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Dossier
Fishery: Latin America

Is artisanal fishing truly sustainable?

Author: Ellen Nemitz

On the one side, huge vessels with large fishing nets capture fish and drag along anything caught in its path, from turtles to sharks. On the other side, there are small boats driven by artisanal fishermen who earn a living from catching smaller amounts of seafood - not without any bycatch, though - and selling the produce to beach restaurants or even small companies. The two kinds of fishery differ in many ways, from scale to profits, but, as specialists point out, they can also be somewhat similar in terms of sustainability.

Cintia Miyaji, PhD

"There is confusion. The general public thinks that industrial fishing is making an impact. Okay, most industrial fisheries do have a scale that is unsustainable today. But, this does not mean that small-scale artisanal fishing is sustainable,” affirmed biologist Cintia Miyaji, who also holds a doctoral degree in oceanography and offers consultancy on sustainable fishing to companies aiming to offer certified products, such as hotels and supermarkets. "We have in Brazil several examples of how poorly managed fishing, even on a small scale, can be quite harmful to the environment." 

© Christian Braga/Oceana. Artisanal boat at Redonda Beach, in the city of Icapuí in Ceará State.

Miyaji’s opinion is not a consensus view, however. In fact, NGOs and companies working with artisanal fisheries argue that those fishing communities are potentially sustainable, even though a lack of governance and the threat of industrial vessels pose a major hurdle to them.

Joane Batista is a geographer working at Oceânica, an NGO that  carries out oceanographic research and empowers local communities in the northeastern region of Brazil - mainly in the state of Rio Grande do Norte and some islands such as Fernando de Noronha. The researcher and popular educator compares industrial fishing to soy monoculture. "They only work with one species, and this brings a huge imbalance to the environment. Artisanal fishermen work with the seasonality of the fish, capturing only what the sea offers. Even so, it can be productive," she told FairPlanet. 

Lack of government oversight 

As reported by FairPlanet in a different article of this dossier, Brazil lacks proper statistics about fisheries, both artisanal and industrial. Thus, there are usually no means to control the artisanal fishing production, as it is made up of small enterprises by a large number of fishermen, with little structure and very informal production chains. 

"Usually, there is a person with a small truck, who waits for 10, 15 or 20 fishermen to arrive, picks up the production and delivers it to a beach bar, without a receipt. Industrial fishing, on the other hand, is delivered within a fishing company, with mandatory issuance of invoices, federal health inspection [...] so it is much easier to get this information," explained Martin Dias, Scientific Director at the NGO Oceana, which is dedicated to promoting public policies on fisheries.

Oceanographer Bryan Renan Müller, who is the owner of Olha o Peixe, a company in southern Brazil that buys fishing products at a fair price, added that even private or local initiatives can find it difficult to find data, since fishermen are elusive to share personal information without knowing what will be done with it. 

As a result, there are almost no means to adequately plan fishing activities and to implement proper policies to protect the environment and the communities. 

Besides, the fishery areas in Brazil are vast - its coastline stretches in total for nearly 11 thousand kilometers - and yet are fought over by large ships and small boats. "The distribution of fleets in Brazil, both industrial and artisanal, is permissive and poorly planned and structured, without taking into account the biological and ecological characteristics of both explored natural resources and traditional land use resources,” explained Martin Dias. “Fleets are allowed to fish in large areas, in some cases along the entire Brazilian coast, generally with few restrictions." 

Additionally, without any surveillance, the sea ends up being dominated by the largest fisheries. Small boats face the danger of fighting over territories with large vessels. Besides the presence of ships, the reduced amount of fish available has been reported by artisanal workers. "When there is less fish to catch, and without the support of the government, artisanal fishermen sometimes have to change the area of fishery or even the means of work, which can also impact the environment and is a consequence of industrial fishing," Martin Dias added.

Sustainability: more than just the sea’s resilience

Sustainability is often seen as a term concerning the environment exclusively; in our case - catching less fish than the sea can replace. However,  the term has recently assumed a broader meaning, one that incorporates social and economical aspects as well. In those spheres, artisanal fishing presents some deep problems. 

Fishing communities are usually spread all across the coast, lack robust labour rights and are often unregistered and informalised. They often depend on people who buy their products very cheaply to then resell them to restaurants and bars, for example. "It is a very unequal relationship, and this creates a situation of socioeconomic vulnerability. Those who are 10 or 12 hours at sea do not have any autonomy over the product, because the buyer defines all the conditions," said Müller, whose company aims to spread the information about different fish species, so that consumers can choose the less impactful ones, and to financially empower nearly 100 families in the fishing sector.

Biologist Cintia Miyaji agrees. In her opinion, artisanal fishing, from the point of view of financial sustainability, is "terrible." "The fisherman does not even know how much he is spending, or whether he is making a profit, because he has little information. He thinks that everything he sells is for profit, but he forgets to include the inputs on the account."

Global trends in fisheries' inventories in relation to their biological status, discriminating underexploited stocks, exploited at sustainable and non-sustainable levels. From top to bottom: overexploited stocks; sustainably exploited and sub-underexploited. Source: FAO (2020).

Another existing gap in artisanal fishery chains is sanitary inspection. Not because Brazilian rules in this regard are poor - but  the exact opposite. "The legislation is very strict, and artisanal fishery cannot meet the criteria. Today, having a SIF [certification of sanitary quality in Brazil] for fish is totally impossible for the artisanal scale," said Miyaji.

© Christian Braga/Oceana. Women work in the city of Jacumã in Rio Grande do Norte State.

Moreover, work conditions for those involved in the fishery chain rarely adhere to basic human rights standards. And while the men who go to the high seas risk their lives, women face even worse circumstances. "Shrimp peelers in the northeast, for example, do not have a work contract, they work for how much they peel. They have no social benefits, and work in an unhealthy activity,” Miyaji said, adding that women are not included in aid programs for periods without production offered to fishermen - called defeso in Portuguese. "Their hands are bruised, their backs are broken, they work for up to 10 hours in a shed with no refrigeration, no water and no food." 

Maps indicating risks for (a) labour abuse and (b) unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing at port. Blue indicates lower port risk scores and red denotes higher scores.  Source: adapted from Nature Communications (2022). 

Finding sustainable foods

In 2008, inspired by a project led by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the United States, Miyaji and a group of her students developed guides for consumers that showed which species could be bought without harming the environment and which ones should be avoided. The categories were good appetite (green), eat in moderation (yellow) and avoid (red). However, once again, lack of data poses an obstacle to determining whether  a certain type of fishery is sustainable or not.

Nowadays, Miyaji works for companies that established targets to offer only sustainable seafood for their clients, helping them to cope with the difficulties of doing so in Brazil. The core of the issue is that almost no international certification scheme can be applied in underdeveloped countries, not even in artisanal fishing. "In aquaculture we only have tilapia, and only large companies are certified. In Brazil there is neither diversity nor sufficient volume to meet these commitments." 

"Their hands are bruised, their backs are broken, they work for up to 10 hours in a shed with no refrigeration, no water and no food."

Even Müller, who works to support artisanal fishing, admits that this is not a sustainable activity, although he sees great potential there. "The difference for industrial fishing is that it is not and will never be sustainable, due to its scale," he assesses. "There are many practices that can be improved in artisanal fishing, and this does not occur in part because of the fishermen's lack of knowledge, and also because of the lack of institutional support. An example is the fishing of Cação , which is prohibited but continues to happen."

Not all is lost, however. A handful of NGOs are working to improve the ways we certify artisanal fishing in terms of sustainability and FAO (​​Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has released a document with voluntary guidelines for small-scale fisheries. The challenge, according to Miyaji, is how to ensure that  artisanal fishing -  which she points out is not exactly synonymous with small-scale - adheres to the most strict criteria of sustainability. 

Should we stop eating fish?

This may be our first thought when realising the scale of the damage fisheries can produce - even the small-scale ones - when not well-managed. Reducing the amount of animal protein we consume is, indeed, necessary in order to guarantee the sustainability of our oceans, says  Miyaji - or, better yet, cutting it out of our diet altogether, if one has the ability to do so. She highlights, however, that while some people have the option of picking and choosing what to eat, some 800 million people don't. 

"Globally, about 3 billion people have the sea as their main source of protein in their diet. From the point of view of global food security, fish protein is essential, according to the Blue Food Assessment, especially in poorer countries. The path is to improve management at a global level, respecting the resilience of the sea and each species," she said.

Similar thoughts were offered by Joane Batista and Martin Dias. Müller, on his part, also affirms his support of proper artisanal fishing, mentioning the Community Supported Fishery, from FAO, which justly describes the need to address the lack of data and governance over this kind of activity. 

Due to the numerous obstacles faced by researchers and policy makers in Brazil, finding definitive answers on this matter can be a challenge. But it is vital to keep pursuing a better way of fishing. 

"We may have more doubts than certainties," writes biologist Cintia Miyaji in an article about "half truths traps." "But we are clear that sustainable fisheries and aquaculture are possible, and although complex to define individually, they tend to grow and increase their representativeness globally and locally, as a result of our work."

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