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Stephen Hall, WorldFish

Stephen Hall believes policy development needs to involve stakeholders at all levels (© WorldFish)
Stephen Hall believes policy development needs to involve stakeholders at all levels
© WorldFish

Fisheries policy - widening the net

Stephen Hall, director general of WorldFish, believes that fisheries policy development needs to involve stakeholders at all levels and view the sector within the broader context of rural development.

With all the doom and gloom in the popular press about our over-exploited fish stocks, it's perhaps not surprising that most fisheries policies have a fairly one directional focus on sustainable catch levels. While there is no question that over-fishing is a concern - particularly in the coastal regions of Asia - policy makers need to be much more aware of the broader range of benefits and roles that fisheries play. Simply focussing on how to limit catches and reduce the numbers of people in the sector in order to maximise yields is not the way forward, particularly in the developing world.

Instead, policy makers need to be thinking about other issues, such as how to take advantage of the capacity of fisheries to provide jobs, or to meet crises when, for example, crops fail. And developing policies along those lines needs to come from a broader, more inclusive conversation with all the stakeholders in the fisheries sector. In recent years, we've seen some examples of this, in decentralisation and community-based fisheries management.

In Solomon Islands for example, community based management is highly effective, as more than 90 per cent of coastal areas are under customary tenure, whereby certain families, clans or tribes have primary rights to access and use marine resources. Management approaches that have these customs and use rights as their foundation are more likely to be respected and meet the community's needs. This has been recognised in the Apia Policy (2008), which was the first Pacific regional mechanism to acknowledge, involve and promote traditional systems of management.

However, in many countries there is still a tendency for policy to be made by an enclave of 'experts', who tend to stick to traditional dogmas about reducing capacity and maximising rents from fisheries. This is probably the biggest obstacle for organisations like WorldFish in promoting a policy rethink. We need to find ways to open up the conversation, and to think about fisheries in the broader context of rural development, involving stakeholders right down to community level. And to achieve that, the challenge will be to get small scale fisheries - which are the dominant kind of fishery, globally - recognised as an important part of national economies.

No silver bullets

This is crucial, because to be effective, fisheries policy needs to be context specific. Imagine the situation where you have large, industrial boats landing at a few ports, where catch rates can be monitored and fisheries management decisions taken accordingly. Now compare that with a canoe fishery, where you have thousands of small boats landing at lots of informal locations along a remote coastline. Both the purposes that these fisheries serve and the approaches for management and policy are, of course, enormously different.

Policies such as transferable quotas, reductions in capacity, or various kinds of use rights, for example, may work in a developed country context, where the economy is able to absorb people who have been forced to leave the fishing sector. But for a developing country, they may be inappropriate and damaging. There are no silver bullets in fisheries policy: no single prescription is going to work everywhere.

Successful, durable policy depends on stakeholder dialogue; understanding the perspectives, reconciling the various aspirations and expectations, and finding an approach which has the most 'buy in' from those who have the greatest incentive to making the fisheries work - the greatest amount to either gain or lose from its success or failure. An important policy question, however, is to decide at which level is this incentive at its greatest, something that will vary in different circumstances.

To stimulate and support the inclusive development of policy, we need to look at capacity building and to encourage dialogue about fisheries to take place within the broader discussion of rural development. Fisheries must not be put in a ghetto as a separate problem, but thought about within the context of the wider economy. Documenting success where it's happened, and trying to understand why, will be important - hence the need to fund more research into the political economy of fisheries.

Safety net

Governments also need to be encouraged to include fisheries, particularly small-scale fisheries, in national accounting, so that they take their rightful place on the policy agenda. In addition to the income and food they create, fisheries act as a vital social safety net in many countries, enhance social stability and provide numerous other resources, often in remote areas that centralised systems are unable to reach. Governments need to be more aware of the power that this often informal sector has to deliver social benefits which, if lost, would lead to significant hardship and unrest.

This is a very challenging area. But recognising the importance of small scale fisheries, and of the need for context-specific solutions to challenges in the sector, needs to be - and, I believe, will be - an increasingly prominent feature of the discussions around fisheries in the coming years.

Date published: July 2013


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