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A Focus on Artisanal Fisheries: Characteristics and Assumptions

November 8, 2011
File:Mozambique - traditional sailboat.jpg

Artisanal fishing off the coast of Mozambique. Credit: Steve Evans, Wikimedia Commons

What is an artisanal fishery?  There is, as yet, no universally-accepted definition.  For example, sometimes the term is used interchangeably with ‘small scale fishery’, and sometimes it is considered a subset of ‘small scale’.

But in spite of the definitional challenge, I think we agree enough on the core elements to be able to talk about them.  I’ve found that most everyone can agree that artisanal fisheries are ‘local’, ‘labor intensive’, and exhibit little ‘organizational hierarchy in fishing operations’.

Demuynck (1994) goes a step further and provides a nice overview of general characteristics of ‘artisanal’ fisheries found in the literature:

The following elements can be called almost general characteristics to artisanal or small-scale fisheries (Tvedten & Hersoug, 1992 and Seki & Bonzon, 1993):

  • it uses a relatively simple technology;
  • it is labour-intensive;
  • it consists of small groups of operators;
  • it takes relatively low capital inputs;
  • marketing and distribution are handled by specialized non-fishing intermediaries;
  • the risk-aspect is always present;
  • production, distribution and social organisation are strongly interdependent;
  • kin-group ties influence all levels of organization;
  • fishing is a low-status occupation and fishing communities suffer from poor community infrastructure and living conditions.

The only element I’d really challenge here is the idea that artisanal fishermen are necessarily poor or low status relative to their communities.  Coulthard et al. (2011) discuss this misconception, which I point to in a past blog post (see #1).

In the field of conservation, I’ve encountered three consistent assumptions about artisanal fisheries, usually to support more protective measures for artisanal fisheries and to shoot down plans to restructure fisheries with property rights. These assumptions are that: artisanal fisheries are (1) more sustainable, (2) better for employment, and (3) more ‘traditional’.  I’ve long wondered how well these assumptions would hold up after some research and consideration.  Here’s what I’ve found:
Sustainability. Are artisanal fisheries necessarily better for the environment?  No.  (Assuming of course that you don’t define artisanal fisheries as using non-destructive gear! See AFFIRM here.)  The literature points out that it really depends on the fishery.  Sometimes it is less destructive and sometimes it is more.  A great example of a ‘more destructive’ fishery are the reef netting operations out in the Philippines.   Incredibly destructive and a highly vulnerable ecosystem. Meanwhile, less tech means you aren’t dealing with mega-trawelers with nets capable of holding a jumbo jet.

Stepping back, there are some big remaining questions: do artisanal fisheries have more consistent sustainable targets than commercial fisheries, lower bycatch rates, or higher compliance rates when sustainable targets are in place?  I’d want to know that to really answer if artisanal fisheries are any better.

Employment. Artisanal fisheries are clearly the way to go for the purposes of employment. Here’s what the UNEP has to say:
The artisanal fishing sector—regardless of any technical debate over its precise definition — provides direct employment to tens of millions of people, and indirect employment to tens of millions more (many of them women involved in fish processing). Artisanal fishing comprises 90% of all fishing jobs worldwide, approximately 45% of the world’s fisheries, and nearly a quarter of the world catch. They provide critical income and edible protein to hundreds of millions across the globe. Moreover, artisanal fishers operate in some of the biologically richest and most sensitive waters on earth, often in tropical coastal zones where interactions with coral reefs and land-based ecosystems introduce complex interdependencies.
‘Tradition’.  Are artisanal fisheries more ‘traditional’ and so deserving of special protections as a cultural activity?  No easy answer, but I’ll argue no.  Sure, there are artisanal operations that are clearly part of local culture and community, but similarly, there are commercial operations today that have grown out of strong cultural communities, such as in New England.  And some artisanal fishermen may have newly entered the business simply because they saw an opportunity; clearly, not all new entrants to fisheries are commercial operators.
So what’s my take?  Should we act to protect artisanal fisheries?  Or let market forces lead us in the direction of larger, less local, more technologically-advanced fishing operations?   Ultimately, I’d say it depends quite a bit on each fishery.  The three assumptions above suggest a set of questions to ask:
  • On Sustainability: What is the environmental impact of the artisanal fishery relative to its employment?  Relative to its yield?   Would a commercial fishery greatly reduce the environmental destruction of  gear?  What is the rate of compliance in artisanal fisheries and are their catch/effort targets sustainable?  If highly destructive, would a commercial fishery (and thus fewer operators) better enable fisheries managers to reduce the environmental impacts?
  • On Employment: Is it better to protect low-tech, high labor fishing operations or let operators compete through innovation and cutting labor costs?  A nice question to  gauge your market philosophy.  And does the employment justify by the environmental impacts?  Is such a fishery even sustainable?
  • On Tradition: Does the artisanal fishery have unique cultural value?  Would its demise bring the end of a unique cultural community or way of life?  I do believe we should afford special protections in such cases.  Man, too, is a member of the ecosystem.  And to speculate, I think what people are more deeply concerned with is subsistence fishing.  So a subsequent question is, would competition or a fishery reform mean that subsistence fishermen go hungry?
All tough questions, but certainly ones you’d need to answer.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2011 9:12 am

    The definition on artisanal fisheries I like the best came from a Chilean fisherman who said that the concept was rooted in “Arte Sana”, or “Healthy Gear”.

    Of course we should also consider the root of the word “artisan”, as a pre-industrialisation qualification, implying expertise in craft skills…

    In that genre, here is something I wrote back in 2005:

    “In pre-industrial societies the artisan was a recognised social category, fitting into the middle tier of the social hierarchy, a hierarchy which included agricultural workers, hunters, priests, soldiers, aristocrats and others. The word artisan derives from the Latin “artire” – to instruct in the arts, an artisan therefore being one “instructed in the arts”. In the modern, post-industrial context, the meaning of artisan and artisanal has changed. In many ways it is an archaic word the original meaning of which no longer applies today. However, its conceptual use referring to a non-industrial way of life, with manual skills in a particular craft is highly relevant in today’s post-modern fisheries, where the industrial model
    is looking increasingly untenable.”

    The market tends to favour the interests of those who control it. So if we leave it to the market, artisanal fisheries may find a place as part of some niche tourism activities, or on the margins of niche markets for speciality products.

    Let democracy decide. After all most fishers around the world work in artisanal, small scale, subsistence and such like fisheries. Small scale fisheries should be better represented in decision taking processes.

    In the EU recently a group of around 160 organizations signed up to a “Scale Matters; Quality Counts” Declaration , which made some important proposals.

    Small is not always beautiful, and big is not always bad, but there are some important lessons that we can draw from fisheries that are small in scale, diverse and seasonal in nature, rooted in local communities and their knowledge and ways of doing things, using low impact gears, and which support a range of economic activities.

  2. November 10, 2011 6:45 pm

    Thanks, Brian, for your excellent comments.

    I hesitate to define artisanal fisheries as ones using ‘healthy gear’ or ‘low impact fishing methods’ as some might also say. It risks making ‘artisanal fishery’ synonomous with ‘good fishery’, invalidating the term when there are plenty of other factors to deterime whether an artisanal fishery is good for the environment, including effort and the vulnerability of the broader ecosystem. For example, as I published today (, an artisanal fishery in Mexico using relatively low-impact gear (diving) collapsed after too much effort was applied.

    I can also think of a few islands off the Coast of Central America where small boats, mostly using handlines, have so consistently fished the vulnerable reef ecosystem that the fish assemblages are in really rough shape.

    You point to an excellent area that I didn’t get into: political economy. It’s true, artisanal fishermen (as I define in the post) are likely to have greater money and organizational barriers to influencing policy makers when compared with industrial fishing companies. A great example of this I found through research into aquaculture in Peru and what we might call it’s ‘artisanal’ trout aquaculture operations (forgive me for using a non-marine example). The operations are mostly low-tech, low heirarchy, and operate for small-scale commerce and subsistence. While there may be over 2,000 such trout farmers, just one trout farming representative attended government meetings to develop a National Aquaculture Plan for policy and investment. Meanwhile, the large scale operators had a dozen or so representatives.

    I give credit to your organization, OCEAN2012, and the many others in Europe. The money and organizational challenges mean we must hope for enlightened civil society organizations – like yours – and responsible government bureaucrats to re-balance the scales. While those bureaucrats may be rare, I did see a clear committment by the Peruvian government to support the artisanal trout farmers. Though money is short, they provide some excellent technical courses and are working on developing a Peru-based trout hatchery to lower their input costs.

    All in all, political economy is another important thing to consider. When a government is making a big change to a fishery management system, can we say all user groups have had an opportunity to articulate and share their interests with the system designers? Are the proposed changes equitable?


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