Around the Pier: Data Gaps Hamper Understanding of Small-Scale Fishing


Small-scale fishing practices provide food and employment to hundreds of millions of people in developing countries, but according to a new review by a Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego alumna, over-exploitation by these small-scale fishers is prevalent and the size of catches is declining.

The paper by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, now director of science and solutions at the Waitt Foundation, also identifies areas of research that she and her co-authors believe have received inadequate attention, given their importance to keeping so-called artisanal fishing sustainable.

Artisanal coral reef fishing – which is characterized by small-scale, low-tech fishing techniques near coral reefs – has the potential to be more sustainable than industrial fishing. Inadvertent catching of unwanted fishes known as bycatch is much less common and artisanal fishers require considerably less fossil fuel use than commercial operations.

“These features, along with food security concerns, make the sustainability of artisanal fisheries a high priority,” said Johnson.

“Around one billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein,” said Johnson whose dissertation research at Scripps focused on the sustainable management of coral reef fisheries.  “Artisanal fishing is a critical aspect of the global food chain.  There’s also a strong cultural component.  Many communities have a connection to the ocean, and have been fishing for hundreds of years.”

Johnson, who received her doctorate from Scripps in 2011, is the lead author of a paper published online in Fish and Fisheries (April 10, 2012) that examines 464 peer-reviewed articles and synthesizes research trends and provides a quantitative context for recommendations concerning the sustainable management of artisanal coral reef fisheries.  She and coauthors identified several major knowledge gaps that prevent more informed management of these fisheries.

Johnson noted as an example that there is very little data on the trophic level of catches – whether the fish caught are predators or herbivores – or on bycatch, despite the importance of these data to fishery sustainability.

The paper emerged out of an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) symposium on this topic that Johnson organized in 2010.

“The idea was to bring together a truly interdisciplinary group of scientists to discuss the limits to the sustainability of artisanal coral reef fisheries,” said Johnson.

According to Johnson, the question of  “Where do we go next?” slowly evolved out of the discussions.

“As we began to look into the existing research, we realized there are critical gaps,” she said.  “We used our knowledge of the field, as well as the results from the literature review, to identify research priorities.”

The paper states that management recommendations are focused largely on marine protected areas, with too few researchers recommending other approaches such as limiting fishing efforts and establishing property rights for artisanal fishers.  According to Johnson, property rights can be important for building community support and promoting stewardship, and thereby fishery sustainability if the rights can be equitably distributed and enforced.

Interestingly, Johnson and coauthors noted, 88 percent of articles mention overfishing as a concern, but only nine percent of articles recommend reducing the amount of fishing.

The paper proposes nine critical areas of focus for future research. The top priority is measuring the effectiveness of management approaches.  Other needs include a better understanding of ecological thresholds and sustainable levels of extraction, effects of climate change, the role of aquaculture, alternative livelihoods, food security, and the need for interdisciplinary research.

Johnson concludes the study with a call to action.

“Sustainable fishing is not about managing the fish; we really need to understand how to manage people, and figure out how to incentivize them to think long-term about resource use,” Johnson said. “Yet, it’s not enough to simply do the research.  My hope is that the review will be useful to researchers; that they will consider taking on some of these priorities, and that this will be a starting point for increasingly sustainable management of artisanal fishing.”

- Deborah L. Jude

Related Image Gallery: Data Gaps Hamper Understanding of Small-Scale Fishing

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