Thursday, March 17, 2016

Size matters: fishing less and yielding more in smaller-scale fisheries

  Some of us, when thinking about fisheries, imagine those big boats trawling along the ocean floor; others have a more idyllic view and imagine somebody on a canoe with a pole in his hand while the sun sets in the background. Of course, there will be people imagining everything in between. It is not far-fetched to say that everybody is right, fisheries encompass all of these. However, each fishery has a set of factors that characterizes it: boat size, gear and the technology used are only a few examples. These factors are also highly dependent on market characteristics, as well as on the social conditions where the fishery takes place. It is no surprise then that there is no worldwide accepted definition of what is large and what is small-scale fisheries. What is considered  small scale in one location may as well be interpreted as large in another.
Between the 50’s and the 70’s, there was this general understanding that the future of fishing relied on the industrial sector. The only path for artisanal and small-scale fisheries, considered inefficient, would be modernisation towards becoming industrial, until they completely disappeared. Although such hopes have not become true, the idea that “the bigger the better” still infests many minds, including some governmental ones, who believe that larger boats are actually more efficient. But are they really?

Photo by Laura Honda

    This is what we discussed in our most recent paper "Size matters: fishing less and yielding more in smaller-scale fisheries". The study investigated the existence of possible subdivisions within small-scale fisheries (SSF) themselves, assuming what we all know: things vary greatly within any category, especially within a category to which there is no single definition. We compared small and even smaller scale fisheries  (based on boat size and gear used) regarding their economic performance and relative social and environmental impacts to try to find out if one of them would be better positioned to support sustainability. We thought this was a relevant issue to assess because in some countries, like Brazil, governments still enjoy subsidizing larger and more modern fleets, while sometimes  (perhaps most of the time) ignoring the little ones. Subsidies, of course, increase the profits or reduce the losses that an economic activity would have without such little hand from the government. But subsidies are controversial, especially in fisheries, where they have been shown to have a complex relation with trade, ecological sustainability and socioeconomic development. It is widely acknowledged that global fisheries are overcapitalized, resulting in the depletion of fishery resources.