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Small-scale fishers: supporting people and nature worldwide 

Environment Programme / Partner story

Photo credit: EMEDO 

Small-scale fisheries engage approximately 108 million people world-wide, many of whom support and sustain the communities and families they are a part of.1 Small-scale fishers generally work from small boats, or do not have boats at all, so they tend to fish not far from shore, or inland in rivers and lakes.  

“This means that their work is far more sustainable, their impact on the biodiversity of the ocean is minimal, and they play a big role in feeding their communities, particularly in developing countries,” says Imani Fairweather-Morrison, programme officer for Oak’s Food Sub-programme. In addition, small-scale fisheries provide jobs for millions of people and are pivotal to protecting natural habitats.  

All around the world, small-scale fishers are coming together to help build their resilience against external factors that are influencing their ability to maintain their way of life. Xavier Basurto of the Nicolas School of Environment at Duke University has found that worldwide, there are over 700 small-scale fisher organisations, and of these, 282 are national in scope, representing at least 55 per cent of global catch worldwide. Their work is important in helping policy makers understand how they contribute to a sustainable future for the planet. This is important, as people working in small-scale fisheries are often overlooked by policy-makers, even though their lives are severely impacted by offshore extractive activities, such as industrial fishing and climate change.  

Oak’s Environment Programme supports people and organisations working to transform the wild food supply chain, and promote an economy where seafood is allowed to recover and be harvested sustainably. This will help ensure the food security of coastal and Indigenous communities. We also support organisations that work toward increasing fisheries transparency and reducing labour rights abuses. We also seek to build the capacity of self-led organisations that represent small-scale fishers. We believe there is an unprecedented opportunity at the global level to bring together the climate, human rights, and labour movements, by focusing on the fishers and Indigenous peoples in the marine environment. Read on to find out what some of our partners are doing.  

Women in small-scale fisheries  

Some 40 per cent of small-scale fishers worldwide are women. Oak supports organisations working to generate knowledge and a deeper understanding of the issues related to women in the sector. Women’s tasks often include making or mending fishing gear, and processing, transporting, trading, and selling fish. Because their work tends to be less visible, they are rarely accounted for in the fisheries statistics and are often under-represented in governance arenas. They face significant barriers to meaningful participation in management decisions in the sector.  

The Food and Agriculture Organization came together with Duke University and WorldFish to coordinate more than 800 experts working on over 60 per cent of both global marine and inland catch small-scale fisheries. The full research findings, called Illuminating Hidden Harvest Report, is due out in 2023. It looks holistically at small-scale fisheries by examining their environmental, economic, nutrition, and governance dimensions, with gender as a cross-cutting theme. Editrudith Lukanga has been working with women fish processors and traders across Africa for more than ten years. She is one of the founders of the African Women Fish Processors and Traders Network (AWFISHNET), a pan-African women’s network that connects and builds solidarity among women working within the small-scale fishing sector. AWFISHNET has helped women across 44 countries to come together to engage in fisheries management, and access the best market strategies to sell fish. “If women are supported to build and collaborate through their organisations, they will be empowered to participate in all forms of decision making and policy-making processes,” says Editrudith. 

Industrial trawling in Africa  

Industrial fleets pose a significant challenge to small-scale fishers. For example, industrial bottom trawling is a destructive practice that impacts deep-sea marine biodiversity and ecosystems. The African Confederation of Professional Organisations of Artisanal Fisheries (CAOPA) brings together artisanal fisheries professionals from 27 African countries that work to defend the interests of artisanal fisheries in Africa. CAOPA raises awareness about damage caused by industrial trawlers, and trains local people in maritime safety and new geolocation techniques.  

CAOPA also tackles the issue of fishmeal being used to feed farmed fish overseas, which is threatening food security in West Africa. “It is our sardinella, in a state of overexploitation, that are being transformed into fishmeal and oil for export, often to feed aquaculture fish in other countries,” says Gaoussou Gueye, CAOPA’s president.2 

The Ghana National Canoe Fishermen Council (GNCFC), an association of artisanal fishers, represents the interests of artisanal fishers in Ghana and stands up against bottom trawling. The GNCFC is led by chief fishers, who are the first point of call when it comes to resolving conflicts within fishing communities. The GNCFC helped generate the necessary buy-in from local people that supported the successful implementation of a one-month government-imposed closed season for artisanal fishing in Ghana in June 2019, to allow fish stocks a chance to recover.  

Recently, the GNCFC led a national campaign to call for an end to the ‘saiko’ trade, which is the illegal harvesting of fish by industrial trawlers. Today, industrial trawlers – licensed to fish for species of fish that dwell at the bottom of the ocean – are also targeting fish specifically for the saiko trade. These catches, which often include large quantities of young fish, are frozen in blocks and transferred at sea to local fishermen who then sell it on cheaply to the communities living on the coast. Saiko is a highly organised, lucrative, illegal industry. Ultimately, this system is forcing artisanal fishing communities to buy back fish that has effectively been stolen from them. The GNCFC-led advocacy contributed to the end of unsupervised trans-shipments at sea, and a ministerial directive that has contributed to stopping juvenile fish being landed by industrial trawlers.  

The GNCFC engaged the fisheries authorities to interrogate the licensing of new vessels in the trawling sector. Many local people attribute their current low catches to Ghana’s industrial trawl fishing sector, which is threatening the food and job security of many coastal dwellers. In 2021, the GNCFC presented a petition to reduce the number of fishing days for industrial trawl fleets. As a result, fishing days for trawler trips have been reduced from 45 days to 30 days per trip. This lowers the incentive to sell saiko at sea, reduces the time in total that trawlers spend fishing, and is better for crew.  

Fish, not oil  

There are more than 6.5 million small-scale fishers in Nigeria alone, where oil, gas, and mining activities threaten the safety of fishing communities, destroy their livelihoods, and deny them access to an affordable source of nutrition. 

Poet and activist Nnimmo Bassey is based in Nigeria and sees these issues firsthand. A decade ago, Nnimmo established Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an environmental/ecological think tank and advocacy organisation that challenges unjust socio-ecological systems to ensure the health of the planet and people. “We hear the call of nature to live in harmony with her and not to destroy the home she has given us,” says Nnimmo.  

HOMEF has brought together a network of fishers called FishNet Alliance to share experiences, and monitor ecosystem changes such as spills and gas flares. HOMEF promotes and elevates the respect of local knowledge and wisdom in preserving local species and livelihoods. The FishNet Alliance is connected to continental and international networks, where in solidarity with other community groups and not-for-profit organisations worldwide, it advocates for clean energy, food sovereignty, and changes in ocean and rural economy governance. 

Connecting for success 

Green Connections is a South African not-for-profit group working to empower citizens to engage on national issues. Through its Legacy Programme, it achieved major success by fostering connections among civil society groups and communities to strengthen collective advocacy efforts. Under the banner of Green Connections’ ‘Who Stole Our Oceans’ campaign, South Africa halted Oil Companies such as Total and Shell’s seismic testing plans, which were mapping the seabed for oil and gas. The communities based their legal argument on the longstanding use and importance of the sea from a food, livelihoods, and wellbeing standpoint, and their right to be consulted. “I remember how my grandmother jumped up in the air the day we won the court case. It was a huge victory for fishers nationwide,” says Taitum-Lee Manuals, a Legacy Programme youth leader.  

These are only some of the efforts of the organisations we support, which are working to protect our oceans and support the wellbeing of communities who live predominantly off them.

This work falls under the Food Sub-programme of our Environment Programme, which supports not-for-profit organisations working to bring about a just, equitable, and sustainable food system. We believe that no other sector has a bigger impact on the health of our climate, our oceans, our land, our forests, and our own health and wellbeing. You can read more in our strategy on our website: