Marine fisheries generate a critical protein source for more than a billion people worldwide, and an often irreplaceable source of income for developing-world communities exporting to international markets. Yet poor fisheries management frequently results in habitat destruction and overfishing, depleting stocks and steadily raising the costs to land each kilogram of fish.
The need for a new paradigm for global fisheries management and trade—built on science-based catch limits and basic labor standards for all industry participants—was urgent before the Covid-19 pandemic. Today the situation is even more dire.
As a result of the pandemic and stringent public health measures, small-scale fisheries around the world have seen their businesses contract to the point of collapse, levying immense socioeconomic distress on individuals, their families and their communities. Fishing communities have been devastated by closures of ports, harbors, restaurants and markets; travel restrictions; lack of access to personal protective equipment, and direct personal health impacts.
In the face of the twin challenges of ecological sustainability and economic survival, small-scale fisheries and their partners in government and civil society must work harder than ever to forge effective management regimes, diversify sales channels and enhance market access, and develop other innovative approaches that link the long-term health of fish stocks to local livelihoods.
Responding to Covid, Restoring the Catch
Resources Legacy Fund (RLF) launched the Sustainable Fisheries Fund (SFF) in 2002 with the Packard Foundation to support small-scale fisheries doing the hard work to implement reforms, safeguards, and standards required for seafood certifications such as those from the Marine Stewardship Council and Fair Trade USA. SFF expanded in 2009 with support from the Walton Family Foundation to conduct additional fishery improvement project (FIP) work and build capacity within small-scale fisheries.
By the middle of 2020, however, it became clear to RLF and its philanthropic partners that the impacts of Covid-19 were stalling progress on SFF’s fishery improvement projects, causing many fishers and their communities to shift priorities from long-term sustainability investments to basic survival. In response, we modified the SFF program guidelines to identify and fund projects that directly respond to Covid-related economic and public health impacts, while enhancing small-scale fisheries’ resilience to future crises. We launched the SFF Covid Response Program in September of 2020.
Interest in the program proved overwhelming, far outstripping available funding. Over two rounds of grantmaking, SFF received 30 proposals from 13 different countries, comprising almost a million dollars in requests for support for a wide variety of creative and important projects. RLF and its partners faced difficult funding decisions, striving to balance project feasibility and durability, and consideration of ecological, governance, and social equity parameters. The bottom line: sustainability-oriented small fisheries around the world have been devastated by the pandemic’s direct and indirect effects, and are in need of support both to continue their paths toward long-term sustainability, and to stay in business and provide for their families in the near term. Here are two of their stories:
Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Océanos A.C. (CEDO) – México
Blue swimming crab (Callinectes bellicosus) is one of the most economically significant fisheries in the northern Gulf of California. Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Océanos A.C. (CEDO; Intercultural Center for Desert and Ocean Studies) is a nonprofit organization based in Sonora, Mexico. They worked with local crab harvesters to launch a fisheries improvement project (FIP) in 2019 that includes a range of sustainability measures—bycatch reduction, pollution control, marine protected area implementation, and management plan formulation—aimed at future sustainability certification. The incentive for fishers: the higher prices paid for certified crab. The FIP had begun its second year when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. As a fishery heavily dependent on exports to restaurants abroad, lockdown measures caused the bottom to drop out of sales, severely impacting the fishery and the surrounding community—and jeopardizing the fishery’s progress on the FIP.
Though fishing was declared essential work by the Mexican government, it was little help in the absence of market demand. Furthermore, fishers, cooperatives, and permit holders have been personally affected by the virus, which caused severe illness and several deaths in the community.
To face the interlocking challenges presented by the social impacts of the pandemic while sustaining progress toward a more environmentally responsible crab fishery, CEDO proposed a three-part, community-wide strategy:
- Implementation of a public health protocol for crab harvesters, their families, and shoreside workers in the fishery value chain;
- business planning, capital investment, and training to establish crab meat processing within the fishing communities, and new sales channels for the product in Mexico’s major cities;
- A public outreach campaign to build awareness of both the sustainability of the communities’ fishing practices, and the availability of locally caught and packaged seafood.
Centro Pesca Sustentable – Chile
Stone crab, known locally as jaiba marmola (Metacarcinus edwardsii), is the most economically significant crustacean fishery in Chile, averaging about 5,000 tons of landings per year. The Ancud Jaiberos Productive Committee (CPJA), a group of artisanal fishermen dedicated exclusively to commercial stone crab harvest, started a comprehensive FIP in 2018 working toward full Marine Stewardship Council certification in 2022. Their catch contributes more than 20 percent of the total Chilean stone crab landings.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, however, CPJA’s monthly landings have been cut in half. Pre-Covid output from the fishery was also largely destined for urban and foreign restaurants, which experienced abrupt closure and collapse of demand. To address the economic impacts of the pandemic and plan for long-term economic viability of their sustainable enterprise, CPJA is working with Centro Pesca Sustentable (CPS; Sustainable Fishing Center)—a nonprofit focused on advancing ecologically and socially sustainable fisheries—to establish a formal cooperative to shorten the supply chain, add and capture value, and explore sales opportunities in Chile’s domestic market.
With their SFF grant, CPJA and CPS are developing business and marketing plans and establishing contracts needed for the direct sale of processed crab to domestic consumers, highlighting sustainability and accreditation of local production and local harvest. Their project will foster new business skills in seafood processing and marketing and kindle local demand to help build long-term resilience for the fishery and growing Chilean market. SFF support will also help the fishery resume progress toward certification that will expand its pool of international buyers.
Encouraged by the power of third-party labeling, sustainability-oriented small fisheries around the world are doing the hard work needed to ensure ocean ecosystems remain productive for generations to come. Unfortunately, the scale of interest in RLF’s SFF Covid Response Program shows that these important efforts are fragile and remain vulnerable to external shocks that can derail livelihoods and sustainability efforts.
Philanthropy has an important role to play to ensure these fisheries can recover from the pandemic and weather the turbulence of future economic changes. RLF looks forward to working with existing and prospective funders to ensure SFF grantmaking evolves to align to the needs and scale of global demand among sustainability-oriented fisheries. In addition, we will work with all our partners to ensure that even after the Covid-19 pandemic has receded, fishery improvement projects explicitly focus on socioeconomic resilience as well as long-term ecological sustainability.
 According to a recent United Nations report, the proportion of global fish stocks that are within biologically sustainable levels has fallen from 90 percent in 1974 to 66 percent in 2017, a downward trend jeopardizing both the ecosystems and the economic wellbeing of the communities that depend on them.