change among fishers and communities

Global, regional and national policies recognize that, in many contexts, small-scale fisheries are managed most effectively though co-management—where fishers and fishing communities themselves are empowered as managers alongside NGO or government partners.

WorldFish therefore engages fishers and their communities as co-researchers when identifying, testing and refining solutions to local fishery challenges in countries. Importantly, this is coupled with direct engagement with government to ensure that enabling conditions (such as technical support, policies or legislative arrangements) are established.


Despite having some of the most expansive freshwater fisheries in the world, Cambodia’s inland fisheries production is increasingly under threat from issues such as large infrastructure development (e.g. dam construction), population growth, habitat degradation, and destructive fishing practices.

Since 2011, WorldFish has worked locally with 14 villages to empower them to co-manage fisheries in the Stung Treng Ramsar Site—a 37 km stretch of the Upper Mekong River designated as a ‘wetland of international importance’.

This approach—which included community patrolling, the creation of five conversation zones and a new knowledge-sharing network—has led to reports of increasing fish stocks in the area, more equitable access to fishing for local stakeholders, and a greater sense of shared responsibility between all stakeholders.

Solomon Islands

Communities in Solomon Islands have a long history of cultural practices relating to natural resource use, which can be modified to manage contemporary fisheries. The national government and many NGOs have promoted community-based fisheries management as one key strategy to help narrow the country’s fish-for-food security supply gap.

Since 2005, WorldFish has worked directly with at least 30 different villages to facilitate discussions on shared fishery goals, to exchange contemporary and local knowledge on solutions, and to collectively design fisheries management measures.

This approach has been successful in villages with strong local leadership and community-wide involvement. WorldFish research shows that community-based fisheries management can lead to short-term increases in abundance, and the efficiency with which fish and shellfish are harvested—ensuring plenty of seafood is available at times of high need.

In addition, WorldFish has worked with the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources to design a fishing strategy and related legislation that formalizes the role of communities in the management of coastal fisheries.


The Barotse Floodplain in Zambia provides the region’s 250,000 inhabitants with a critical source of income and food, particularly fish. But fishers, processors and traders have limited means to preserve fish, meaning around one-third of fish is often lost during processing and trading, jobs that are mostly done by women.

Between 27% and 39% of the global fish catch is being wasted each year, but the impact of these losses is most felt by the poor in developing countries. Froukje Kruijssen, a senior advisor at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, explains why the poor are so vulnerable to postharvest losses and what WorldFish is doing about it.

As part of the Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAf) project (late 2014 to early 2017), WorldFish worked with 256 fishers, processors and traders from six fishing camps in the Barotse Floodplain to trial fish processing technologies such as salting, ice and solar drying tents.

Research finds that the improved technologies can reduce losses and decrease the time burdens of women. This research is critical to increasing the likelihood that the benefits of small-scale fisheries are optimized for both women and men.

The first-ever global instrument on small-scale fisheries

Research is boosting recognition of the need to protect the benefits of small-scale fisheries in fisheries governance discussions and policies.

In 2012, WorldFish partnered with the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to produce Hidden harvest: The global contribution of capture fisheries. “This was the first attempt to provide global figures on the importance of small-scale fisheries—a critical first step to giving the sector more visibility,” explains Nicole Franz, Fishery Planning Analyst, FAO.

This pivotal research, along with a call for an international instrument on small-scale fisheries from delegates at a 2008 conference organized by FAO, WorldFish and others, led to the development of the International Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in 2014.

This is the first-ever international instrument dedicated to small-scale fisheries, and was the result of a four-year process led by FAO that involved 4000 representatives from governments, small-scale fishers, fish workers, researchers and other stakeholders from more than 120 countries.

The guidelines promote a human rights-based approach to governance, which WorldFish research suggests will increase the likelihood of achieving human development and resource sustainability outcomes in small-scale fisheries in developing countries. “This approach captures the full contributions of small-scale fisheries because it looks at traditional issues such as access rights, as well as issues of social development, gender, disaster risk, climate change and decent work,” says Franz.

Since the introduction of the guidelines, WorldFish has continued working with small-scale fishers and governments to build capacity and to both adapt national and regional policies to enable better delivery of the commitments made in the guidelines.

Finding lasting solutions

Increasingly, the benefits that small-scale fisheries provide are being threatened by ineffective and inappropriate governance, inequitable fishing rights and external factors such as competition for space with other sectors, infrastructure development and climate change.

But, says Cohen, there’s no single solution to solve these problems faced by small-scale fisheries. The social and ecological contexts in which these fisheries operate are particularly complex and dynamic.

“Small-scale fisheries operate in situations where there may be poverty, alongside economic and social inequality and where natural environments are facing multiple pressures. Social and environmental objectives can’t be addressed in isolation from these broader concerns and opportunities.”

By working locally with fishers and fishing communities, engaging them as co-researchers, and ensuring enabling conditions for effective governance are in place, WorldFish is helping find lasting solutions to improve the resilience and productivity of small-scale fisheries. These efforts are necessarily supported by policy and action at regional and global scales.

Interdisciplinary WorldFish research continues to provide policymakers with much-needed insight into developing solutions to ensure small-scale fisheries remain a foundation for livelihoods and food security in many parts of the world. Increasingly, this is resulting in the concerns and rights of small-scale fishers being recognized in global and regional policies, the active uptake of which WorldFish and partners continue to support.

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