Connecting “poorest of the poor” tropical fishermen to global markets

Published on
July 10, 2017

In the tropical waters of Indonesia and the Philippines, fishermen strike out in small, un-decked wooden boats, powered by 10- or 30-horsepower engines. Regulations forbid a few practices, such as fishing in marine protected areas and using dynamite or cyanide to catch fish, but the rules are limited and enforcement can be spotty.

A few decades ago, the waters were bountiful, and a short fishing trip in near-shore waters would yield a few dozen kilograms of fish, according to Dale Galvin, the managing director of sustainable markets and finance at the conservation group Rare. But in recent decades, fish stocks have declined because of increasing industrialization of commercial fishing, rising human populations and more efficient and destructive equipment.

Now, these fishermen struggle to make a living. They have to go further out, exposing their boats to rougher ocean conditions. And they catch much less: two to four kilos per day on average.

“Small-scale fishermen and women in the Philippines and Indonesia are among the poorest of the poor,” Galvin told SeafoodSource.

The fishermen sell their product into short, highly disaggregated supply chains with low profit margins at every segment. 

These muddled supply chains – and the regulatory environments that govern them – differ in nearly every way from the high-volume, high-price, single-species industrial white fish fisheries carefully managed by rich governments in other parts of the world, where decades of data inform regulatory decisions and governments with strong infrastructure enforce those regulations. 

Fishermen in those well-managed fisheries frequently get their products certified as sustainable, and can meet rising consumer demand for environmentally friendly seafood, while also charging a premium price. 

But tropical small-scale fisheries have been left out of this growing market for sustainably certified seafood. And they haven’t had the same market incentives pushing them to pursue sustainability measures.

A new multi-group partnership seeks to change that.

Rare, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, the seafood company Salty Girl Seafood and the Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative (ASIC) have partnered to push sustainability in small-scale tropical fisheries. The partnership will leverage global demand for sustainably sourced seafood to incentivize sustainability improvements in tropical fisheries – while also bettering the livelihoods of the fishermen.

“The true value of this work is in building sustainable fisheries that support local fishing communities and contribute to domestic market access, food security and livelihoods," Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, director of global fisheries and aquaculture at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said in a statement.

Seafood Watch will offer advice on ways fisheries need to improve to earn the organization’s Good Alternative rating. Rare, along with ASIC, will design and implement improvement protocols for each fishery site. Salty Girl will act as the conduit for the fish to reach North American markets.

“Salty Girl customers are already committed to buying sustainable products and will likely be receptive to the story each of these products carries,” Ryan Bigelow, program engagement manager Seafood Watch, told SeafoodSource.

Each fishery will need to make different changes to meet Seafood Watch’s standards, depending on the fishing methods, the status of the stock and the biology of the target species. Those that do will earn a Seafood Watch rating.

Generally, fishermen will have to register with the local government, use appropriate gear that doesn’t damage the environment, catch only fish of the minimum size and respect managed access areas, no-take zones and fishing seasons. Fisheries will need to have a management plan, ensuring the stock isn’t overfished and no endangered species are in the bycatch.

The partners have identified a pilot site at Bantayan Island, where the main species are blue swimming crab, rabbit fish, and squid. An improvement protocol for Bantayan will focus on the small-scale fishing methods targeting those three species. Other pilots in Indonesia and the Philippines will be rolled out over the next two years.

Current certification schemes do exist, but offer very low price premiums for fishermen — and sometimes no premium at all, Galvin said. Rare and its partners, by contrast, are aiming for a 10 to 20 percent consistent premium for those who comply with sustainability standards.

Most fishermen shouldn’t need to buy new gear or boats, Galvin said. However, some management plans might require less fishing, resulting in lower incomes until stocks recover. 

To prevent inadvertent damage to fisheries, compliance has to be tightly tied to sustainable fishing methods, Galvin said. And to prevent prices rising for staple fish in local communities – which would worsen food security – Rare and its partners will buy only a maximum of 60 percent of the local catch of staple fish.

Additionally, Rare and its partners will guarantee high prices no matter the supply by committing to buy a certain amount of a species at a certain price. 

“Price premiums are not the only or most important selling point for fishers,” Galvin said. “Rather, it is the certainty to sell their catch at a constant high price.”

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