Artisanal fisheries are the lifeblood of coastal African communities, but they have largely been neglected. Small changes can make sure they don’t disappear.
Feeding more than 200 million people across the continent, small-scale fisheries are intrinsic to African traditions, identity and economies. But they are under immense threat. Compared to the industrial fishing sector, the small-scale industry is marginalised, poorly planned and underfunded. Targeted solutions can ensure these vital fisheries survive as development marches on.
The small-scale fisheries sector makes up 85 percent of harvesters in Africa and employs 5.2 million people – a significant number for communities with few other ways to make a living. Fish represents 19 percent of protein consumption, providing essential vitamins and minerals, as well as omega-3 fatty acids crucial in ending malnutrition. In West Africa alone, 47 percent of fish caught in the region comes from small fisheries, with regional catches exceeding 1.8 million tonnes and generating more than US$2 billion per year. Even so, small fisheries in Africa are a low priority in national economic policies.
Catch amounts have been declining since 2004 despite an increase in fishing effort, such as from longer trips, more advanced equipment and industrial catches. Stocks have become overfished. The costs of fishing have increased, making it too expensive for many African coastal communities to continue. Fish depletion leads to poverty, but poverty also leads to fish depletion because of destructive fishing practices and mismanaged resources. Fishing communities and local fisheries are interdependent.
Ecosystems damaged by extractive industries such as mining, industrial fishing and climate change cannot support fish populations big enough to regenerate unless significant steps are taken. And small fisheries are urgently needed to provide for local communities in the meantime. Diversifying fish products, reducing waste, increasing community awareness and sharing knowledge between local communities are small but powerful ways to support small fisheries.
Bycatch – fish too small to sell, or other species unintentionally caught alongside targeted fish – can be very high and often go to waste. As much as 70 percent of targeted fish can also be wasted: often only the flesh is eaten and the skin, carcass, bones and scales are removed in processing — a huge missed opportunity, especially in communities where healthy food is not always available and starch-based staples decrease iron and zinc absorption. Affordable and innovative methods to transform byproducts into edible nutrient-rich powders using local hammer mills have been trialled in Uganda with the support of the EU-funded project SmartFish. The powders enrich local diets and school meals, and are an emergency food supplement for refugees. They could also be replicated in other regions.
Poor hygiene and handling of fish cause spoilage, threaten livelihoods and generate more waste. The SmartFish ‘Clean Fish, Better Life’ campaign involved the community in creating their own educational videos on post-harvest hygiene and good practices along the shores of Lake Victoria, which borders Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. The campaign provided an opportunity for communities to exchange information, work together on pressing issues and solve their own problems.
The first SmartFish video, Usafi Ni Pesa (Hygiene Saves Money), was screened in 44 landing sites and fishing communities in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Open discussions allowed the audience to establish the important link between established practices and new practices proposed by the videos. The program’s videos can reach people of different ages who may otherwise not have had access to the information because of illiteracy or limited financial means. The videos deliver educational messages in local contexts at low cost and can cover topics including illegal fishing, fishery laws, good environmental management and diversification of livelihoods.
In 2004 the Vezo community of fishers in the village of Andavadoaka, Madagascar, created the Velondriake locally managed marine area, with octopus-fishing closures, after catches continued to decline. Government policies allowed traditional laws and indigenous knowledge to inform ways of governing local resources, including periodic closures to let stocks recover. In turn, the octopus closures significantly boosted individual catches and fishers’ income.
The management practices have since evolved to include two mangrove reserves and five coral reserves, with significant support from the international community and not-for-profit organisations. The coral reserves have seen a 189 percent increase in fish, relative to the size of the area, within six years. Increased income has supported better access to health services, in turn leading to improved community health and smaller families. Community members say the livelihood interventions associated with the marine area have led to more small businesses and reduced reliance on fishing, decreasing pressure on the ecosystem.
The successes of the Velondriake marine area led many other communities to take similar action through Fishermen Learning Exchanges – gatherings where people from different communities exchange information and experiences. Quiwia village in coastal Mozambique was the first to implement its premier octopus closure based on learnings from Velondriak. Today, delegations from other parts of Mozambique travel to Quiwia to learn about the closure model. Around 200 locally managed marine areas have since been established, many with octopus closures, and these have also spread to Mauritius and Tanzania – and as far away as Mexico.
Giving communities the tools to manage their own resources empowers them and improves environmental stewardship. Even more importantly, bringing different fishing communities together yields powerful results. Deepened understanding leads to more successful management systems that prioritise healthy environments and encourage communities to manage fishery resources cooperatively.
Antaya March is a senior researcher at the Centre for Blue Governance, University of Portsmouth.
Pierre Failler is a director at the Centre for Blue Governance, University of Portsmouth.
The Centre is the home of the UNESCO Chair in Ocean Governance. It focuses on supporting and delivering sustainable and equitable governance mechanisms for the ocean and aquatic resources, with a strong emphasis on enhancing the synergies between nature conservation and economic development.
The research was undertaken with financial assistance from the African Union Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR).
All views represented in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of AU-IBAR.
This article has been republished for World Fisheries Day. It was first published on June 6, 2022.