Rethinking fishing communities to safeguard life above water

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Policy makers around the world do not envision small-scale fisheries as a part of the future of any nation’s fisheries, but Dr. Jentoft’s (2019) keynote address highlighted that they are too important to too many people to fail. There is much to agree with in Dr. Jentoft’s keynote address, as he goes against the grain of the neo-liberal fisheries development narrative to discuss community and commons. There are also key lessons that developing countries can take away as they plan the development of their fisheries. At this time, when the whole world has come to a stop in the wake of a pandemic, Dr. Jentoft’s address serves as a useful beacon for people, as they reflect on how to give fisheries, and the larger globalized economic system in which they are embedded, a future.

Dr. Jentoft’s keynote address reminded me of the struggle for survival of small-scale fishing communities that I had lived and worked within India. Constantly having to invoke various political and cultural reasons to justify their continued existence, such as being a “traditional occupation,” I think academics and policy makers alike have lost track of what it truly means to be a small-scale fisherman. In my work, just as in his, I have contemplated the complexity of trying to define small-scale fisheries, in a dynamic, evolving, and adaptable socio-economic and cultural landscape (Karnad 2017a, b). The struggle to try to define small-scale fisheries in the complex real world has been such that many scientists have stopped trying to define them all together, with those that do rely on technological differences (Smith and Basurto 2019). But Dr. Jentoft offers a different perspective, “...small-scale fisheries will not thrive if their communities perish.” he writes, offering the link to community as a way to identify and define diverse and complex small-scale fisheries. To my mind, this raises tension. From an academic perspective, the idea is appealing. Rethinking most fisheries in terms of community relationships, rather than their mechanical power, technical modernity, and so on, suggests that one may begin to find links and relationships to community among most fisheries (whether presently classified as small-scale or not). However, from a non-academic lens, simply re-describing small-scale fisheries from a new perspective i.e. retaining existing terminology with its baggage, could allow policy makers to ignore or, more significantly, eliminate the possibility that relationship to community may develop in any fishery. This might do a disservice to what is currently called medium- and large-scale fisheries, wherever they are well connected to community. In this case, the policy implications, especially in developing countries where policy makers are actively “modernizing” the fleet and rejecting support to small-scale fisheries as an industry, could be hazardous to fishing livelihoods. Using new or slightly modified terminology might help address the policy aspect, in the absence of significant retraining of policy makers themselves.

Defining “community” itself has been a large undertaking occupying many philosophers and academics. Dr. Jentoft uses an expansive definition of fishing communities, suggesting “... that the community is more than a landing site, that it is also a place that people call home.” This suggests that one must look for community not only in actions related to fishing but also in all other aspects of life. As he describes in his address, this is an approach that occurs to anyone who has spent a significant time living and working with the people that they study. But this goes against a standard academic practice that suggests that communities ought to be found by looking for boundaries created by social, cultural, political, and economic differences that relate to the resource harvest practice in question. Dr. Jentoft’s discussion about community suggests a bottom-up methodology that comes from participation and observation, rather than theoretical presumptions, to allow new forms of inclusions and boundary making to become visible. Using this approach in my own work, I found fishing communities that crossed caste and religious divides to regulate fishing at the local scale. This approach therefore could have powerful policy implications, in thinking through how people may come together to regulate fishing.

The implications of missing out on, or ignoring communities and the role they play in maintaining fisheries, especially in developing countries, are extremely serious. Beyond the potentially terrible impact on resources, research from around the world has demonstrated negative social consequences for fishers, when the policy is directed at individual boats (St. Martin and Hall-Arber 2008; Karnad and St. Martin 2020). This leads to the breakdown of the community. Yet, such decisions are often rationalized using the framework of providing freedom to fishermen. While participating in community sometimes involves limiting individual freedom, to many fishers in developing countries, who cannot depend on state-provided social security nets for various reasons, the community provides safety and security. Dr. Jentoft’s recommendation to rethink community, not as a loss of freedoms, but rather as the absence of particular types of freedoms, while gaining security and other types of freedom, is key to understanding these communities. Perhaps, as he suggests, fishing communities like those I studied in India valued the freedom to control oneself and participate in social relationships more than the individualistic freedom of being able to do anything, without consequence.

Understanding community in this way, and seeing its links to better fisheries management suggests a way forward in developing countries where law enforcement is lax, and fisheries are largely self- or unregulated (Bavinck et al. 2013). Using this bottom-up methodology to identify fishing communities and nurture their institutional capacity to create, enforce, and sanction rules, irrespective of the terminology (such as small-scale) used to characterize the fishery, should be the first step in the management of fisheries that have a large IUU component. Following Dr. Jentoft’s argument, stricter control and surveillance will not produce the desired results of more regulated fisheries unless people feel as if they must comply with rules that the community can sanction. Such community institutions can then feed into state-level management.

At the current time of crisis, when states are still playing catch-up to the economic and social ramifications of the decisions they have taken to slow the pandemic, small-scale fisheries are in crisis. It is in such moments that the “invisible” social capital of community institutions can really make the difference between the survival and death of fisheries. In the context of such unpredictable changes that are likely to increase with climate change, Dr. Jentoft’s work suggests that thinking like a community, with all the socio-economic changes involved in supporting community institutions, could be a recipe for the future, whether of universities or fisheries.


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Correspondence to Divya Karnad.

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Karnad, D. Rethinking fishing communities to safeguard life above water. Maritime Studies 19, 405–406 (2020).

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