Fishing is an important activity for the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean. The oceanographic, biochemical, geographical, and climatic characteristics of marine and coastal ecosystems of the region have benefited it with some of the most productive fisheries on the planet. In 2018 alone, the region’s fisheries exports exceeded $16 billion. However, since the beginning of the 21st century, fish production in the region has shown a decline that has been accentuated in the last decade. The main factor behind this trend is overfishing due to several factors, among them: 1) the technological improvements in the search for schools of fish, 2) the introduction of more efficient fishing gear, 3) the uncontrolled entry of new participants in the fishing activity, 4) the establishment of non-targeted economic incentives, and 5) the adoption of inefficient or even non-existent management systems.
In the case of the artisanal fisheries sector, we must consider other additional structural factors that have further intensified the problem described above. Specifically, the fishing sector is characterized by being informal, fragmented, heterogeneous, and dispersed. Its operational and technological nature is incipient, and consequently it concentrates its effort excessively in coastal areas of reduced extensions.
Despite all these challenges, artisanal fishing is important for Latin America and the Caribbean because it provides 85% of the fish and seafood in the region, and because the activity represents the livelihood of more than 1.5 million families. However, the public policies of several countries have kept this sector in oblivion, although its strengthening will enable various development objectives to be met (e.g. food security and poverty reduction). Hence, this neglect by the governments has aggravated and perpetuated the challenges of the artisanal fishing sector in the region with a very high socioeconomic cost. Therefore, this situation has affected the well-being of the fishing communities, most of which are vulnerable and marginalized
Artisanal fishing in times of coronavirus
It is not surprising that, with the arrival of the pandemic, many of these problems have been exacerbated and have had negative effects on the population dependent on fishing. In fact, the impacts of the health crisis on the artisanal subsector have been stronger than those suffered by the industrial subsector, given the characteristics and problems described above. This has translated into an increase in the economic and social vulnerability of artisanal fishing communities.
Specifically, artisanal fishermen have faced a scenario of contraction in demand due to disruption in the operation of hotels, restaurants, and international marketing chains. All of this has provoked a fall in fish and seafood prices that has led to a sustained loss in revenue. This situation is more serious if we remember that the members of artisanal fishing communities, in their great majority: 1) are informal, which prevents them from accessing social or productive assistance programs for the sector, 2) are not insured 3) have low or no savings, and 4) live in localities where health services are poor or non-existent.
Policy recommendations for the artisanal fishing sector
However, it should be emphasized that several governments in the region have made significant efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of the health crisis on the artisanal fishing communities. The results of these actions, however, have been insufficient. The main reason is that the problems affecting the artisanal fisheries sector are structural and not specific to the current crisis, so it is required a comprehensive package of reforms to the sector. In other words, the current health crisis has not created new problems, but has simply made the existing problems much more visible by magnifying their consequences. For this reason, this crisis provides an opportunity for the implementation of the structural reforms that the region’s artisanal fisheries sector has required for decades.
Specifically, the policies we recommend to implement are as follows:
- Build baselines for fisheries accessed by the artisanal sector and carry out an expedited analysis of the biological health of these resources with the aim of establishing appropriate management measures.
- Depurate both boats and fishermen registers
- Promote a formalization program leveraged in a system of financial incentives through access to credits (for investment or working capital) to reactivate artisanal fishing activity.
- Simplify and modenize bureaucratic processes for the formalization of the fisheries sector.
- Promote associativity to reduce fragmentation and dispersion of the sector.
- Develop the domestic market through a) the identification, promotion and strengthening of the various links of the market chain of fishery resources in the local market, and b) the implementation of communication and education programs directed to local consumers.
- Modernize the artisanal fisheries sector through a continuous set of training and extension programs.
- Design, implement and disseminate health protocols for all and each link of the artisanal fishing chain.
- Establish regulatory and management improvement programs to promote the sustainable development of artisanal fishing activity.
- Strengthen and modernize the control and monitoring agencies in order to: a) obtain timely information on the state of the fisheries, b) establish a comprehensive traceability system to reduce illegal activities, and c) rationalize fishing efforts in order to avoid overfishing.
- Maintain a permanent scientific program that analyzes the impacts of external factors on fisheries to establish a process of continuous and proactive improvement of management measures.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 crisis has aggravated the structural problems that for decades have affected the artisanal fishing sector in the region. This has intensified the sense of urgency to implement the policies previously proposed and make the artisanal fisheries sector in Latin America and the Caribbean modern, profitable, and sustainable. These reforms to the sector have the potential to improve the quality of life of its participants, as well as protect the region’s food security.