Advancing Alliances for Better Protecting Small-Scale Fishers’ Human Rights at World Oceans Week

By Julia Nakamura


An enlightening and powerful start to this year’s World Oceans Week (WOW) placed a special attention to the human rights of small-scale fishers, fishworkers and their communities around the world. On 6th June, the One Ocean Hub organized, in close collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), a two-hour virtual roundtable to explore the challenges, opportunities and alliances underpinning the recognition, protection and promotion of small-scale fishers’ human rights. This was the first-ever event held at WOW to bring FAO and OHCHR together in a horizontal dialogue with small-scale fishers’ representatives and their supporters, bringing all of them closer to discuss human rights and related issues affecting small-scale fishers. The event timely fed into the celebratory activities taking place in the 2022 International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA), supported the IYAFA Global Action Plan, the Hub’s contributions to IYAFA, and furthered the implementation of the relevant international instruments for small-scale fisheries, including the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (SSF Guidelines).

“IYAFA is an opportunity to expand and strengthen partnerships across scales for all of us to play a better and more meaningful part in the protection of the inter-dependent human rights of small-scale fishers, identify good practices, and share good practices with others to engage in them”

Prof Elisa Morgera, Director of the One Ocean Hub

Prof Elisa Morgera opened the webinar, recalling the Hub’s partnership with FAO  in advancing the understanding of the human rights of small-scale fishers, and the importance of the webinar in promoting this work in collaboration with other partners at the UN, international, regional and local levels. Prof Morgera noted that such initiatives help in showcasing the contributions of small-scale fishers to global food security, nutrition, poverty alleviation and fisheries sustainability, as well in clarifying the challenges, barriers and injustices that small-scale fishers face. Greater awareness of small-scale fishers’ issues leads to a better understanding of the responsibilities of everyone in contributing to the full respect and realization of small-scale fishers’ human rights. Prof Morgera also acknowledged the important work of the OHCHR in partnering with FAO, the Hub, and other stakeholders to raise awareness of the specific human rights challenges arising in the fisheries sector. The webinar aimed at understanding the range of challenges in ensuring the effective protection and full realization of small-scale fishers’ human rights, and to reflect on the opportunities that deep engagement with the Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) can provide for supporting the achievement of multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the fisheries sector, showing the benefits for governments, businesses, and other actors.

Prof Morgera also highlighted some of the activities that the Hub and FAO have been jointly implementing in the past years, including the organization of a training workshop with Ghana, Namibia and South Africa, which trained participants on the use of the Small-Scale Fisheries Policy and Legal Diagnostic Tool and the Small-Scale Fisheries Legislative Guide; and the development of an eLearning course on the SSF Guidelines and FAO’s additional policy and legal guidance. Many other activities and partnerships are expected in the course of this year and upcoming years, to bring together as much as possible the environmental and sustainable fisheries community, the human rights community, and other relevant partners that can contribute to the full recognition and protection of small-scale fishers’ human rights.


Speakers at the virtual roundtable addressed one or more of the three following questions:

  • what is/are the main challenge(s), barriers and injustices faced in protecting the small-scale fishers’ rights?
  • have procedural rights related to access to justice, access to information, been effective in protecting small-scale fishers’ livelihoods, their culture and their environment?
  • have there been some experiences in protecting small-scale fishers relating to food, culture and a healthy environment, including a safe climate, which provide concrete experiences of achieving multiple SDGs?

Small-scale fishers’ perspectives

The first speakers of the roundtable were Ms Melissa Pullen and Ms Silvia Heartly, respectively the chair-person and deputy chair-person of the Small-Scale Fishers Cooperative Moeg Gesukkel (“tired of struggling”) in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Ms Pullen shared her personal experience as a member of a small-scale fishing community involved in oyster fishing for generations, and daily challenges faced by her community in terms of the lack of information and lack of legal support. For Ms Pullen, the rights of small-scale fishers have been violated as they have not been consulted by the government on the decisions taken regarding the granting of fishing rights to small-scale fishers, and the failure of the government to take the necessary steps in relation to fishing permit conditions. Oyster fishing and seaweed harvesting are cultural practices for many small-scale fisherwomen, so not being included in relevant environmental protection decisions was also a violation of their rights.

“We are the ones who protect the environment. They should consult us.”

Ms Melissa Pullen, Small-Scale Fishers Cooperative Moeg Gesukkel

Mr Jones Thomas Spartagus, member of the World Forum of Fishers’ People (WFFP), India, and member of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC-FS) Working Group on Fisheries, emphasized that small-scale fishers are ‘the oceans’ people’ and politically marginalized, living a separate life from those engaged in industrial fisheries. Rights on land and at sea are inter-connected. The main challenges concern the recognition by States of customary rights of the oceans’ people and historical dispossession, and ensuring the participation of small-scale fishers in all levels of governance in recognition of their ‘ecologically-based’ livelihoods  on land and in the ocean.

‘We, as the ocean people, are politically marginalized… We are asking for our customary rights and our customary laws to be recognized… The violation of our rights persists… The ocean is our identity”.

Mr Jones Thomas Spartagus, WFFP and IPC-FS Working Group

Mr Sebastian Matthew, Executive Director of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF), noted the challenges faced by small-scale fishers with respect to access to resources and markets, particularly during the time when the COVID-19 protocols were in place. He underscored the lack of legal and de-facto recognition of common property regimes for inland and marine small-scale fishers, and the denial of customary tenure rights. He pointed to the challenge of involving multiple public authorities in the implementation of the SSF Guidelines, as many see their role as a technical one and not one concerned with human rights. He emphasized the role that the UN can play in engaging national human rights institutions to bring about coordination across relevant departments and stakeholders, including to support recognition of collective human rights. On procedural rights, he underscored the importance of ensuring consultation of small-scale fishing communities in the process of establishing marine protected areas, allocation of total allowable catch, marine spatial planning, coastal zone management, reclamation of marine spaces.

National and non-governmental organizations’ perspectives

Ms Sille Stidsen, the Department Director of Human Rights and Development at the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), explained that the DIHR works as a national human rights institution, but also has an international mandate to support human rights institutions in other countries. The DIHR examined more than 200,000 recommendations from across international human rights bodies and procedures, and found out that not many (only 70) addressed the human rights of fishers in the context of fisheries management and conservation, with regard to:: equality and non-discrimination, often in relation to government’s allocation of fishing quotas (e.g., Iceland, South Africa, Morocco and Myanmar); the right to an adequate standard of living, dealing with the deprivation of local fishing communities of means of subsistence (e.g., Senegal and Djibouti); the right to a healthy environment in relation to marine environmental pollution, climate change affecting fishing communities dependent on marine resources (e.g., Nigeria and Madagascar); the rights of indigenous peoples with respect to access to fishing grounds (e.g., Norway, Mexico and South Africa); and special measures to secure fishing-dependent and marginalized communities access to marine resources and markets (e.g., Philippines, Indonesia and Maldives). It is important to give more focus on small-scale fishers in UN human rights monitoring mechanisms, ensure capacity-building for institutions working on human rights and small-scale fisheries, related data-sharing and reporting at national and international levels, file complaints regarding human rights violations to national and international human rights monitoring bodies. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held a session in April 2022, which resulted in the recommendation addressed to FAO to prepare a study on the impacts of industrial fishing on the rights of Indigenous Peoples regarding traditional fishing; and to FAO and the International Labour Organization (ILO) to conduct a study on human rights violations suffered by Indigenous Peoples in the fishing sector.

“We examined more than 200,000 recommendations from across international human rights bodies and procedures, and found out that only 70 addressed the human rights of fishers”.

Ms Sille Sidsen, DIDHR

Ms Marina Gomei, World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), provided an overview of the Accelerator Coastal Community-led Initiative, in the Mediterranean region. This is a very diverse region, overcrowded, with socio-economic and environmental challenges. Despite having a requirement for stakeholder engagement within the European Directive on marine spatial planning, the effective participation of small-scale fishers is not happening in practice. A number of organizations have joined forces to create an informal platform called ‘Friends of Small-Scale Fishers’, which WWF serves as coordinator of together with the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The virtual platform for capacity-building focuses on themes of operationalized shared governance or co-governance, which has trained 243 small-scale fishers and stakeholders from 26 countries. Everything is framed within the Regional Plan of Action for Small-Scale Fisheries. She highlighted the threat posed by overfishing to small-scale fishers and the lack of participation in co-designing and co-managing marine protected areas worldwide.

Ms Flora McMorrin, Blue Ventures, illustrated an initiative to launch a call to action by artisanal fishers, in parallel to the official outcome document of the UN Oceans Conference, to identify national-level priorities.

Ms Ana Carolina Marciano, Swedbio, shared a reflection on the importance of small-scale fishing communities as stewards of freshwaters, coastal and marine biodiversity, the need to recognize their intertwined relationship with the environment, and to protect their human rights and collective rights. Small-scale fishers’ leaders are also environmental human rights defenders, striving to protect their human rights related to the environment. It is important to integrate the HRBA into blue economy policy processes, taking into account small-scale fishers’ knowledge, perspectives and meaningful participation.

Researchers’ perspectives

Dr Bolane Erinosho, Hub Co-Director and lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Cape Coast, Ghana, noted that one of the main challenges in Ghana is the unclear articulation of the connection between human rights and the challenges of small-scale fishers. Often the discussion around small-scale fishers is framed in economic terms, sometimes in environmental terms, but not in human rights terms. Clearly articulating small-scale fishers’ issues as a human rights issues creates opportunities for demanding accountability from duty-bearers through judicial and administrative remedies. Capacity-building is fundamental to strengthen small-scale fishers’ ability to demand for respect of their rights. In Ghana, despite environmental impact assessment legislation in place, there is no clarity on the meaning of the right to participate in decision-making and the duty to consult. Consultation processes can be elitist, often not including the communities that are most affected by proposed developments. Also, in relation to the right to culture, a co-management system is being proposed in Ghana, to integrate the recognition of communities’ customary laws, which have been beneficial in preserving resources, in being flexible (not codified) and resilient (lasted through time), built through consensus-building.

“If we are able to clearly articulate small-scale fishers’ problems as human rights issues, we can demand accountability from duty-bearers. Governments will be forced to take measures to protect those rights”.

Dr Bolane Erinosho, Hub researcher, University of Cape Coast, Ghana

Dr Tapiwa Victor Warikandwa, Hub researcher and senior lecturer with the School of Law, University of Namibia, highlighted some of the challenges faced in Namibia, including: lack of definition of ‘small-scale fishers’, underestimated socio-economic value of small-scale fisheries, minimal information and data on small-scale fisheries, ineffective public participation practices, lack of access to financing, restricted market access, and lack of means for ensuring the quality of fisheries products. While participatory rights and other human rights are provided under the Namibian Constitution and relevant laws, there remain challenges in ensuring inclusive processes, labour standards, adequate of standard of living for small-scale fishers, empowerment of women and their equal participation. The National Plan of Action for Small-Scale Fisheries, which is being developed for Namibia, provides an explicit definition of small-scale fisheries, participation for small-scale fishers, respect for customary practices in relation to allocation and sharing of marine resources, respect of civil and political rights, aspects of good governance and democratic decision-making.

Ms Taryn Pereira Kaplan, Hub researcher, Rhodes University, South Africa, reported on the recognition of procedural rights of small-scale fishers in successful litigation against applications for offshore oil and gas exploration, where activists, lawyers and smalls-scale fishers have intensively worked on expanding the notion of meaningful participation, noting the lack of sensitivity or consideration for small-scale fishers’ knowledge, language, remoteness, customary rules and spiritual values. Furthermore, she noted that in partnerships between small-scale fishers’ cooperatives and large corporations, it is fundamental that small-scale fishers are given sufficient information, support and advice, so they can avoid being subject to exploitation and violation of their rights.

United Nations system’s perspectives

The event featured the first-ever message delivered for WOW, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet. At the outset, the High Commissioner noted that, in 2018, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas, which explicitly applies to small-scale fishers and their communities. Despite the advances in promoting the human rights of small-scale fishers, several challenges remain, including with respect to: the discrimination and marginalization of women, youth, children and Indigenous Peoples; food security and nutrition; secure tenure rights and access to resources; climate change risks and impacts; labour rights. Ms Bachelet, in addition, noted the importance to improve the protection of small-scale fishers’ human rights across different international processes, including the UN Ocean Conference and the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

“Today, I urge countries to actively implement the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas. We have a unique opportunity to rebalance power relations in the fishing industry by promoting the rights of small-scale fishers and by addressing the discrimination and disadvantage they face.”

Ms Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Mr David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, linked all the challenges presented by previous speakers to a fundamental problem of insufficient understanding of the connections between small-scale fishers’ rights and the inter-dependence of the environment and human rights. It was only a decade ago that the UN Human Rights Council started taking connections between human rights and the environment seriously, by appointing an independent expert to provide them with some basic understanding of the connections between these issues. Indigenous peoples and small-scale fishers have always known about such connections, but for the global system this has been a slow learning process. It is encouraging to see that the UN Human Rights Council recently recognized that everyone on this planet has the right to a healthy environment as a fundamental human right. The right to a healthy environment entails substantive rights (e.g. right to clean air, safe and sufficient water, healthy and sustainably produced food, safe and stable climate, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, and non-toxic environments where people can work, study and play) and procedural rights (e.g., access to information, right to participate in relevant decision-making, and the right to access to justice and effective remedies). These rights are related to the fundamental international human rights principles, which include prevention, precaution, non-discrimination and non-regression. While there is a lot of work done with respect to injustices on land and cities, far less has been done so far about the profound environmental injustices experienced by small-scale fishers and coastal communities.

All the environmental problems showcased today, such as climate change, marine debris, toxics, plastic pollution, are not only related to the human right to a healthy environment, but also to small-scale fishers’ right to an adequate livelihood, culture, food, and health. Even when States’ international human rights obligations are subject to progressive realization, States have also the obligation to dedicate the maximum available resources to protecting and fulfilling these human rights. He also noted that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are not up to the challenges of the 21st century – it is fundamental to establish legally binding norms that require businesses to carry out human rights and environmental due diligence, to comply with human rights and environmental standards. So it is important to ensure the voices of small-scale fishers in the forums where regional and national legally binding instruments are being developed on business and human rights. There also various human rights mechanisms that can support small-scale fishers, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, and UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Finally, Mr Boyd welcomed inputs relevant to small-scale fishers in his next reports, which will be respectively on the relationships between: (i) the SDGs and the right to a healthy environment, (ii) gender and the right to a healthy environment, and (iii) the role of businesses and the right to a healthy environment. There is tremendous potential for collaboration and the issues identified during the webinar connect profoundly with the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.

“Every single one of the Sustainable Development Goals has a foundation in human rights, which are not options for States to pursue. They are obligations”.

Mr David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment
  • Mr Sisay Yeshanew, FAO Legal Consultant, outlined FAO’s work on HRBA, which started in the 1990s. Various international guiding instruments were adopted such as the 2004 Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food, and the 2012 Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Lands, Fisheries and Forestry. These instruments have been primarily focused on the right to food and tenure rights, including customary tenure rights. The SSF Guidelines introduced a paradigm shift in terms of the normative recognition of human rights in the context of fisheries in three ways: (i) clarifying that the fisheries sector should be only about the management and conservation of fishery resources, but also about the livelihoods attached to them, and a people-centered approach should come into practice; (ii) widening the human rights, including labor rights, of small-scale fishers; (iii) recognizing the relevance of international human rights instruments in the fisheries sector, with emphasis on Indigenous Peoples’ rights and free, prior and informed consent. In terms of content, the SSF Guidelines can be seen as a human rights instrument in the context of small-scale fisheries. There has been a lot of work to unpack what a HRBA means through three main lenses: (i) substantive rights, (ii) procedural rights, including participation, accountability, transparency, and rule of law, and (iii) developing the capacity of duty-bearers to meet their obligations and the right-holders to claim for their rights. A number of tools have been developed by FAO to build such capacity, including the Small-Scale Fisheries Policy and Legal Diagnostic Tool; the Small-Scale Fisheries Legislative Guide; the development of an eLearning course on the SSF Guidelines and FAO’s additional policy and legal guidance; and the ongoing development of SSF-LEX, which is a new subset of FAOLEX entirely dedicated to small-scale fisheries. There remain challenges in engaging fisheries institutions on human rights and protect vulnerable and marginalized groups, particularly women, through:
  • support to address unequal power relationships between value chain actors, in developing their organizations, in market access, in fairly sharing benefits from trade and in access to information;
  • support in countering the impacts of natural disasters and climate change, as well as ensuring transparency in crisis response and adaptation support;
  • the application of human rights principles to the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of initiatives, programs and projects that may concern general poverty eradication, as well as more specific issues covered by the SSF Guidelines.


Mr Jones Thomas Spartagus emphasize that the ocean should not be seen in property terms, but through a different lens – people belong to the ocean and the ocean does not belong to people. he called for more attention to the connections between life above water and ‘life below water’, in the sense of recognizing and protecting small-scale fishers’ customary rights.

Mr Sebastian Matthew underscored the need to better understand the obligations of coastal States, port States and flag States under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, with respect to obligations relevant to small-scale fishers. He also suggested that in addition to marine protected areas, there could be marine livelihoods areas for small-scale fishers.

Ms Melissa Pullen expressed her gratitude in being involved in the webinar and the importance of keeping these connections in support of the protection of human rights of small-scale fishers.

Prof Elisa Morgera closed the webinar, reiterating the need to build network of practitioners, researchers and fishers in support of small-scale fishers’ human rights, and to advance the understanding of small-scale fishers’ contributions to everyone’s human right to a heathy environment. There is also a need to clarify in detail the responsibilities of different actors in this connection.

Follow-up actions

  • Identify environmental, economic and social injustices faced by small-scale fishers and clarify how they can be addressed on the basis of international human rights law and principles (prevention, precaution, non-discrimination, non-regression)
  • Clarify the human rights obligations of coastal states, port states, and flag states under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and fisheries law instruments
  • Clarify the role of the various international human rights mechanisms, processes and bodies to monitor and support compliance with small-scale fishers’ rights
  • Build the capacity of small-scale fishers’ human rights for national human rights institutions
  • Clarify the content of business responsibility to respect the internationally recognized human rights of small-scale fishers
  • Share key messages from the World Oceans Week webinar at the UN Ocean Conference and other international fora during IYAFA
  • Provide inputs into the future thematic reports of the UN Special Rapporteur to Human Rights and the Environment on: 1) SDGs; 2) gender; and 3) business responsibility
  • Organize a workshop on the protection of the human rights of small-scale fishers, fish workers and their communities through synergies between the SSF Guidelines, the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants, bringing together national human rights institutions and possibly also UN Special Rapporteurs (Environment, Climate, Food, Culture).

To watch the recording of the event, please visit here.