Without safety nets: Small-scale fishers need urgent support and recognition

Without safety nets

Small-scale fishers need urgent support and recognition

From her home above the waters of Mai Root, one of many traditional fishing villages dotting the coasts of eastern Thailand, Mayuree Thammachat’s voice breaks as she levels her phone to speak.

“Nobody is buying our fish, we cannot go out and sell it,” she says, addressing a virtual audience. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Mayuree is speaking as Thailand faces its worst surge of COVID-19 yet; with over 10,000 cases reported nearly everyday throughout September 2021, she can’t get to her local market where she would typically sell her husband’s catch of the day.

She is worried about not only her health, but also her food and income.

Mayuree is among many. Across the small-scale fisheries sector — which secures an income and affordable source of nutrition for more than 800 million people —  COVID-19-related disruptions have added to pre-pandemic struggles, making it even harder to make ends meet.

And across the Asia Pacific region, where many countries continue to see spikes in cases, the impact only continues.

Somebody in our village has recently tested positive for COVID-19 and we’re afraid to even go outside now,” Mayuree shares.

There are resounding nods and concerned expressions among the small faces on the screen in front of her.  They are the faces of community leaders, researchers, allies and fellow small-scale fishers who have gathered online from various locations across Asia to discuss how the pandemic has affected the many people who are small-scale fishery dependent.

The event, convened on September 15th by the Small-Scale Fisheries Resource and Collaboration Hub (SSF Hub) in partnership with local organizations, was held in direct response to requests from fishers and fish workers for a space to share their stories and to identify actions needed to address their concerns.

If we get sick, I’m worried we won’t be able to afford any medicine for treatment. That is our situation now.”


The coast is not clear

When the pandemic has caused disruptions in nearly every sector, why should policymakers pay attention to small-scale fishers?

An answer to this question was heard in every reflection shared during the SSF Hub’s webinar. Collectively, the voices echoed an often overlooked fact: Despite being small in scale, the sector plays a massive role in ensuring livelihoods and food security for billions of people.

Estimates suggest that 800 million people are directly engaged in small-scale fishing globally, with a majority coming from low and middle-income countries. That’s 90 percent of the world’s captured fishers and fish workers, nearly half of whom are women. For perspective, the sector provides more livelihoods than industrial fisheries, oil, gas, shipping and tourism combined.

In developing countries, they add around 56 million jobs to national economies, often in contexts where employment opportunities are limited. And that’s just fish; another 20 million people are also directly involved in small-scale aquaculture, which includes other aquatic species.

But Manas Roshan, Programme Officer at the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, highlights that this is only half the picture.

“When talking about something as grave as a pandemic, we need to look at the entire fisheries value chain and [assess] how the various domino effects of demand and supply disruptions affected everyone involved,” Manas highlighted during his opening remarks at the virtual event.

This value chain strings together a significant number of people, many of whom are not counted in the official numbers — despite serving key roles in the many stages that move fish from water to dish.

Manas lists examples: net making, net selling, boat building, fish processing, fish cleaning, fish smoking, ice supply producing, packaging, and distributing, to name a few.

To face the emerging health and food crisis caused by disruptions across the chain, Manas called for urgent support across coastal and riparian communities, particularly from governments.

As wide as possible, social welfare measures that can be distributed across the board – not just in fisheries – can in many ways, help regenerate economic demand,” he stressed.


“We only eat if we go to the sea”

Moving from Thailand to Tamil Nadu, two women appear on the screen next — framed by coastal trees swaying above them — as part of a pre-recorded message prepared by the Tamilnadu Women Fishworkers Sangam.

The mother and daughter duo, who were granted anonymity for security reasons, have been fishing for decades but say they are not formally recognized as fishers. 

“My husband went out to work at sea but his boat flipped over due to the wind and he passed away. So now we fish. But they only gave [fisher] compensation during the lockdown to men because they assume they’re the only ones going to the sea. There are only women in our family, so they would not give us money,” she said. 

The daughter has been fishing since she was 12, risking the ever-growing windy seas with her father for weeks at a time in search of food to eat and sell. She’s 28 now, but shares that her identification card was not renewed after her father passed away.

It was very hard during the lockdown as we could not go to the sea for 45 days. We only eat if we go to the sea. Otherwise we are borrowing money and rationing our rice,” she adds. 

Other fishers sharing their stories, even those who received limited government compensation, also pointed to their concerns about facing crippling debt. 

“The biggest challenge faced by fishermen during COVID-19 is the decline in fish prices...even while other things are expensive. Now, many other traditional fishermen are selling their boats and switching to growing secondary crops. I have even taken from my children’s education savings and borrowed money,” said Abdul Kadir, a traditional fisherman from Ujung Tinggi Village, Simeulue Regency, Aceh Province.

We borrowed 10 kg of rice to feed seven people. Now that rice is nearly gone. We can’t even manage the cost of fuel for fishing boats. Today, I am cooking curry without oil and spices. From whom will I borrow so much? Everyone’s condition is like mine,” added Nurajahan Begum, a fisher’s wife from Charfasson, Bhola, Bangladesh.


Changing tides

Md. Mujibul Haque Munir, Joint Director of COAST Trust Bangladesh, also a speaker at the SSF Hub’s virtual event, called for immediate and urgent attention to address the multiple crises fishers continue to face. 

“We need global, national, and community-based initiatives,” he said. “This experience is a lesson only further highlighting the vulnerabilities of fishers. We need to learn from this.”

Despite growing evidence on their capacity to help countries meet policy goals set nationally and globally on the use of aquatic resources, small-scale fisheries continue to be overlooked and underestimated in policy, and continue to be held behind by a lack of governance, management, and fulfillment of human rights. 

To address the factors limiting small-scale fisheries from playing more of a central role in conserving ocean and freshwater resources, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)’s Committee on Fisheries, an intergovernmental forum, adopted the SSF Guidelines in 2014. 

The SSF Guidelines call for a human-rights based approach for the management of fisheries, aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity, and stress that the right to use a resource and the responsibility to manage it sustainably come together. 

Developed for fishers by fishers, this roadmap for change was informed by more than 4,000 voices from fishers, fish workers and others, in over 120 countries.

And marking a significant step in amplifying this global call to action, the United Nations General Assembly, with leadership from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), declared 2022 as the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA 2022). 

In doing so, they aim to increase global understanding of the role that small-scale fishers, fish farmers, and fish workers play — all of whom can play a massive role in meeting the world’s ambitious climate, food, and health-related policy plans for the next decade.



To advocate for the implementation of the SSF Guidelines and foster a knowledge-exchange platform for small-scale fishers, WWF joined a coalition of partners to launch the SSF Hub. The SSF Hub is an interactive, multilingual website that provides free access to resources to support small-scale fisheries and connect people around the world to share experiences and advocate for prosperous, equitable and resilient small-scale fisheries and communities. 

The SSF Hub features a Resource Library as well as a Community Forum. The Hub also hosts events — such as the Fisher Voices on COVID event discussed throughout this piece — providing a platform for small-scale fishery actors to share their stories and advocate for their priorities. 

The Fisher Voices on COVID event was co-hosted by the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF), Fauna & Flora International (FFI), COAST Foundation, National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO), Legal Aid to Women Trust (LAW Trust), and Sustainable Development Foundation. 

Find out more at https://ssfhub.org/.


This month's SSF Highlight is part of a collection of stories from coastal communities featured on WWF Asia Pacific's Exposure blog. Read the full story here.

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