Capture fisheries for food security

Food Security04 Mar 2013Petra Spliethoff

The role of small scale capture fisheries in rural livelihood, trade and food security remains critically unrecognized in development and poverty reduction approaches.

Food security programmes concentrate on the availability of food, access to food, nutritional adequacy, crisis prevention and food supply stability. Most programmes focus on agricultural production and do not pay much attention to the contribution of fisheries to food security nor to the livelihood of fishers, processors and traders. The fisheries sector – in terms of production, employment, trade and food security, is hardly mainstreamed into development and poverty reduction approaches.

Globally more than 60 million people are engaged in artisanal capture fisheries and approximately 4-5 times as many, in up and downstream activities like fish processing, net making, boat building and trade. About 50 % of those employed in the sector are women. In many parts of the world fisheries form an indispensable source of livelihood, providing food, employment and income to millions of families. For many, fisheries is a ‘last resort’ with an important safety net function: by failing agriculture or loss of job, fishing may provide part time or temporary income and relatively cheap and nutritious food. The social and economic contribution of the small scale fisheries sector however tends to be obscured by national statistics in many countries, because fish landings by the small-scale sector are not or under-reported, resulting in a tendency to neglect its role with respect to national economics and food security.

Approximately 40-50 % of the world fish production is traded internationally, which is more than other foods such as rice, coffee or bananas. Fish producing countries generally favour export of high value fish as the benefits of export are most clear in their national economy. However in many developing countries , the ‘escalade‘ of taxes and sanitary conditions along the fish production/processing chain makes it rather cumbersome and costly for entrepreneurs to participate in international trade. It is for this reason that many fish companies decided to go for export of products in frozen or fresh form or for agreements with foreign companies rather than to invest in processing facilities and fisheries infrastructure. Less attention is being paid to the impact of export on the economy of the national fisheries sector, on local livelihoods, on fish supply to domestic markets or on regional trade routes. Most small scale fishers sell their high value fish to traders or exporting companies, but find it difficult to access export markets themselves, due to lack of proper facilities and logistics, legal constraints and various trade barriers . And in many countries, the growth of export oriented fisheries have led to employment losses for fish processors, retailors and traders working for the local and regional markets.

Fish caught by artisanal fishers along the coast, in rivers and lakes is often smoked or dried and sent to inland markets through informal trade routes. These fish supply routes serve as major protein and income sources for rural and urban communities throughout the region. But due to the informal nature of the sector there are no direct or reliable statistics regarding fish trade and its importance for the local economy or its contribution to food security and nutrition. Subsequently important informal economic activities like processing, transport, trading and retailing have been undervalued and underestimated in national statistics.

While fish is a cheap and well accepted food protein source on local markets in both Africa and Asia, there are critical concerns that the fish trade in the region will have to compete with a growing demand in China. Increased export to China may mean that less fish will be available at the West African markets. Market mechanisms will lead to an increase in the price of fish and the poor will no longer be able to access fish supplies. Ultimately this situation will lead to increased food security problems both in terms of quantities and qualities of fish available as well as in terms of employment and income generation for the ( female ) actors in the marketing chain

Key issue in the context of fish and food security is whether the informal trade in fish, which is often underrepresented in formal government accounts or policies, can continue to make a positive contribution to regional food security by using current distribution and marketing chains, storage facilities and local food supply systems.