The competition posed by industrial fishing turns artisanal fishers into powerless spectators whose lifestyle and wellbeing are sacrificed in the name of efficiency.
by Alicia Said
Photo by Chris Kealy / Flickr
The fishing sector in Malta has always been one of a small-scale nature with a long history of fishers engaging in traditional small-scale fishing (SSF) practices, however this image has undergone a radical shift in the past decade since Malta’s accession in the EU. The new supranational regime prompted major changes in the political, economic and social systems at the national level, and these transitions have triggered an impact on the resilience of the SSF at large.
The fishing sector has become the victims of an era that has jeopardized their rights as fishers to an extent that they are caught in constant struggles to make a living. Their deprivation is escalating to a point where exiting is the only option and this reality is also evident by the declining number of full-time fishers engaged in the sector. A threat to the existence of the SSF is likely to impact society at large due to the multiple roles that the sector plays in the local economy and the reproduction of the socio-cultural fabric, and thus, the establishment of imminent protective strategies for the SSF are needed.
The small-scale fishing fleet is considered an important component of the fisheries industries across the world, providing millions of people with livelihoods. Globally SSF caters for the employment of more than 90% of fishers engaged in capture fisheries, while at the European Union (EU) level, this sector comprises around 80% of the commercial fleet.
Generally, due to their minor capital investments, small-scale sectors are highly vulnerable in the face of ecological, social, political and economic fluctuations; their adaptability to the change depends on how resilient their occupation is to these varying factors. A positive example of such resilience, which has been developed in response to ecological and market variability, is that Mediterranean small-scale fishers are capable to adjust to seasonal patterns to target different fisheries. However, new political frameworks emanating from the EU policy have brought a different landscape that makes it ever-increasingly difficult for fishers to remain resilient, predominantly because the decadal shift has been buttressed by an institutional urge to align the fishing sector to a new paradigm of rationalization and efficiency.
The problem is that the policy shifts towards this neoliberal growth required fishers to acquire different types of social, political, cultural and economic capital, and as a result their survival became threatened. Consequently, one can observe the gradual phasing out of artisanal fishers who are becoming less able to fit in the new era. During the first 13 years of EU accession the fishing sector has become exposed to globalised processes that now determine most of the fisheries management and market trajectories. These include the adjustment of the internal policy dealing with fleet restructuring and regulation, fisheries management, monitoring and controls; and the integration into the EU Common Market Organization which brought major changes in the fish marketing standards and the import and export policy.
With the development of these new policies, the government has been pushing the fishing fleet towards induced rationalization, and decision-making has become narrowly founded on the efficient use of resources. This ideology, which has favoured the expansion of capitalist operations through aggregation and ownership schemes, is responsible for the disruptive changes the fishing community is facing. For example, most of the SSF, who do not hold sufficient social, economic and political power, have been facing different forms of marginalization in the allocation of fishing rights, the distribution of funding opportunities and other forms of restricted growth (e.g. vessel enlargement). Since the neoliberal practices are constantly threatening the future of the small-scale fishing sector, the segment is not being regenerated.
In the past, it was the norm that the sons inherited the boat from their fathers, and this legacy kept the sector somewhat sustainable. In contrast, nowadays families are discouraging their sons/daughters from taking over the business as they do not envisage fishing as a desirable livelihood any longer due to the uncertainties that it holds. Secondly, newcomers find it difficult to join in for the vessel permits have become scarce due to the closure of the fleet, and any available fishing licenses/rights are mostly bought (and afforded) by corporate fishing companies. The latter are expanding their operations through the ownership of multiple artisanal and large-scale vessels. With these changes, the family-based enterprises have been on the decline, and while a few still remain, they are mainly supported by imported labour which, as a relatively new trend, has been on the rise in the past 8 years. Employees of corporate overseas fishing companies have been gradually replacing the family members and the local deckhands who in the past were employed for most of the high seasons including bluefin tuna, swordfish and dolphinfish.
Most of the artisanal fishers that are still in the sector are being squeezed out due to the deprivation that they are encountering on various levels. Among the challenges they are facing is direct competition for both open and closed access fisheries from industrial vessels whose number grew due to the restructuring of the fleet. Another challenge is the privatization of fishing rights for the bluefin tuna fishery, considered as the most profitable fishery for the artisanal sector since the 1980s, which has marginalized a substantial number of artisanal fishers and propelled the industrial purse seine industry to dominance. Furthermore, the post-EU legitimized increase in the number of trawling licenses given to industrial vessels, now permitted to operate within the inshore fishing grounds, is unsustainable. In contrast to small-scale fisheries, such fishing practices lead to depletion of fishing stock.
The realities of the Maltese small-scale fishing sector demonstrates that although fishers are subject to challenges related to resource availability, they are unable to challenge the situation since they are powerless spectators who are unable to partake in the fisheries-related decision-making. Across the EU, intricacies emanating fisheries governance are constantly criticized for not providing sufficient avenues for fishers to participate in policy-making. This is despite the formation of advisory councils which were set up since 2002 with the main principle of involving the sector in the decision-making process. In this regard, it is becoming increasingly evident that fisheries governance needs an immediate overhaul such that policy frameworks, truly seeking to promote sustainable fisheries and livelihoods, become more linked to the ground realities of small-scale fishers and their communities.
This article is an excerpt from the study conducted by Alicia Said, titled “Are the Small-Scale Fisheries Guidelines Sufficient to Halt the Fisheries Decline in Malta?“