Where does half your wild-caught seafood come from? The answer may surprise you

An artisanal harpoon fisher in Bahia, Brazil.

An artisanal harpoon fisher in Bahia, Brazil. Coastal community fisheries catch half of the world’s wild-caught seafood supply. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

We live on land, but the oceans feed us: Seafood is consumed more than any other animal protein in the world — more than pork, chicken, beef or eggs. In fact, fisheries feed three out of seven people worldwide.

You’re likely picturing gigantic commercial fishing vessels pulling in millions of pounds of fish with mechanized nets to meet this global demand. But the source of our seafood is much more varied — it depends on the millions of fishers that make up the community fisheries scattered across the world’s coasts.

Small-scale, artisanal fisheries support food security, livelihoods, economic development — even climate change solutions. Here are four things you might not know about them.

  1. Coastal community fisheries feed the world by providing 50% of global seafood catch.

Fish is the last major food source that humans collect from the wild — and the main protein source for 3 billion people. And half of the wild-caught fish people eat comes from coastal community fisheries. Making sure that these fisheries are sustainable is critical to the environment and to ocean-dependent communities — which is ultimately good for productivity. Because coastal community fisheries often use less harmful techniques than commercial fisheries, and because many fishers live close to the waters they fish in, fishers are motivated to protect and sustainably manage the waters to ensure fish health and availability. Healthy waters, thriving ecosystems, fishing practices that allow fish to reproduce and create more fish — these sustainable practices all help coastal community fisheries provide half the world’s seafood catch.

In Brazil, coastal community fisheries are a critical lifeline for people’s food and livelihoods. “The management of artisanal fisheries in marine protected areas is one of the only ways we have in Brazil to conserve fishery resources, and the human cultures and economies who depend on the sea to live,” says Carlos Alberto Pinto dos Santos, a Brazilian fisher, Conservation International (CI) partner and leader of the National Commission for the Strengthening of Coastal and Marine Extractive Reserves.

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  1. Coastal community fisheries employ nine out of 10 people who work in fisheries worldwide.

Forty-four percent of the world’s population lives within 150 kilometers (93 miles) of the ocean. These populations are heavily dependent on the ocean for their jobs and food security. Coastal community fisheries enable millions of fishers to feed and support their families — part of the US$ 2.5 trillion industry generated by the ocean. While there is economic potential for small artisanal fishers, because of the small size coastal community fisheries relative to commercial operations, the rules in place in these fisheries are often less monitored and enforced than they are in larger operations. This can make coastal operations vulnerable to illegal and unregulated fishing, which can lead to overfishing, degraded marine ecosystems and severely depleted fish stocks, threatening the future food security and livelihoods of fishers and their communities. But when coastal community fisheries are sustainably managed, they improve the well-being of ocean-dependent communities by establishing partnerships and opportunities to create more buyers, and introducing new tools and techniques that increase catch and productivity without threatening the environment.

In Madagascar, “small-scale fishing communities are commonly located in remote areas and tend to have limited or disadvantaged access to markets, and may have poor access to health, education and other social services,” says a CI Madagascar manager, Soloson Ramanahadray. Addressing the issues facing these small fisheries, including supporting the community so they can productively monitor and manage them, and get the fish to market easily, ensures the well-being of people as well as the fisheries.

Indigenous Betsimaraka fishermen from Antsinarana in eastern Madagascar

Indigenous Betsimaraka fishermen from Antsinarana in eastern Madagascar. Small artisanal fisheries that do not exploit marine resources in an industrial manner, while feeding thousands of people locally, will be among the most sustainable way to make use of our oceans’ bountiful resources. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

  1. As global populations grow, coastal community fisheries can play a critical role in feeding the world — if their management is improved.

What does “improved management” actually mean?

For coastal community fisheries, there are three key ingredients. First, the fish that are caught and eaten most need to be managed based on sound science, so that they can reproduce and they can continue to feed people. Second, critical habitats need to be protected to ensure the growth and health of future fish. Last, the health of the area’s biodiversity needs to be protected in order to keep marine life healthy, productive and resilient to shocks (human and natural). As demand for seafood increases, the more sustainably and effectively managed coastal community fisheries there are, the more healthy and productive areas there will be for fishers to fish.

In the Galápagos Islands, CI has been working with local fishers on an educational campaign called “Take Care of What Is Ours.” Dionisio Zapata of Pescador de Galápagos, a local organization, explained why the program is crucial and timely: “This program … comes at just the right time to make sure that we learn how to fish in a way that ensures that the lobsters we have today are there in the future to create opportunities for our kids.”

  1. Coastal community fisheries can help local people cope with extreme weather and a changing climate.

Climate change is already causing major changes to oceans, affecting the ecosystems that support fisheries and the lives of ocean-dependent communities around the planet. As water temperatures and currents shift, the migration patterns of certain fish, such as skipjack tuna, will change, affecting which countries can catch certain fish and reap the income.

Fortunately, supporting coastal community fisheries can help fight these impacts. When healthy and sustainably managed, key coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangrove forests not only provide ideal habitats for fishery production, they provide crucial climate change adaptation and mitigation benefits, including shoreline buffers against waves, storms and floods and storage of “blue carbon” (the carbon that is stored naturally by marine and coastal ecosystems).

Fishing operations of all sizes have their place in feeding the billions of people that rely on seafood as their main source of protein — but as the global population grows and our oceans are impacted by climate change, sustainably managed coastal community fisheries offer a unique solution that benefits both people and nature.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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