Why Africa’s small-scale fisheries “may not count”

Despite the huge potential of Africa’s small-scale fisheries to boost the region’s food security, ramp up nutritional levels, alleviate poverty, and enhance environmental conservation, decision-makers across the continent have given the sector little attention – largely because of inadequate data to support its potential role in sustainable development.

John Virdin, the director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, is hoping to change the perception of Africa's small-scale fisheries as part of a continuing partnership with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Both institutions recently signed an agreement to carry out an assessment and promotion of the role of small-scale fisheries in African society, and to work to enhance the sector’s contribution to the continent's sustainable development.

“The old adage that ‘what isn’t counted doesn’t count’ sometimes seems to apply to fisheries policy in a number of countries throughout the region,” Virdin told SeafoodSource.

The main objective of the partnership, which was announced on 9 October 2020 during a virtual event hosted by FAO’s office in Washington, D.C., is to “create solid evidence base for countries to use in developing strategies and policies to support sustainable small-scale fisheries," Virdin said.

Additionally, the collaboration will explore ways of building on research collaborations between FAO and Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Marine Lab, and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, in addition to “opening the door for FAO and Duke to collaborate on additional areas of study, potentially including seafood markets, aquaculture, mangrove restoration, and forests.”

Virdin is one of the experts tapped to spearhead the new collaboration, and has for many years focused on fishery management for food and livelihoods, development of ocean-based economic policies, coastal adaptation, and reduction in ocean plastic pollution. The roll of small-scale fisheries, Virdin said, is often overlooked.

“The role of small-scale fisheries is not well-studied, understood, or accounted for in data upon which policy-makers make decisions that affect these fisheries,” Virdin said. “All too often, small-scale fisheries are marginalized in the region’s policies and formal decision-making, de-prioritized for other ocean and coastal uses or users.”

 Virdin lauded the new collaboration between FAO and Duke University, which he said would, with the support of a network of universities, research agencies and partners throughout the Africa region, “enable Duke University to support increased research and attention to the unique characteristics of small-scale fisheries in Africa.

“Our aim is to work together and support local researchers and governments in Africa and other emerging economies, to further shine a light on the important role that these fisheries play in society,” he said.

Duke University’s Nicholas Institute, together with the institution’s World Food Policy Center at its Sanford School for Policy, have been at the forefront in supporting research and education on sustainable seafood. That research includes small-scale fisheries, and the latest partnership with FAO is likely to build on past experiences. For example, Virdin said FAO, Duke University, and WorldFish are revisiting and expanding the 2012 “Illuminating Hidden Harvests” study focusing more on pre-harvest, harvest, and post-harvest phases of both inland and marine small scale fisheries.

The study, he said, provides an opportunity for the three institutions to “work with researchers in a number of universities throughout the African continent, as well as research agencies.”

But even with the many years of research, African countries, especially where small-scale fisheries remain major sources of seafood, must take a concrete step in “prioritizing and listening to the findings and work already underway in small scale fisheries by researchers,” Virdin said.

He said countries in the continent Africa should further support and link the research effort, “as part of a network and field of study.”

Previous interactions with key stakeholders in Africa’s small-scale fisheries reveal, according to Virdin, that many countries have been working to suggest different approaches to the governance of small-scale fisheries, including giving participants a larger say in the decision-making process.

“Our hope is that by further increasing the evidence-base, that case for small scale fisheries can only be strengthened, and the voice of fishers and their communities further strengthened in formal decision-making,” he said.

Virdin singled out the Too Big to Ignore Network, a Canada-based non-profit research organization that helped create the Information System on Small-Scale Fisheries, through which “there has been so much work and progress in expanding the knowledge base on small-scale fisheries and research over the last one to two decades," Virdin said.

“Our hope is that the field only continues to strengthen through partnerships and support, to help shine a brighter and brighter light on the role that these fisheries play in societies, from livelihoods, to food security, to culture, among others – and to co-produce and share this knowledge with the fishing communities themselves, to empower them to take a greater role in fisheries governance,” Virdin said.  

Photo courtesy of Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock


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