In the past, while many development interventions were implicitly aimed at reducing poverty, most were not explicitly focussed on improving the living conditions of poor people but aimed at accelerating economic growth through technology and infrastructure development, and market-led economic policies. The lack of an explicit focus on poverty may in part explain why many interventions have been neutral in their impacts on poverty, and some may actually have been detrimental. Certainly the continued levels of poverty in small-scale fishing communities, and in the world more generally, require all those concerned to take a fresh look at the problem.
It is increasingly acknowledged that poverty is a very complex, multi-dimensional concept, has many determinants, and is about much more than just low earnings i.e. income poverty. An explicit emphasis on poverty is therefore necessary to better define and understand it, both so as to be able measure progress towards poverty alleviation targets, but also to gain an improved awareness of whom it affects, and what are the most effective strategies for tackling it.
Poverty in small-scale fishing communities, as in other sectors, is difficult to measure. While there are many studies on poverty in farming communities and the urban poor, there are few empirical studies focussing on fisheries. Those that have been undertaken have often focussed just on income, and on the fishers themselves, rather than on a broader concept of poverty in fishing households and communities.
There is now an acceptance that poor fishers and their dependents are not a homogenous, unchanging group of people. The level of absolute and relative poverty, within and between small-scale fishing communities, varies considerably by area, country, and region.
Despite the certain existence of poverty traps within fishing communities, people move in and out of poverty, as well as becoming more or less poor. Fishing communities are often relatively cash rich, compared to farming communities, mainly because they're dealing with what is often a relatively high value commodity, but they remain vulnerable to sudden changes/loss of earnings. These changes in well-being mean that vulnerability is perhaps as important as poverty as an issue, and while related, is different from poverty. Some factors may be important determinants of poverty, but not of vulnerability, and vice versa.
Small-scale fishing communities are vulnerable to many events, the outcome of which may be poverty. Examples include: climatic/natural events such as yearly and seasonal fluctuations in stock abundance, poor catches, bad weather, and natural disasters such as cyclones and hurricanes; economic factors such as market price fluctuations, and variable access to markets; and the dangers of working at sea. But those in small-scale fishing communities may also be vulnerable to poor health and other wider determinants of poverty. There is an important need to better understand what makes fishers vulnerable to events and factors that result in poverty, what makes improving livelihoods difficult, and what are the solutions. Worryingly for the poor in small-scale fishing communities, and for those who are concerned about them, studies suggest that vulnerability appears to be increasing.
In developing countries there are many millions of people living in small-scale fishing communities. While it is now acknowledged that not all small-scale fishers can be assumed to be poor, a large proportion certainly are, and remain so despite the efforts of donor agencies, national and local governments, NGOs, and the communities themselves. Reasons for continuing poverty include factors within and outside of the fisheries sector: vulnerability as discussed above; insecure access to resources; proneness to resource depletion; the remoteness of many fishing communities; the agro-ecological characteristics of nearby land; their low socio-economic, cultural and political status; a lack of political and financial support (often as a result of an emphasis on semi-industrial and industrial fishing); and competition and conflict with industrial vessels and other economic sectors in coastal areas.
Despite the difficulties of measuring poverty in small-scale fishing communities, and indeed of defining who is a fisher (as fishers farm, and farmers fish) and what is a " ishing community", some crude estimates of the numbers of "income-poor" fishers can be proposed. Global estimates of income poor small-scale fishers and related employment in marine and inland capture fisheries suggest that 5.8 million, or 20% of the world's 29 million fishers, may be small-scale fishers earning less than $1 a day. The income-poor in related upstream and downstream activities e.g. boat-building, marketing, and processing, may be as many as 17.3 million. These figures suggest an overall estimate of 23 million income-poor people, plus their household dependents, relying on small-scale fisheries.
Poverty eradication strategies must be well focussed, but need to acknowledge that the determinants of poverty are wider than just economic factors, and include social, cultural and political variables. Understanding these determinants is crucial in designing and implementing effective solutions.
The poor can often be difficult to help due to poor health, illiteracy, a lack of time, and a common aversion to risk. Their lack of influence and power is an especially important problem, and necessitates trying to identify win-win solutions that are in the interests not just of the poor, but also of the rich, elite and powerful.
Solutions outside of the fisheries sector can be as important, if not more so, than strategies employed within the sector, and may therefore require action and co-ordination across sectors.
The World Bank suggests that "without economic growth there can be no long-term poverty reduction", citing the experience of the last decade. Between 1990 and 1999 those regions of the world with the fastest economic growth made the most gains in reducing the numbers of people living on less than $1 a day. In regions that experienced economic contraction, the numbers of income-poor increased. However, without concerted efforts to re-distribute wealth from economic growth, the gap between the rich and the poor is likely to widen.
Strong economic performance in a country as a whole is important for small-scale fishing communities because it can create alternative employment opportunities - this is vital given the current levels of resource exploitation and large numbers of people involved in fishing. Diversity and mobility are key livelihood strategies of the poor, and increases in general economic performance not only offer the potential for some fishers to leave fishing, thus benefiting those that remain, but also for those who remain to have a wider range of opportunities and possible strategies to contribute to household livelihoods (e.g. as has occurred in Thailand and Malaysia in recent years).
Increases in general economic performance also provide opportunities to improve health services, education, public service delivery (such as the provision of roads and thus access to markets), governance, political stability, and safety nets, all of which are likely to help with poverty alleviation in small-scale fishing communities. Even where there is little economic growth, there is still scope for progress towards poverty alleviation if policy makers address these issues.
Solutions within the fisheries sector As there is little scope for further expansion of capture fisheries given current levels of exploitation, it is crucial to manage fish resources to avoid further resource depletion. Effective and flexible management can improve incomes by limiting entry to the coastal fishery, by avoiding wasteful investments and over-capitalisation, and by supporting sustainable exploitation practices. It can also improve incomes for the poor by effectively protecting small-scale fishers from the activities of large-scale industrial vessels, thereby enlarging the resource base that the poor have to exploit.
There are many different types of fisheries management regimes including unregulated common property (i.e. de-facto open access), weakly to strongly regulated common property regimes, and management regimes which seek to use private property rights as a management tool. The influence of a particular management regime, and related regulations, on poverty can be significant, as can the governance framework and institutional arrangements that determine the distribution of wealth. Management regimes must therefore be appropriate for each specific context, and effectively enforced, so as to maximise the potential for poverty alleviation in small-scale fishing communities.
Community management, and perhaps even more so, co-management (the sharing of power and responsibility between the manager e.g. government, and the resource user e.g. small-scale fishers), offer promising solutions to poverty alleviation, although collective action and co-management can require many years of capacity-building to be effective.
The importance of alternative employment opportunities has already been stressed. Aquaculture is often suggested as a obvious alternative, and while potential certainly exists, there may be constraints preventing poor capture fishers moving into aquaculture in the form of high capital costs of marine aquaculture, lack of suitable sites, and the lack of access by the poor to land and water, so important for inland aquaculture. Marine-based (eco-)tourism provides another possible solution that is generating interest in many countries.
Development assistance has often been found to be particularly effective where it supports women in post-harvest and value-added activities, given that they often show a greater desire and ability than men to save and contribute to enhancing household assets. Equally, given that managerial ability and skill are key determinants of the success of individual fishing operations, interventions that upgrade management and skills, and which work with dynamic entrepreneurs, may be especially likely to have an impact on poverty in fishing communities.
Three other important solutions to poverty alleviation within the fisheries sector are worth mentioning.
Firstly, is an examination of the role of subsidies, which have often lead to over-exploitation. In some cases, subsidies to small-scale fisheries have also artificially skewed the use of factors of production, such that different mixes of capital and labour (e.g. use of smaller boats and engines, less fuel, and of more labour) could increase profits, create more employment and reduce debt. In addition, the removal of implicit subsidies to large-scale fishing operations would remove market distortions that often disadvantage small-scale fishers.
Secondly, support must be provided both for ex-ante risk management and for ex-post coping mechanisms that are used to deal with shocks and stresses, noting that strategies to reduce vulnerability may need to be different to those aimed at reducing poverty.
Finally, support for effective organisations in fishing communities (e.g. co-operatives, political lobbying groups, social support groups) can be of benefit to the poor in terms of accessing credit, effecting policy change in favour of the poor, and reducing vulnerability. Such organisations are most beneficial when a) Governments are supportive and enabling, rather than constraining or restrictive, b) there is a strong identification of the fishers with the aims and motivations of the organisations concerned, and c) where there is strong leadership.
Hard choices may have to be made when identifying solutions to poverty, as there can inevitable trade-offs. Unfortunately, in the fisheries sector there is often a lack of empirical work on the costs and benefits of such trade-offs, but some examples include:
- low prices for domestic consumers to increase protein intake vs. higher prices for fishers to increase incomes;
- exports vs. national consumption;
- supporting production through credit vs. sustainability issues; and,
- equity vs. efficiency of different management regimes.
There is considerable work now being undertaken to better understand who and where the poor are, why they are poor, and what mechanisms are most effective for poverty reduction. This explains the increasing importance of poverty mapping, development of poverty assessment methodologies, and an emphasis on well-being and capabilities (rather than just income) which focuses on sustainable livelihoods.
Recent activities outside the fisheries sector include the development of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), which provide country-level development strategies. Although few currently focus specifically on fisheries, they should help if fisheries are identified as key economic sectors, or more generally if strategies are put in place to reduce poverty alleviation and small-scale fishers are poor.
Likewise, recent debt relief to Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs), accompanied by efforts to improve health, education and other social services, should be of benefit to small-scale fishing communities.
Bilateral assistance is also increasingly focussed on poverty reduction and food security. Most donors have now put in place strategies and criteria that seek to ensure that their assistance is reaching the poor.
Recent activities within the fisheries sector include those by civil society, donor agencies, and national governments.
NGOs and civil society continue to work with local fishing communities for poverty reduction through programmes of credit, re-training and alternative employment creation, and support for fishing-related and social organisations.
National governments are becoming increasingly involved both in co-management, in controlling the activities of industrial vessels in waters in which small-scale fishers operate, and in ensuring fairer international access agreements. There is also a growing realisation that many small-scale fisheries need to be restructured. The Philippines is implementing a governance model with some degree of success, based on community management systems, and Japan and South Korea have managed to reduce fishing effort and the numbers of fishers in selective coastal fisheries.
It is encouraging that there is now an explicit prioritisation of poverty reduction, and a realisation that this objective is more difficult to achieve than previously thought and requires special strategies and targeting.
Given the comments made about the importance of overall economic performance, the expected expansion in the world economy can also be viewed positively, as can an improving balance of external debt in HIPCs. But questions remain about whether this overall growth will be sustained, whether it will be reflected in developing countries, whether small-scale fishing communities will benefit, and whether the gap between the rich and the poor can be narrowed.
It is promising that the weaknesses of many conventional centralised fisheries management regimes are increasingly being recognised. There is now a greater awareness of the need for a process-approach to fisheries management (accompanied by capacity-building and reform), which is participatory and flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions. Co-management and community-management arrangements offer some potential in this regard.
The greater acknowledgement that power relations and good governance (by administrators, politicians, local elites, fishermen and scientists) lie at the heart of many of the solutions to poverty in small-scale fishing communities is vital. However, realising their importance is one thing - making improvements in governance and the institutional capacity to effect meaningful change in the poverty status of small-scale fishing communities, is a huge challenge. At least it is a challenge that is now being embraced. But to be sure in later years that real progress has been made, greatly improved monitoring indicators of poverty in small-scale fishing communities are urgently required.