Creating a splash: small-scale fisheries research as a catalyst for change

Kim Hunnam -

Gill nets in Adara, Timor-Leste.

In many instances, research focused on small-scale fisheries is trying to improve human wellbeing, nutrition, and the way we manage our natural resources. But how does “doing research” lead to such real-world change? This was a topic of discussion at the recent Symposium on Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries hosted by WorldFish at its headquarters in Penang, Malaysia.

Small-scale capture fisheries are often described as “undervalued and underreported”. In many places, we don’t even know the basics – like how many people are involved, how many fish are caught and how they contribute to people’s income, food security and nutrition. Without these details, small-scale fisheries are not even on people’s radars. Research is really important here to gather evidence to build recognition and support. This includes local-scale research, such as that presented by Alex Tilley and Chikondi Manyungwa-Pasani at the Symposium, on women’s involvement in fishing in Timor-Leste and fish trading in Malawi. And it also includes global scale research, like Christina Hicks’ work, mapping the nutrient yield of global fish landings in comparison to human micronutrient deficiencies. By building up these pictures at different scales, small-scale fisheries can begin to be recognised by governments and supported by national policies.

Research also enables us to investigate social and ecological problems, and identify opportunities for making improvements. Joseph Nagoli’s research in Lake Malawi found that many fish were going to waste due to open-air drying techniques. This can lead to the introduction and testing of new technology and processes; in his case, solar drying tents. In a similar role, research in Timor-Leste presented by David Mills, has involved adapting and testing the design of nearshore Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs) to improve fish catches, increasing fishers’ income.

Through research we can also test or evaluate the effectiveness of changed practices. Jessica Bogard’s work in Bangladesh showed how a shift in fish consumption practices (from mostly wild-caught fish to aquaculture-sourced fish) has actually reduced the nutritional quality of people’s diets. Miratori Kim, Kosal Mam and Firoz Khan all presented examples where greater local community involvement in inland fishery management in Cambodia and Bangladesh has led to increased fish catches as well as improved biodiversity.

Research itself can also act as a catalyst for change. In participatory action research, fishers, fish processors or fisheries managers become co-researchers – they identify the problem to be researched and are actively involved in data collection, analysis and interpretation of findings. In this way, research can empower local people, prompt them to question the way things are done and lead to locally-driven, lasting change. This approach was demonstrated in work in Zambia presented by Steve Cole, which sought to reduce fish losses during processing through both new drying techniques, selected and modified by the fish processors themselves, as well as drama skits to spark local conversations about some of the underlying social reasons for these losses.

Contributing to real-world change

My PhD research is looking at small-scale sardine fisheries in Timor-Leste – how they operate and contribute to livelihoods and nutrition. You can see these fisheries in action along parts of the Timor-Leste coast, but they haven’t been documented before. So I’m in the category of gathering evidence to build recognition and support. I also hope to identify entry points for improvements, which may guide government, other organisations, or even community members themselves. But no one is actually going to read a PhD thesis! Here there is value in working in partnership with research organisations such as WorldFish, who have an established presence in the country and can use findings from such research to plan and implement future work.

The range of research presented at the Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Symposium (the examples above are just a selection) clearly demonstrate how research is critical for informing decisions at many stages in the process of achieving real-world change. However it was also emphasised that just “doing research” and throwing out findings doesn’t usually create lasting change. The way research is carried out, how it is communicated and how it involves the people it is relevant to – the fishers, their communities, other fishery workers and government decision-makers – are critical. When these components, and often other special local ingredients, are brought together, that’s when we can start to see research having an on-ground impact and contributing to real-world change.

The Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Symposium was organised and hosted by WorldFish from 5-7 September 2017 in Penang, Malaysia. Funding for this event was provided by ACIAR project “The contribution of small-scale fisheries research to a food secure world” (FIS/2017/003). The symposium was part of the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agrifood Systems (FISH). A summary of proceedings will be available later in the year.

Kim Hunnam

Kim Hunnam

Kim Hunnam is undertaking her PhD research through Charles Darwin University and the Australian National University, in collaboration with WorldFish Timor-Leste. Her participation in the WorldFish Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Symposium was funded by The Crawford Fund, an Australian non-profit organisation that works to raise awareness of the benefits of international agricultural research.

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