Small Scale Fisheries Forum of Sri Lanka (SSFFSL) Concept Paper

“Small-scale fisheries make an important contribution to nutrition, food security, sustainable livelihoods and poverty alleviation – especially in developing countries. Despite this significant contribution, the issues constraining the sustainable development of small-scale fisheries remain poorly understood” (FAO). SL is no exception to this rule.

Sri Lanka’s population consume relatively large amounts of fish (an average of 10.8 kg/yr), while 570,000 people find direct or indirect employment in the fishing industry. The marine fishing population consists of 190,000 households and 221,000 thousand active fishers spread out along the coastline, while another 48,900 fishing households and 54, 450 active fishers are engaged in lagoons and inland water bodies. The total fisheries dependent population has been estimated as 2.7 million. Arguably, all of these fishers and people involved in processing and marketing are engaged in the small-scale sector. Small-scale fishers in Sri Lanka are of many kinds. While some are beach-based, others use a variety of craft – orus, kattumarams, or fibre-glass boats – to ply nearshore, offshore, lagoon or inland fishing grounds. Gears include a broad selection of gillnets, cast nets, long lines, fixed nets and traps. While men generally dominate the harvesting process, women play an important part in processing, marketing and in support activities. Sri Lanka’s ‘large scale’ fisheries is confined to the ‘off-shore and deep sea’ sub-sector, consisting of a fleet of 4,218 multiday crafts, length varying from 32 ft to 45 ft, rather small-scale crafts in comparison to fisheries of developed nations. Yet, a clear distinction exists between this fleet from the rest; owned generally by non-fishing investors, use hired labour, targeting expensive fish like tuna and producing for the export market.

Sri Lanka’s aquaculture is of fairly recent origin. Despite large fresh water and brackish-water resources, only marine shrimp aquaculture and ornamental fish culture have been developed to a certain extent. About 17,000 are actively involved in the aquaculture sector. Nevertheless, shrimp and finfish production is growing. Today, the country’s main focus is to start small-scale aquaculture, aiming at supporting rural communities with income and food security.

In SL, as well as globally, that small-scale fisheries are threatened more by anthropogenic pressures coming from both inside and outside the communities, and less by natural factors. High rates of resource exploitation, unregulated technological change, increasing fishing pressure, etc. are causing threats to aquatic ecosystems, leading to resource degradation. It is known that although blue revolution resulted in significant increases in fish catches, it has also resulted in increasing fishing pressure on resources and signs of degradation of resources are quite evident, which compelled the state, as the custodian of the resources, to intervene in protecting the resources from further degradation. Thus state laws mainly aimed at dealing effectively with the resource crisis and their focus on fisher wellbeing was poor or more distant (long run). For fishers who are vulnerable to poverty, and having limited access to livelihood capitals (to cope with vulnerability), one option is to use heavy rates of resource exploitation to meet the needs of their families. This is quite understandable, given that poor people use high rates in discounting future gains.

While fisheries cooperatives have played a very important role in the past as a kind of state-community partnerships, providing fishers with livelihood capitals and helping them to cope with vulnerability, many of them collapsed when various governments tried to introduce alternative structures to meet their short term political goals. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s research is biased towards ‘ecosystem’ research rather than research on the human system; the fishing communities. Very little is heard of the issues facing small scale fisheries, although these are of tremendous importance. What we have leant from research is pre-dominantly scientific; fisheries biology, oceanography, fish diseases, aquaculture, fish population dynamics, etc. with very little focus on small-scale fisheries, especially on small scale fishing communities who are confronted with an array of issues, such as lack of rights, their non-inclusiveness in fisheries decision making, lack of voice, resource degradation and declining livelihoods & wellbeing, etc.

On top of the above, climate change is now entering the SSF development equation an important variable. These impacts are mostly felt in coastal areas, which are to a great extent, inhabited by fishing populations. Sea level rise has caused loss of landing centers, beach seining sites, fish drying sites, displacement of fishing populations, etc. Food chain in marine habitats has been affected with declines in certain species, which have affected fishing landings, production and fishing incomes. Ocean acidification has caused gradual disappearance of shell fish such as mussels and lobsters. Lagoon ecosystems are also been affected by sea water intrusion causing a decline in productivity. Wetlands form another resource highly vulnerable to climate change, with loss of habitats, reduced bio-diversity and reduced ecosystem services. Again, climate change research too is science-biased; sea level rise, increasing temperatures, impacts on mangroves and biodiversity, etc., with little focus on the impact of climate change on the social system; the various strategies adopted by people to cope with climate change and the impact of such strategies on their wellbeing. Among many populations, those living in coastal areas confront the highest climate change risks which have very serious implications on the wellbeing of fishing communities who form the most important coastal stakeholder group.

Small-scale fisheries deserve attention not just for their problems, such as poverty, but also for the opportunities they provide in addressing important societal concerns that exist beyond the sector, such as providing safe and nutritious food and employment. But small-scale fisheries do more than just provide society with a service’, but they are important in themselves. SSF represent cultural heritage, they offer a way of life, a particular lifestyle that provides both identity and meaning to the lives of those who inhabit them. Some argue that SSF are not alwaysan occupation of last resort’.

The FAO has recently developed a vision for small-scale fisheries where, a. the contribution of small-scale fisheries to sustainable development is fully-realized; b. small-scale fishers and fish workers are not marginalized and, c. importance of small-scale fisheries to national economies and food security is recognized, valued and enhanced. The vision also recognizes that those dependent on the small-scale fisheries sector should be empowered to participate in decision-making with dignity and respect through integrated management of the social, economic and ecological systems underpinning the sector. The recently developed SSF Voluntary Guidelines capture the inherent features of small scale fisheries by addressing the most compelling issues in SSF, especially, the need to recognize the rights of fishing people and to make the process of fisheries management participatory, inclusive, integrated and holistic with special concern on women and marginalized populations. All efforts made towards sustainable small scale fisheries, especially the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and SSF guidelines, would be futile unless they are incorporated into the policy making and planning process. This does not take place automatically. Moreover, they are not blanket recommendations, but guidelines, and what is to be adopted or incorporated into national plans of action depend on specific contexts of countries. Governments have an important role to play in controlling essential legal, financial, technical resources in adopting the most appropriate guidelines. This needs a strong political will to do so. Today many governments in developing countries are moving from “government to governance”, including governance of fisheries. The recent efforts at establishing fisheries co-management platforms in Sri Lanka, is a good example, which is an essential and timely initiative. Such forms of Interactive Governance put pressure on governments to become more accommodating to stakeholder interests and concerns. In this process, the CSOs have an important role to play in awareness building, functioning as a watch dog and raising the voice when things go wrong. Since challenges that SL are facing are also identifiable throughout South Asia and the world, lessons learnt in SL would also provide lessons that go beyond SL, while at the same time SL can benefit from learning about how these challenges are dealt with elsewhere. This requires extending our tentacles beyond national boundaries to establish links with regional and international organisations working for SSF.

It is for the above reason that a “Small Scale Fisheries Forum” is to be established. We invite all academics, researchers, interest groups and individuals to come forward to join hands, aiming at establishing platforms to share information and broaden our knowledge of SSF, voicing the needs of the small scale fishing communities, provide policy inputs to government and establish links with regional and international organisations who are working towards Sustainable SSF.

Prepared by,
Oscar Amarasinghe
Professor

25 May 2017

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