Learning From The Past, Imagining the Future

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WorldFish attending the 10th People and the Sea (MARE) Conference

In many ways, the attendance of WorldFish at this years’ MARE People and the Sea conference provided opportunities to reflect on our efforts and exchange with leading scientists on how to best deliver on our mission.

‘Blue Lifeblood’

It runs through our veins ever since we were born, I know, first we lived in the sea then we climbed up a tree and now we’re stranded. We belong to the land but our veins have thirst for […] blue lifeblood’. It is with some wistful lyrics beautifully delivered in the spectacular scenery of the Old Lutheran Church that the conference opened. Seated on its old wooden carved benches, the room was packed with close to 400 people who had made the trip from Europe, North America, Australia, Africa and Asia, among which many influential scientists. Outside, the beautiful city of Amsterdam was going through one of its warmest summer days, a weather that would go on for the rest of the conference’s week. To sum up: some inspiring opening tune, a sunny and scenic location for a well-attended event, we were off to a really good start… But enough of the starters and let’s move on to the main course: the 10th event of the People and the Sea Conference turned out to be a very stimulating and rewarding experience for our WorldFish delegates.

Understanding life ‘above water’

Central to MARE is the recognition that social sciences will keep playing an increasing role in understanding and addressing challenges surrounding fisheries. For a long time confin

ed to biophysical aspects, fisheries scientists are increasingly led to appreciate and comprehend the human dimension of the sector. And who better than Professor Emeritus Svein Jentoft to capture this with his notion of ‘life above water’ in reference to the SDGs. In his keynote speech, he confronted us all with an important reality: fisheries around the world are transforming fast and most of these changes have a considerable social dimension. This realization requires us, scientists, to constantly broaden our knowledge and exchange across disciplines. This trend towards interdisciplinarity was apparent throughout the conference, with a rich variety of topics covered by the different papers and panel sessions. These ranged from fields such as law, to also encompass economics, health, political science, public administration, anthropology, and geography.

Pic by Neil Palmer (WorldFish). Fish are unloaded at the Chong Khneas landing site in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Shifting the emphasis onto the ‘tropical majority’

Another key message stemming from the conference was best captured by former MARE keynote speaker and WorldFish honorary fellow Dr. John Kurien. Invited to reflect on the thoughts he had shared back in 2001, he made us realize that some of the concerns he had raised at the time still prevail today. To reuse his terms:

“Fisheries researchers and policy-makers tend to focus on issues from the perspective of the ‘temperate minority’ while there is an urgent need to grasp and address challenges by taking into consideration perceptions from the ‘tropical majority’.” (Dr. John Kurien)

I felt his words were probably as powerful today as they were 18 years ago. In fact, his concern turned out to win unanimous support and came up repeatedly during the rest of the conference:

“There is a need to stop thinking exclusively in terms of exporting fish produced in the South to Northern consumers.” (Pr. Rashid Sumaila)

“While contributing to fisheries research, it is important to keep asking ourselves the question of whose food security should be given priority”. (Dr. Roger Pullin)

I found this alarming observation offered a very compelling stocktaking of one of the key limitation afflicting marine sciences: most of it is still generated in Europe and North America, resulting into relatively poor consideration for the everyday reality of the ‘tropical majority’ in the academic realm. Somehow, these thoughts paved the way for our own contribution to the conference.


Pic by Neil Palmer (WorldFish). A fresh fish market in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Realizing the potential of fish in Food Systems

‘Fish in Food Systems’ was the signature theme that our WorldFish team brought to the occasion. This materialized in the organization of a panel session but also through the support of a dedicated Summer School running in parallel to the conference. In bringing the focus onto ‘Fish in Food Systems’, our intention was to collectively examine and reflect on the potential for food systems conceptualizations to support a better appreciation of the role of fish as food. Our various panel contributions emphasized that fish is being largely disregarded amidst the current academic enthusiasm surrounding ‘food systems’. Yet, our panel presentations and discussions also demonstrated that associated conceptualizations held many promises for fisheries research and policymakers. To start with, they make it possible to grasp complexity and bridge increasingly diverse disciplinary perspectives. In doing so, they help not only building a better understanding of fish as food but they also contribute to draw attention to countries where fish plays a critical role for food and nutrition security.

Learning from the Past, Imagining the Future…

Behind the choice of this inspiring theme for their jubilee 10th conference, there was an intention from MARE to advocate reflexivity and emphasize ‘the depth of learning that can come with age’. With hindsight, I believe ‘we’ as an organization really benefited from the experience. For over 40 years now, WorldFish has focused on improving fisheries and aquaculture as a means to increase food security and reduce poverty. With research at the core of our action, it is crucial that we keep not only exchanging about our efforts, but also participating and contributing to cutting-edge social scientific debates like those held in Amsterdam this year. Discussing with peers from all over the world and integrating their perspectives is certainly one of the way we can impactfully keep delivering on our mission.



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