The areas where small-scale fisheries operate are diminishing in an increasingly industrialised world. Researchers suggest that these places can be considered as unique refuges. Photo: E. Björkvik

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Temporary refuge from an ocean of industry

How long will areas inaccessible to global fish industry remain refuges for small-scale fisheries?

Story highlights

  • Industrialised fishing dominates the global seas, but the diverse range of fishing practices that do not fall under this category are defined as small-scale fisheries (SSF)
  • The history of fisheries highlights how humans have been shaping marine and aquatic ecosystems since ancient times. This is significant for understanding the value of SSF for the current era
  • But the areas where SSF operate are diminishing in an increasingly industrialised world. The researchers argue that these places might preserve traditional ways of managing marine and aquatic ecosystems

What exactly sets small-scale fisheries (SSF) apart from industrial fishing businesses? There is a deeper story behind how this term came into existence, especially considering how size is just one indicator of the diverse range of fisheries included under this category.

In an effort to distinguish SSF from large fishing industries, the label became a way to define any alternative to modern industrial fishing. With that being said, understanding the extent and function of SSF is still a bit blurry.

To dispel misconceptions and outline the history of SSF throughout the ages, centre researchers Wiebren Boonstra and Emma Björkvik teamed up with researchers from the Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences and Uppsala University.

Published as part of the upcoming Encyclopedia of World’s Biomes their short history examines how environment types and human influence have shaped the development of diversity of fisheries.

But the areas where SSF operate are diminishing in an increasingly industrialised world. The researchers argue that these places might preserve traditional ways of managing marine and aquatic ecosystems.

Shrinking “anthromes”

In their chapter, the researchers explain how small-scale fishing often survives in areas where industrial fishing cannot operate: lakes, lagoons, archipelagos, and coastal waters are challenging environments for larger industries to exploit for economic gain.

However, these places are under increasing pressure. Pressure from other economic industries, environmental protection, climate change and overfishing mounts. Based on these observations the researchers argue that the natural environments where SSF operates – their “anthromes” - are shrinking.

Cases as diverse as the Tam Giang Lagoon in Vietnam and the archipelago of Stockholm, Sweden show this. Both regions depended on traditional fishing in the past as a source of livelihood and food. But throughout the years, fisheries have had to give way to other economic and social interests such as aquaculture, industrial fisheries, tourist industries and nature conservation.

The researchers suggest that due to the shrinking of SSF anthromes, these places can be considered as refuges. Refuges that continue to maintain fishers with unique “knowledge and skills that have potential to contribute to post-growth societies that use and preserve aquatic and marine environments sustainably.”

The question is: for how long?

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Published: 2019-10-16

Related info

Boonstra, W.J., Björkvik, E., Joosse, S., Hanh, T.T.H. 2019. From Anthrome to Refugium? A short history of small-scale fisheries in the Anthropocene. Reference Module in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences.

Link to publication

Wijnand Boonstra's research investigates the social-historical dynamics of primary resources, and how it impacts the long-term biocultural sustainability of sea- and landscapes.

Emma Björkvik's PhD research focuses on why, when, and how some Swedish fishers in the Baltic Sea fish sustainably, while others do not.


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