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A Human Rights Approach to Fisheries Management?

April 3, 2012

A new article argues that ‘rights-based fisheries governance’ should be better linked with human rights.  Sounds great on the title and then gets silly in the substance.  Below are my peeves.  If you want to read something more fulfilling, I’d recommend Gezelius and Hauck on how it is necessary to address unmet needs in the broader political system to make fisheries management work in developing countries.

Here’s a summary of the justification:

What  we  are  suggesting  here,  in essence, is complementing the focus on the ‘governance  system’  that  is  taken  by  much  fisheries literature,  with  an  analysis  of  some  of  the  key elements of the ‘system to be governed’, to use the terminology of Kooiman et al. (2005). The interactive governance approach of these scholars is now being  used  to  evaluate  fisheries  and  is  bringing together the interactive study of poverty and governance in fishing communities (Jentoft et al. 2010; Onyango and Jentoft 2010). This is part of a broad movement  towards  consideration  of  fisheries  as linked social–ecological systems, which culminates in ecosystem-based and resilience-based approaches to assessment and management of fisheries social–ecological systems (Andrew et al.  2007; De Younget al. 2008).

Participatory   assessment   of   vulnerability   in African  fishing  communities  shows  that  priority concerns  of  fisherfolk  are  health,  food  security, access  to  cash,  lack  of  infrastructure  and  education.  Worries  over  the  state  of  fish  stocks  and access  to  the  resource  were  not  found  to  be primary  for  these  communities  (Goulden  2006; Barratt 2009; Mills et al.  2009). Fishing communities  articulate  a  high  degree  of  threat  from corruption   and   theft,   fatal   epidemic   diseases unchecked  because  of  lack  of  access  to  medical facilities,  uncertainties  generated  by  climate  variability and change, and threat of eviction because of a lack of stable title to land adjacent to aquatic resources (Thorpe et al.  2007)…

Where  fisherfolk  live  insecure  lives  and  do  not perceive the decline or possible collapse of fish stocks as the most immediate threat to their well-being, development   investments   focused   narrowly   on aquatic resource access and tenure reform do not gain the support of fisherfolk. Simply put, vulnerable  people  do  not  make  the  most  effective  and motivated   resource   stewards.   In   such   circumstances,  other  insecurities  in  the  fishery  social–ecological  system,  such  as  those  described  in  the previous section, may need to be understood and acted upon first if economic inefficiencies generated by   weak   property   rights   are   to   be   addressed successfully.

Such a mix of issues here.

One issue tackled is poverty.  I very much agree that deeper drivers of insecurity should be addressed among fishermen.  In fact, I got my start as a development practitioner in Guatemala working on human rights.  But, I don’t think the authors are being constructive.  Any well-designed reform in a small-scale fishery would have to include a clear pathway to improving fishermen’s livelihoods.   And there is no silver bullet in international development, but fishery reforms can help reduce poverty.  So should we really wait to save small-scale fisheries that are in decline, as suggested by the authors?  Would this not exacerbate poverty?!

The authors give the example of Lake Victoria:

Fishers around Lake Victoria face multiple deficiencies  in  basic  rights.  Development  organizations, researchers  and  journalists  working  in  the  area have   documented   poor   access   to   basic   social services and education,   and   discrimination against  womenThese  are issues that need to be addressed as a priority before fishers around the lake can reasonably be expected to engage with government as partners in aquatic resource protection and management efforts.

So poor social services, education, and gender discrimination must be addressed before fishermen can be expected to engage with governments for resource protection?  A giant leap.  Here’s a quote from a Lake Victoria fisherman:

“Some years ago it was actually possible to clearly see the bed of the lake on some occasions, but due to pollution, the sewage from farmland is being carried by river to the lake. It is not conducive for fish breeding. Fish numbers are declining rapidly. This is my livelihood, how will I feed my children?” explains George Guya, a fisherman with over 25 years experience.

More on that here.

Another issue tackled here is rights-base management.  In the article, the authors explain that the most common form of RBM in the developing world, individual transferible quotas (ITQs), wouldn’t work in the developing world.  Thus, RBM should not be tried. It’s as if they assume fisheries managers don’t understand the need to implement less sophisticated RBM schemes in small-scale fisheries in the developing world.

To link RBM with human rights, the authors give a number of recommendations that essentially read like anything I’ve ever seen recommended as best practice in fisheries management.  Sustainbilty. Increase benefits to users.  Stakeholder consultation.  The only novel idea is that fishery policy should be integrated with other anti-poverty measures.  Based on these recommendations, why on earth are we talking about RBM at all?

So there you go. I really expected better from Fish and Fisheries,especially with the lead author coming from the WorldFish Center.

(And just to be ultra clear, I’m all for better recognition of human rights problems in developing countries.  This was just a poor argument.)

Edward H Allison, Blake D Ratner, Bjorn Asgard, Rolf Willmann, Robert Pomeroy, & John Kurien (2012). Rights-based fisheries governance: from fishing rights to human rights Fish and Fisheries (13), 14-29 : 10.1111/j.1467-2979.2011.00405.x

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