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Large-scale approach to small-scale fisheries

Dr. Ratana Chuenpagdee in Quidi Vidi, St. John's. Chris Hammond photo

By Janet Harron

Ratana Chuenpagdee is a big thinker. As the Canada Research Chair in Natural Resource Sustainability and Community Development in the Department of Geography, she is deeply interested in the interconnectivity and interdependency between natural and human systems.

And that big thinking has led to a big project.

Dr. Chuenpagdee is the project director for the six-year, $2.5-million Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded project Too Big to Ignore: Global Partnerships for Small-Scale Fisheries Research. It involves 15 partners including intergovernmental organizations, research and academic institutions, environmental and non-governmental organizations and 62 researchers based in Canada and 26 other countries around the world. The project's inaugural meeting took place recently in St. John's.

"I'm very pleased we here at Memorial University are hosting the initiative, given the importance of small boat fisheries in the province," said Dr. Chuenpagdee. "Historically the majority of research and policy discourses about fisheries have been centred on the large-scale industrial fishing sector.

"I come from Thailand, where fisheries are dominated by small boats – so when I hear the word "fisheries" I think about both sectors, not just one."

Dr. Chuenpagdee says that the needs and interests of this sector are often ignored in policy discussions. She goes on to say that one of the many challenges in small-scale fisheries is that they do not share the same characteristics worldwide. In other words, a small boat in one place might be considered quite large in another.

"But it is not just about the size or scale of the boat that matters at the end of the day – there are many more aspects of the small-scale fishing sector that need to be understood and considered in management and governance," she reiterated.

The Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations (FAO) already collect fisheries information on the commercial sector from member states using the same template to report catches, values and the species caught. Dr. Chuenpagdee believes that something similar could be used to capture details about small-scale fisheries.

She also says that worldwide, small-scale fisheries represent an occupation, a livelihood and a way of life.

"People say that one way of addressing food security is through large-scale fishing. But the fish caught by those industrial fleets doesn't always go to the people that need it. If fish can be caught in local waters, by locally owned small-scale fishing boats and supplied directly to local communities throughout the world, no one goes hungry. If you remove the small-scale fisher, who is going to feed those people?"

Small-scale fisheries also deserve better governance, which Dr. Chuenpagdee says can be fostered through collaboration and active participation of all actors, including the state, the market and civil society.

In addition to enhancing understanding of small scale fisheries through their research, Dr. Chuenpagdee and her Too Big to Ignore colleagues hope to build a new generation of "transdisciplinary" scientists who will look at various aspects of the fisheries – ecological, social, historical and political dimensions – and incorporate them into their work.