The smaller the bigger?

by Anna Schuhbauer

My PhD project is part of a global partnership, Too Big To Ignore, and I am evaluating the economic viability of small-scale fisheries. The goal is to define, understand and assess economic viability of small-scale fisheries including economic, ecological, social and governance components. This is a big challenge, particularly as we are undertaking a global assessment of these complex and dynamic fisheries, whose differences often depend on the region, country or community context. My first challenge will be to define: What are “small-scale fisheries” at the global scale?

Small-Scale Fisheries (SSF) have been marginalized all over the world and regulations regarding fisheries are often focussed primarily on large industrial fishing fleets. However, SSF support up to 22 million fishers, who make up about 44% of all fishers in the primary production sector (Teh and Sumaila 2011). Globally, 90% of fishing vessels are considered small-scale by the FAO (FAO 2012). Hence, they are very important and undoubtedly “too big to ignore”.

But what does “small-scale” really mean? There is a broad agreement that SSF vessels are smaller in size than those of industrial fishing operations. However, the size of industrial fishing vessels varies from country to country, or even within countries. Imagine that a “big” industrial fishing boat sails from a small fishing village in Peru all the way north to British Columbia (B.C.), Canada. Once that boat has arrived in B.C., it will probably not be considered an industrial fishing boat anymore, but it will be called small-scale. Since the boat has not shrunk in size while sailing north along the eastern Pacific, the terminology is clearly subjective and and small in reality is defined by context.

So how can we define SSF when conducting an assessment at a global scale? We can begin by finding common characteristics of SSF including: inability for SSF communities to retain most of their benefits from their fisheries, low economic performance and pressure from global changes (e.g. climate change and market shifts). Additionally most SSF communities suffer from being marginalized mainly through poor governance, ineffective management and under-representation of local stakeholders in decision making processes. All of these problems need to be properly understood in order to find opportunities and make SSF more sustainable and economically viable

To achieve this I have embarked on an in-depth literature search, which encompasses definitions of SSF from all over the world. Each criterion that has been used to categorize SSF in discussions and assessments of economic viability will be registered and the criteria which are most commonly employed will form the foundation for our global economic viability assessment.

Based on what I have learned so far, SSF are, despite their many facets and variations, still very similar around the world and can therefore be easily distinguished from industrial fishing fleets. However, their size does not seem the most important when categorizing them and I believe that these fisheries deserve a more appropriate name because “small” obviously does not adequately capture it.

I look forward to any comments and ideas on this subject!



  • FAO, 2012. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA), Rome, Italy, 207 pp.
  • Teh, L.C.L., Sumaila, U.R., 2011. Contribution of marine fisheries to worldwide employment. Fish and Fisheries 14, 77–88.