Fishing in troubled waters

Local sustainability initiatives hold the key to solving a global crisis Dr Gilly Llewellyn and Dermot O’Gorman

A young woman in the Solomon Islands with her catch PHOTO: JAN VAN DER PLOEG, 2016

Contrary to the popular saying, there will not always be “plenty more fish in the sea”. Globally, our oceans are in crisis with over 30 per cent of fish stocks over-exploited; climate change will reduce the global fish catch by up to 24 per cent by the end of this century. But it’s hard to understand – and more importantly, solve – a problem by looking at shocking global statistics. While coastal fisheries around the world, in places such as the Pacific and South East Asia, are showing clear signs of depletion and overfishing, the solutions must deliver results at the micro level in order to succeed, often with women keeping the purse strings together.

Rindah Melsen from the Solomons is one such woman. Each morning, she helps sell the daily catch by her island’s fishermen and women in local markets; she puts part of that income into a local Savings Club, which she uses for her children’s school fees and family necessities, as well as setting some aside for “rainy days”.

Melsen is also the president of the Women’s Saving Club in her rural community of Nusatuva, on Kolombangara Island in the western part of the Solomon Islands. Although it’s a community fund, it was set up formally as “a micro-finance project attached to the local community-based fisheries management programme”. It is a community-led project working with the provincial government, and with extensive support from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), canned fish producers Simplot, and the Australian government.

The business model underlying the Savings Club is structured to enable women to take control of their own and their families’ finances. With the ability to earn their own income comes the power to make their own decisions about how that money is spent. It seems like a simple equation of money = power. But the model also gives local women creative scope, since they can use their savings to apply for loans from the Savings Club’s revolving funds for other ventures, including new businesses and income-generating activities.

The extraordinary range of micro enterprises that have been developed and supported by the Women’s Savings Club includes bakeries, piggeries, water taxi services, guest houses, screen printing, and dressmaking. The women have used their savings to help with university fees for their children. Notably, it’s often the daughters who, perhaps inspired by their mothers and grandmothers, seize the chance for further education.

It’s a model that is being rolled out to other parts of the globe, where coastal populations depend on fish and other seafoods both for personal nutrition and financial survival. The global statistics confirm there is an urgent need, with around 800 million people worldwide dependent on small-scale fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. 90 per cent of these come from low- and middle-income countries, and small island states.

This is a significant percentage of the global population that is extraordinarily vulnerable to economic, social and environmental shocks, and was therefore hit hard by the direct and indirect impacts of Covid-19. What’s more, according to the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate, Dr Shakuntala Thilsted, women are particularly affected in terms of their livelihoods, reduced income and ability to access food.

When Covid-19 hit the Solomon Islands in 2020 there was an exodus of people out of the capital back to their local communities. The swelling family sizes meant most of their local catch and garden produce ended up being consumed within individual community households. Imposed social distancing also impacted local fish sellers who couldn’t get their usual income from the main markets – so fisher families had less cash in their pockets to buy shelf-stocked goods from stores. However, the savings the women had built up over the years helped provide a buffer against 2020 Covid-19 impacts.

Rindah Melsen’s family benefited from her saving club – but they were the lucky ones. The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted poor and vulnerable segments of society because they’re more likely to lose their livelihoods when demand for products from low income employment falters.

The economist Teguh Dartanto has estimated that an additional 88 million – 115 million people in Asia were put into extreme poverty in 2020. Dr Thilsted has cited reports in which up to 132 million people suffered greater food deprivation in 2020 than previous years. But the role of small-scale coastal fishing communities could help with the Covid-19 impact on access to health food and nutrition. Thilsted believes fish and other aquatic produce are “superfoods”, rich in micronutrients, and therefore could have a critical role globally in turning these figures around. She has urged that fish-based food products be more available – citing the example of India, where dried fish is included in feeding programmes for young children as well as take-home rations for mothers and adolescent girls. The Cambodian government has also trialled additional dried fish, fish powders and fish chutneys in the packages given for the treatment of malnourished children.

With tropical countries ever more vulnerable to climate change impacts, it can only compound the tropical public health and nutritional security challenges many of them already face

So it’s ironic that, across economically well-off countries, fish and shellfish are often valued as luxury dietary alternatives to meat. Globally, average fish consumption continues to grow at a faster rate than average population growth, and sales of seafood products in many OECD markets have enjoyed healthy growth during Covid-19. But providing high-value seafood to “wealthy nations” comes at a cost to local communities.

South East Asian countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand regard fish as a valuable export earner, with increasing sales into consumer markets like Europe and the US. But this reduces the availability of inshore fisheries for domestic, low income local markets where the need for nutrient-rich food is greatest. If fish stocks continue to be diverted at scale, it may lead to increased malnutrition and poverty.

If we overlay the impacts of climate change on top of these current Covid-19 challenges, we risk seeing coastal fisheries unable to provide the social safety-net function of feeding local communities. But how real is this additional climate change-induced food security threat? Another big global statistic predicts that climate change will reduce the global fish catch by up to 24 per cent by the end of this century, mainly in the tropics, with as much as a 40 per cent decline in some exclusive economic zones by the 2050s (relative to the 2000s).

The consequence of this is hard to grasp. What do these local communities do if they lose a quarter of their daily food and income? With tropical countries ever more vulnerable to climate change impacts, it can only compound the tropical public health and nutritional security challenges many of them already face.

Earth’s remarkable ocean has nourished humanity throughout the course of human history. Can it continue to do so? While global statistics point only to the problem, Rindah and her communities’ actions demonstrate a solution: that only by respecting the ocean’s limits, and by supporting local fisher folk and their families, can the rest of the world enjoy their share of seafood. Sadly, the old proverb – Give a person a fish and they won’t be hungry for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime – is no longer the answer if there are few fish left in the sea for anyone to catch. The womenled savings initiative that benefited Melsen and her family might not work for every coastal community, though the principle of enabling self-reliance and building resilience, especially in times of crisis, is essential: not just to the sustainable future of local communities and nature resources everywhere in the world, but to the future of the planet that supports us all.

This article draws on views shared by the participants in the ADB’s 54th Annual Meeting 2021 CSO Event 1, 3 May, led by WWF, titled “Collaboration on Resilient and Green Recovery: Realizing the potential of a sustainable blue economy” (

Gilly Llewellyn is Deputy Leader, WWF Oceans Practice, and Dermot O’Gorman is CEO of WWF Australia

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