First, build trust; then rebuild fish stocks

Building trust is the first step towards a sustainable future for small-scale fishers. By Marco Costantini, WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative Regional Fisheries Manager.

© Carlo Gianferro

Fisheries management must be based on trust. You can’t just impose off-the-peg strategies from a remote government office, and tell the fishers and everyone else what they can and can’t do. Conservation efforts made on that basis are doomed to fail in the Mediterranean, and in coastal communities in particular.

But how can you build enough trust to get the people who really matter on board?

Small-scale fishers are, of course, the users most affected by new rules and restrictions on their fisheries — and their perspective and knowledge is critical to successful change. A fundamental part of WWF’s work is to be there in fishers’ communities, listening to them, growing our understanding of their work and views, and their hopes and fears for the future, identifying issues to resolve and taking on board the enormous amount of local knowledge they hold.

© Claudia Amico

And as we get to know fishers, we also explain the thinking behind our marine conservation initiatives. Protecting areas of the ocean or reducing fishing effort on certain stocks isn’t intended to shut down small-scale fisheries — in fact it’s there to do quite the reverse: everyone wants to make sure fishing can go on far into the future and continue to provide food and livelihoods all around the Mediterranean, at the heart of local cultures as it has always been. But to do that, it’s important to listen to what science says: sustainable fishery initiatives lead to better long-term outcomes for fishers too, not just for the fish they rely on.

Building a collective commitment
Recreational fishers, leisure boaters, divers, tourism operators — it’s likely there will be many different stakeholders who use an area’s marine resources, and their views matter too. The only way of making sure that everyone gets behind long-term conservation projects is to involve them from the start, so we’ve done just that: at the beginning of each planning process, we’ve focused our efforts on building multi-stakeholder co-management committees.

© Ante Gugic

Once the right groups are in place — and it’s important not to underestimate how long it can take to build the trust needed for this to happen — the next task is to agree on goals and discuss how to get there. There will be a lot to talk about. Even within fishers’ communities opinions on resource management can vary widely, and user conflicts are almost inevitable. But if everyone involved is committed to finding a way forward and is willing to compromise, then in theory at least progress is possible.

Using local knowledge
The advantages of local co-management compared to a remote centralised approach are multifold. It’s the local fishers themselves who know the most about the waters they fish in since ages, so to achieve the best results zoning and catch quota plans should incorporate their unique knowledge of species life-stage habitats, fish movements, seasonal changes and so on. Such local ecological knowledge combined with classic science provides the best foundation for progress. Involving the fishers in co-management planning makes their eventual buy-in much more likely, too.

© Carlo Gianferro

Once the plans are agreed and incorporated in a clear regulatory framework, implementation begins. Fishers’ support remains key. They can work with authorities and researchers to monitor and evaluate the success — or not — of measures put in place, and adapt them as needed. Out on the water, fishers are on the front line in surveillance — and where they feel ownership, they’ll protect their resources by reporting suspicious or illegal activity, helping enforce the rules and combating overfishing.

Seeing the bigger picture
Although intelligent conservation measures boost long-term fishery performance, their introduction can bring serious disruption to small-scale fishers — after all, if you suddenly stop fishing in some of your richest hunting grounds, what do you replace the catch within the short term?

Mutual trust is needed in dealing with socio-economic questions as well as environmental ones. We’re collaborating closely with fisher cooperatives, local authorities, town councils, tourist boards, innovators, scientists, and others to find ways of supplementing small-scale fisher incomes. Initiatives include developing sustainable ‘pescatourism’, where fishers take paying guests out to sea to teach them about their way of life; promoting undervalued species or local specialty products to increase the value of the catch; and looking more broadly at local economies to see how supporting them can best help coastal communities.

© Ante Gugic

All of this, though, requires collective commitment, and an end to any ‘us and them’ thinking. A step on the way is to identify where training and capacity building is needed and create support networks, boosting the viability of new initiatives. As capacity grows and understanding increases across the Mediterranean, trust and momentum will build and sustainability will gain increasing public backing. And if a critical mass of people grasp why it matters, there’s a good chance that small-scale fisheries will still have a future.

We can get there. All we need is time, trust, and commitment to work together. Co-management is the way forward.

© Claudia Amico

Almost 80% of assessed fisheries in the Mediterranean are being exploited beyond their limits, and small-scale fishers in the region — who make up 84% of the total fleet and fill 62% of the workforce — are being hit harder than anyone else.

WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative is working in 24 sites across Algeria, Albania, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, Spain, Tunisia and Turkey to “fix” fisheries governance. And this means directly engaging and building trust with small-scale fishers, authorities, scientists and other stakeholders, bringing them together to jointly conserve our shared marine resources.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.

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