Small-scale fisheries are scattered along riverbanks, estuaries, seashores and around lakes, often away from mainstream economic, social and political developments. In some areas, their development continues to be severely hampered by the lack of infrastructure such as roads and communication facilities. They are extremely exposed to natural calamities like floods, inundation, sea erosion and storms and, in many instances, fishers are particularly affected by water-related parasitic diseases like bilharziasis, river blindness, filariasis or malaria. As a consequence of the diversification and seasonality of their activities, many small-scale fishers show high geographic mobility and may migrate over hundreds of miles. Most small-scale fisheries are exploited under some sort of open access regime, sometimes enforced by modern governments, even though traditionally social mechanisms may have existed to restrict such access. In combination with increasing fish demand and commercialization this has led to excess fishing capacity, resource depletion, waste of economic and human resources, and poor returns on development efforts.
The per capita investment in the means of production is generally low but has increased significantly in many small-scale fisheries during the past 2-3 decades because of motorization and investments into more efficient fishing gear. In many instances, productivity has not increased commensurate with the higher investment costs because nearshore and inland fishery resources have become fully, or even, overexploited. The greater harvesting cost could only be covered because of real price increases of fish and fishery products, often fuelled by export markets.
Many artisanal fishing families continue to rank among the most disadvantaged groups of the population, together with landless agricultural labourers and marginal farmers. The incidence of absolute poverty is probably high but there are few studies on the extent of poverty in fishing communities. Availability and access to social services in fishing communities is often below average resulting in low educational attainment and poor health conditions
Major development constraints
Natural resources such as arable land, water, forests, and fisheries are becoming increasingly scarce. Competition for these finite resources is increasing, as is the vulnerability to the negative effects of other human activities such as pollution, land-reclamation, etc.. Inshore stocks are heavily exploited or depleted. In the present management context, the addition of technology provides only temporary relief and increases problems in the medium and long term. Population keeps growing fast in many developing regions. Conflicts between artisanal and industrial fisheries for resources and on the market are increasingly frequent and may jeopardise development efforts. The major development constraints relate, on one hand, to inadequate access or utilization of social infrastructure including schools and health services and, on the other hand, inadequate institutional arrangements for the management of coastal and inland fishery resources and the protection and conservation of critical fish habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds. Their de facto open-access nature makes aquatic resources an attractive livelihood option for rural people. However this advantage constitutes also a threat to sustainability in he absence of access regulation with particularly negative impacts on those with exclusive dependence on aquatic resources. Groups of fishers often have limited alternative livelihood options and this makes them particularly vulnerable to changes in the condition of and access to the aquatic resources on which they depend. From their point of view, greater control of resource use is advantageous as long as themselves are included among those with access rights.
Major development opportunities
In social, economic and ecological terms, small-scale fishers are low-cost producers. Compared to large-scale fisheries, they consume much less energy and require less capital per ton of product and are often less ecologically destructive. They are more flexible and efficient in the exploitation of near-shore resources, provide more employment opportunities, require less infrastructure and are often less subsidized than industrial fisheries. Decentralized and highly integrated in the local economy, they contribute to rural development and slow down the population drift to urban centres. They are a unique source of livelihood for poor sections of the population and contribute effectively, and sometime very significantly, to food security and nutritional balance in rural areas. Even when resources are fished close to the maximum possible it is feasible to reduce fishing costs, improve market value through better processing, value-adding, and marketing. It is also possible to develop complementary or alternative employment through other productive activities, such as aquaculture, agriculture, animal husbandry, handicrafts.
The sustainable development of small-scale fisheries is desirable for a balanced social, economic and regional development in coastal and rural areas. It would require, inter alia, increased political and economic support; more directly applied socio-economic and policy research; more favourable fishery development policies and strategies; integration of fisheries into rural development and coastal areas management; better identification and allocation of resource rights; stronger protection of reserved fishing areas from intrusion of large scale fisheries (which will require elimination of overcapacity in these fisheries); enhancement of competitiveness in using resources; adoption of decentralised, participative management processes; facilitating the development of strong local institutions as a vehicle for empowerment and decentralisation; control of fishing capacity and creation of alternative employment; promotion of technological progress, to reduce negative impacts on the environment and improve product quality; better access to credits and inputs, markets and services.