How international seafood trade impacts small-scale fisheries


Photo: Eny Buchary

Integration of small-scale fishers into global markets has both positive and negative effects. However, much of the academic work trying to demonstrate the effects lack consensus and is often polarized between positive and negative outcomes. 

Teasing out patterns
In a new study published in Global Environmental Change, a team of GEDB and Stockholm Resilience Centre researchers has attempted to shed light on the nuances between the two extremes and paint a more complete picture of what is likely to happen when a fishing community starts engaging in international trade.

They did a systematic assessment based on works of the renowned climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Schellnhuber originally developed ‘global environmental change syndromes’ to overcome sectorial, single-faceted approaches. He argues that bundles of interacting processes can be grouped into ‘syndromes of change’. 

The study aim to tease out patterns among the many social and ecological outcomes arising from small-scale fisheries engaging in international seafood trade. It also tries to identify the factors behind them.

"The intention is to paint a fuller picture of how small-scale fishers
interact with parties on a global scale and how that affects them,"
lead author Beatrice Crona explains. 

18 cases, three syndromes
The study examined a variety of outcomes across 18 cases from around the world. The cases were then categorized based on how the outcome variables clustered together and three distinct social–ecological syndromes emerged. 

The first syndrome was associated with improved management and generally healthy fish stocks. The principal factor behind this was the presence of strong and well-enforced institutions.

The second syndrome was characterized by declining resources and conflicts between fisheries actors. This was primarily linked to weak institutions for managing resources.

The third syndrome was also characterized by declining stocks but also showed evidence of wealthy elites of fish traders capturing wealth at the expense of increasingly poorer fishers. This seem to have been caused by a combination of strong demand from niche markets in China and a desire among trade actors to secure access to high-value resources.

From local to global and back again
When examining the syndromes, the authors saw that the factors important for explaining them operate at very different scales, from the very local (such as patron-client relations and ecological traits of species) to the international level (foreign demand for seafood products).

The authors argue that this poses new governance challenges when it comes to efforts to achieve sustainable social and environmental trajectories.  It also highlights the need to develop approaches that account for these multi-scale drivers. Highly decentralized governance such as community management is, on its own, unlikely to be sufficient and needs to be supported by institutions on national levels.

Read more

Crona, B. I., Van Holt, T., Petersson, M., Daw, T. M., & Buchary, E. (2015). Using social–ecological syndromes to understand impacts of international seafood trade on small-scale fisheries. Global Environmental Change, 35, 162-175