The new data approach that's helping struggling, small-scale fisheries

Rod Fujita

With 90 percent of the world’s 38 million fishermen believed to be operating in small-scale fisheries, overfishing and declining catch is a rapidly mounting ecological and socio-economic problem – and it’s hitting developing countries harder than most.

The problem is compounded by the fact that most of these fisheries have little or no baseline information to even begin to rebuild the supply of fish.

So how, then, are fishermen in Belize turning their once-struggling businesses around? Think sustainable management. Think data. Think FISHE.

A new online tool, FISHE offers a process for assessing and managing fisheries for long-term sustainability while measuring progress over time. If scaled up, it could help failing fisheries worldwide get on a path to recovery.

Environmental Defense Fund developed the FISHE tool over many years of working in fisheries that lacked data.

It has already been used to inform fisheries in Mexico, Spain, Cuba – and Belize, where science-based management is being implemented to make sure the country’s so-called Managed Access Areas produce sustainable catches. 

Fishermen are now self-policing which, in turn, has contributed to a 60-percent drop in fishing violations in some Belize regions.

A growing database

FISHE organizes the materials and tools that fishermen, government officials and marine scientists need to effectively manage a fishery.

The starting point is local knowledge and the understanding of fish behavior that fishermen gain through years of experience. This knowledge can support management even when scant data is available. 

Fishermen like FISHE because it’s clear and easy to interpret, and because it makes good use of their own knowledge. The FISHE tool contains a downloadable workbook that is used to characterize fisheries and collect any data that already exists.

EDF’s science team then worked with Belize scientists to analyze this growing database, and to come up with scientific guidance for the management of coral reef ecosystems – as well as for the country’s important lobster, finfish and conch fisheries.

More countries coming onboard

Meanwhile, interest in FISHE and other small-scale fishery management tools is growing in other countries in Latin America and beyond.

In October 2014, scientists, fishermen and conservationists from Chile, Peru, Cuba, Belize, Brazil and Mexico gathered at a workshop in Merida, Mexico, for training. It’s the beginning of what we hope will be a world-wide push to save small-scale fisheries for future generations.