For as long as humans have lived by or been able to reach the ocean, we have taken fish from it. Some of the earliest records of human life itself – stretching back 125,000 years – provide evidence of the simplest forms of fishing, such as gathering shellfish by hand or spear. From depictions of rudimentary nets and traps in ancient art to the economic foundations of modern coastal and island nations, fishing is a deeply rooted part of our shared culture and a vital source of food and income globally.

Today – in the geological blink of an eye – fish have become the last group of wild animals we harvest commercially on a global scale; all the non-marine animals that we used to harvest from the wild have gone the way of the dodo or have been replaced with agricultural products. Fish are the final global frontier of our hunter-gatherer instincts.

In the past six decades, fish consumption has grown more quickly than that of meat from all terrestrial animals combined. Global fish production, standing at 171 million tonnes as of 2016, is now three times larger than that of cattle. Fisheries in high-income countries cover more than half of the world’s ocean. Around 60 million people in the world catch (or farm) marine fish as their major source of income; the vast majority live in Asia, with significant proportions in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. Of those catching fish in the wild, over 80% of fishers are ‘small-scale’; they work as individuals, families or small groups, using small, simple boats and either eating what they catch themselves or selling it to local or national markets.

Small-scale fishing on Simeulue Island, Aceh, Indonesia. Credit: A'al Syafrizaldi/FFI
Small-scale fishing on Simeulue Island, Aceh, Indonesia. Credit: A’al Syafrizaldi/FFI

Due to the simple fact of their constant presence on the water, fishers are uniquely placed to observe how our ocean is changing; they may be the first people to witness the decline in a targeted species, the deterioration of a seabed or the disturbance of the ocean’s natural rhythms.

Sometimes, fishers independently limit their own fishing activity for the sake of a healthy, productive ocean. Self-imposed and self-policed restrictions, closures or total avoidance of traditional fishing grounds have been common for generations in regions like Oceania (the periodical harvesting tabu of Fiji), Southeast Asia (the territorially restricted lhoks of Aceh province, Indonesia) and East Africa (the set-aside and wholly closed tengefu of Kenya). With the more recent global race to create increasing numbers of marine protected areas (MPAs), these customary structures have often provided the backbone of such sites, with new designations providing increased legitimacy for management – although they are often difficult to enforce.

The damage done

However, the relationship between fishing and biodiversity is not always a harmonious one. Fishing in certain places, with certain gears, at certain times (or just too much fishing) can have major impacts on ocean species and habitats.

Single or brief acts of fishing can permanently alter marine ecosystems: the dynamiting of the Philippines’ Subic Bay coral reefs (a common fishing method in many countries); the dredging of Scotland’s Loch Carron flame shell bed; the bottom-trawling of western Norway’s deep-sea corals. These are examples of once-vibrant oases of ocean biodiversity that will never be the same again.

Dredged seabed in Scotland. Credit: COAST
Dredged seabed in Scotland. Credit: COAST

There are also cases in which humans have simply not understood (or cared about) how much pressure a marine species can withstand before being lost forever. This has meant that species as diverse as the Caribbean monk seal, Steller’s sea cow and the New Zealand grayling have all been lost to the world in a frighteningly small time period. While many of these marine extinctions are in the relatively distant past, failure to adequately manage fishing continues to pose an extinction risk to multitudes of marine species, from the famous (hammerhead shark, southern bluefin tuna and angel shark) to the obscure (orange roughy, giant guitarfish and Napoleon wrasse).

At the root of the problems associated with fishing are systemic issues of social justice, of broken systems and of corporate greed. Fishing is not always a fair industry – there are conflicts between big boats and small boats, while fishing laws commonly favour monopolies of international businesses over local coastal fishing communities. Even on a local scale, the economic gains from fishing may be unequally shared between different groups within communities, and between women and men. In many places, there is a fundamental imbalance in how fishing is structured as an industry – who gains access to it and who benefits from it.

The need and willingness to protect the ocean can sometimes exacerbate this problem, as traditional systems of marine management are eroded or replaced by top-down MPAs or poorly conceived fishing laws. The growing push to monetise the ocean through so-called ‘blue economy’ strategies runs the risk of deepening this unfairness.

Safety net

At Fauna & Flora International (FFI), we work collaboratively with local NGOs, fishing communities and governments to put in place locally appropriate protection with the aim of benefiting biodiversity and people.

In practice, this means trying to ensure that fishing maintains its role as a vital source of food and cultural identity, but does not undermine ocean health. These approaches are varied and dynamic, with examples ranging from helping communities define, preserve and patrol their own fishing grounds in Myanmar to demonstrating the important role that fishing associations can play in decision-making in Honduras through using data collected by fishers on their catch through an app.

In Indonesia’s Aceh province, we’ve partnered with customary fishers’ institutions – Panglima Laot – to drive out the scourge of bomb and cyanide fishing, partly by ensuring that traditional, low-impact net and trap fisheries become more equitable and profitable (as well as permissible within the province’s emerging MPA network). In Nicaragua, we’ve helped fishers trial and test new fishing hooks that reduce the risk of accidentally killing turtles while ensuring that this change to their practice does not reduce their catch income.

Octopus fishing on Simeulue Island, Aceh, Indonesia. Credit: A'al Syafrizaldi/FFI
Octopus fishing on Simeulue Island, Aceh, Indonesia. Credit: A’al Syafrizaldi/FFI

We will continue to strive to find approaches that support both conservation and fishing, from helping to boost fish numbers through locally identified and community-managed no-fishing zones within larger MPAs (as in Gökova Bay in Turkey), to pushing for fishing laws that restrict the most damaging, inequitable fishing methods.

If we are to ensure that the ancient but rapidly evolving fishing sector does not damage our oceans irrevocably, we must embrace the undeniable cultural, nutritional and economic benefits of fishing, whilst rejecting attempts to monopolise, overexploit or subsidise damaging practices.

Ultimately, we believe that an equitably and effectively protected ocean can – and should – support sustainable, low-impact fishing and that small-scale fishers must form an integral part of a global blue economy that is underpinned by healthy marine ecosystems.