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Are fishers poor? Getting to the bottom of marine fisheries income statistics

New research reveals fishers’ incomes are below national poverty lines in over one third of countries with data

The links between fishing livelihoods and poverty are often discussed in both marine conservation and international development conversations, such as United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Blue Economy. Yet, the lack of fishing income data impedes sound management and allows biased perceptions about fishers’ status to persist. 

A research team comprised of scientists from EarthLab and the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, Northeastern University, and the Marine Affairs Program at Dalhousie University, has published a new study in the peer-reviewed journal Fish and Fisheries to identify the drivers of income inequality in marine communities. ‘Are fishers poor? Getting to the bottom of marine fisheries income statistics’ reveals startling discrepancy amongst fishers by geography and other factors. Findings include:

  • Fishers’ incomes are below national poverty lines in 34% of the countries with data; 
  • Fishing income in the large-scale sector is higher than the small-scale sector by about 2.2 times, and in high-income versus low-income countries by almost 9 times; 
  • Boat owners and captains earned more than double that of crew and owner-operators. 

“While we find that it is not universally the case that fishers in a given nation belong to the lowest income group, we also find large variation in fishers’ income within a given nation,” said Yoshitaka Ota, research assistant professor of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and faculty advisor to EarthLab at the University of Washington. “These findings do not undermine previous work that connect fishing livelihoods and poverty, but it does show we have a long way to go to really understand how fisherfolk are making ends meet.” 

For the purposes of this paper, ‘fishers’ is a gender-neutral term used to describe people whose livelihoods depend on fishing. This paper uses standardized data drawn from international and national labor datasets, as well as published case studies examining fishing incomes in coastal communities. 

“Often fishers get lumped together as a single group, but this research shows that in fact there are rich fishers and poor fishers. We need to pay more attention to this heterogeneity and in terms of management, not assume that all ‘Fishers’ have the same interests,” said Lydia Teh, research associate at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia.

While this study has resulted in many interesting findings, it is clear that more research is needed to gain a deeper understanding of income inequality in ocean fishing communities.

“These findings raise a compelling set of new questions, such as, what are the conditions that can lead to poverty in fisheries and what contextually appropriate strategies can be designed to support fishers in those cases?” said Andres Cisneros-Montemayor, research associate at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. “This paper shows that it isn’t as simple as ‘fishing equals poverty’ and that opens up many interesting questions. In the meantime, it’s clear that we need much more detailed income statistics if we want to support socioeconomic development on our coasts.”

 

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Are fishers poor? Getting to the bottom of marine fisheries income statistics