Destructive Fishing Part II: Determinants of Destructive Fisheries in Contemporary Practice

By Senia FEBRICA, Warwick SAUER, Alexander WINKLER, Joseph AGGREY-FYNN, Bernadette SNOW and Alana Malinde S.N. LANCASTER

This is the second part of a Blog Post summarizing they key contributions of the One Ocean Hub to the Cambridge Conservation Initiative’s “Defining Destructive Fishing”  Project Survey, aimed at gaining a clearer idea of where, and why, there is consensus or disagreement concerning destructive fishing. Part I has focused on the lack of definition and need to describe destructive fishing practices; and Part II focuses on the determinants of destructive fishing, key observations by the One Ocean Hub, and the Hub’s contributions to a workable definition, and to addressing the issue of destructive fishing in our activities.

The Drive to Eliminate the Threat of Destructive Fishing

The locus for the current international discourse on destructive fishing at international policy and practice lies in SDG 14, Target 14.4 (SDG, 2012), whose aim is that States

… effectively regulate harvesting, and end overfishing, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and destructive fishing practices …to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible …  (Emphasis added)

The practices referenced in Target 14.4 affect species both on the high seas and areas within national jurisdiction, with estimates existing for economic loss (conservative estimates  of US$1.25 billion annually  on the high seas and if exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are included, the estimated value of IUU fishing rises to between US$10 billion and US$23.5 billion annually) (Global Ocean Commission, 2014), the loss to the fisheries harvest (18 per cent in volume across all fisheries) (Global Ocean Commission, 2014) and the reduced economic benefits (roughly US$50 billion a year), because of revenue lost (World Bank and FAO, 2009).

The state of the world’s fisheries, illustrate that while the SDGs, with their comprehensive, multi-stakeholder approach to achieving a more human rights-based and environmentally sustainable development process have identified the need to address destructive fishing practices, their achievement is plagued by challenges. These challenges have led to limited progress on the Target by 2020 as initially proposed, and success in planning, policy and decision-making rely on data, a robust monitoring and evaluation framework (Persaud and Dagher (2021)), and an understanding of the understanding of drivers of practices which lead to unsustainable practices.

The next section examines determinants observed from the Hub’s research and practice which drive destructive fishing in contemporary practice.

Discovering Determinants of Destructive Fishing Practices
  • Strategic and well-planned interventions by some countries to secure access to marine resources. This is unfortunately the case in least developed and developing counties,                        as well as small-island developing states (SIDS), many of which are large ocean states (Chan, 2018). The justified (but often poorly planned) post-colonial quest for economic development by many states, is a major contributing factor to the continued use of destructive gear, which is often provided to fishers. Perpetuation of poor practice within the context of an (often ineffective) regulatory framework, is viewed as a pathway to ensure these countries are able to systematically exploit the resources of their exclusive economic zone (EEZ), irrespective of the overall cost. This is understandable within the framework of colonisation, the widespread use of the terra nullis doctrine, and the hard-fought efforts for the inclusion of pro-developing, lesser developed and landlocked country features into the 1982 UNCLOS (and current Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction negotiations). However, there needs to be strong recognition that these measures only temporarily appear to provide economic and social development, but their medium- and long-term effects reduces the ocean capital available to these countries and undermines their ocean economy. This is especially fatal, as many of these countries have plantation-style economies, which are in urgent need of sustainable diversification, a goal many hope to achieve by embracing the paradigm of                                           the blue economy.
  • Another challenge is legislation and legislative action which does not address fair and beneficial access to the ocean, nor address issues such as corruption amongst lawmakers and regulatory authorities (Major and Lancaster, 2020). As a direct consequence, there is lack of surveillance, monitoring and enforcement of commercial fisheries. Research by the One Ocean Hub in Ghana further reveals the complexities of the continued use of destructive fishing practices, by assessing a destructive fishing practice known locally as ‘saiko fishing’. To quote Major and Lancaster: ‘[s]aiko is a term for the trade in by-catch fish that takes place across the decks of industrial trawlers and small-scale fishing fleets in Ghana and, constitutes a complex illustration of breaking laws on the sea.                     Almost all the stages of the ‘saiko’ trade are illegal, yet the practice continues openly, in part because disrupting the trade would leave many impoverished people without a livelihood and food security. This is the reality, even as the trawling that produces the                    by-catch is one of the main reasons for the decline in fish stocks [in Ghana and West Africa]’ (Major and Lancaster, 2020). While it is unequivocal that ‘saiko’ is illegal, perspectives on this destructive practice are polarised (see for example, Baidoo-Tsibu, 2019; EJF and Hen Mpoano, 2019; Young, 2019; Agbleze, 2021). This is largely because destructive fishing and illegal practices continue to enable easy access to the fish resource, as well as to address high costs of fuel for fishing and other difficulties in finding fish to catch, and the related issue of destructive subsides in fisheries.
  • To some extent, industries and governments that issue permits on the use of destructive fishing gear, adopt the erroneous approach that short-terms benefits from the operation of these methods as more valuable in comparison to long-term benefits of using sustainable gears, investing in the development of sustainable gears, or emphasising the implementation of sustainable practices. The use of sustainable gears could also involve changes to existing equipment and practices, which would likely to introduce implementation costs. The intricacies and challenges of managing marine areas, biodiversity and fisheries is a Herculean one of national, regional and international proportions. However, the cost of inaction threatens to stymie the economic and social development of states, and further fuel climate change, incidences of zoonotics and the decline of marine biodiversity (Erinohso et. al. forthcoming (2022)). In order to promote paradigm change, the One Ocean Hub has fostered dialogue and awareness raising activities across all levels of governance at global, national, and local levels.
  • There is lack of participation of transnational fisheries/seafood corporations in global efforts to tackle destructive fishing. Globally, the thirteen largest seafood companies in the world have control over 40 per cent of fisheries production and distribution. There is a pressing need to ensure the use of sustainable fishing gear and practices in vessels associated with the fisheries value chain, from these corporations’ headquarters, subsidiaries companies, and selling and purchasing offices around the world. Despite the fact that international environmental treaties do not bind transnational corporations, ‘growing international practice points to the emergence of legal standards that allow adapting and translating inter-state obligations embodied in international environmental law, into specific normative benchmarks to determine the legitimacy of the conduct of the private sector against internationally recognised values and rules’ (Morgera, 2020). To enable fair and equitable relations between coastal states, particularly, low- and middle-income countries, where the transnational corporations are operating, there is the need to invest in developing capacity of government and other fisheries stakeholders (e.g. small-scale fishers) in those countries. The One Ocean Hub addresses capacity building for low and middle income countries across all of its research programmes, including improving capacity of governments and small-scale fishers in legislating for sustainable fisheries, monitoring fisheries stocks, planning adaptation for climate change through modelling and developing low-cost technology to improve fisheries law enforcement (see Ameyaw, 2021; Cook et. al, 2021).
  • Another important dimension that is often unacknowledged, or inadequately incorporated into decision-making, is the role – if any – of indigenous and traditional practices, which may be historically and culturally embedded, but on a wider scale, are considered destructive. While there is overwhelming evidence of the morphing of customary practices into unsustainable and illegal proportions, there still exist international stakeholders to which they are embedded in their societies. An improved definition of destructive fishing should aim to discern, recognise, protect, while managing, established techniques are part of indigenous, traditional and cultural practices, and which have been practiced sustainably for centuries. Within this context, the discussion will most likely centre on indigenous and Aboriginal practices, which are often easier to discern historically and establish using contemporary legal tests (Lancaster, forthcoming (2021). While destructive practices such as the use of poisons are mainly a feature of customary inland fishing, both poisons and chemicals also practiced in marine fisheries such as octopus and low tide shellfish (Kritzon, 2003; Katikiro and Mahenge, 2016; Agbleze, 2021). For example, in Guyana, the Caribs use a bait made from baked cassava (Manihot esculenta) or the juice of Lonchocarpus to stun fish, and therefore make them easier to capture (Kritzon, 2003).  These practices typically are confined to a defined area of the river, creek or [coastal] lagoon, so as not to affect the water quality for other use[r]s such as bathing, cooking and washing.  Dynamiting on the other hand appears to be a feature both in inland and marine fisheries in historic (Cornish and McKellar, 1988) and contemporary small-scale fishing practice in areas of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and South East Asia. As highlighted previously, the practice has grown to alarming proportions occasioning impacts critical to both fishers who face injury or death, and the marine environment, since fragile ecosystems such as corals are destroyed. However, it must be acknowledged, as in the case of Australia, that while many fisheries regulations seek to balance Aboriginal traditions with colonial-centric approaches, there are gaps which can substantially infringe indigenous (and traditional) customary rights. One concern identified – apart from the need for a definition of customary fishing and fishers – is the lack of distinction between customary fishing and other forms of fishing, such as commercial and recreational. While most legislation distinguishes commercial from               small-scale and recreational fisheries, they often do not differentiate customary fishing from recreational fishing (Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy, 2003). In Canada, this dissonance led to the development of the Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy in 1992, as a consequence of the Sparrow decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, which  provided that the Musqueam First Nation have an Aboriginal right to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes (R v Sparrow, [1990] 1 S.C.R. 1075). As the Sparrow decision demonstrated however, it is a delicate balancing act which some [regional] instruments – for example,  the  1990 SPAW Protocol  (at Article 14) of the Cartagena Convention – seek to achieve: balancing the sustainable management and conservation of the marine environment, while  giving homage to traditional techniques.

Despite these seemingly ubiquitous efforts, destructive fishing practices nevertheless still exist, and fisheries and marine mangers continue to struggle to address the issue.  A solution could lie in an improved definition of destructive fishing, which could aim to cover all the negative practices that lead to overexploitation of marine resources and establish a set of criteria that will be useful to assess the extent of destructive fishing practices across different regions in the world. Additionally, a more comprehensive definition could measure the impacts of such practices across all dimensions of sustainability – economic, social, and environmental – giving the likelihood of addressing the issue a greater chance at success.

The One Ocean Hub’s Approach to Destructive Fishing    

The One Ocean Hub sees the environmental, social, and economic impacts of ‘destructive fishing’ as inter-connected with one another, in addition to the myriad of issues that confront small-scale and large-scale fisheries. The impacts brought by destructive fishing are reciprocal and are cross-cutting over the environmental, social and economic. These intricate and inextricable linkages have more and more been documented by the One Ocean Hub research across our focus countries and regions. Our research has clearly illustrated that destructive fishing depletes fish stocks and can devastate developing countries’ economic growth, livelihoods, and food security. For some of the states affected, particularly small-island developing states (SIDS) and low-middle income countries, fishery resources are their most significant renewable resources that offer one of the best opportunities for economic development (see Cochrane et al, 2020; Potts et al, 2020). This is especially the case with small-scale fishers, who often have historic linkages with the sea, and often have very few other options for their economic and food security needs (Lancaster et. al., forthcoming (2021)).

In order to tackle destructive fishing, it is essential to address the question of destructive fishing in a rounded manner by reflecting on the inter-dependence of human rights, particularly of indigenous peoples and small-scale fishing communities (see Morgera and Nakamura 2021). Additionally, a healthy ocean is essential to identify in an inclusive manner, root causes and potentially sustainable solutions. The One Ocean Hub is collaborating with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN Environment Programme to devise more effective and innovative ways to rely on the relationship between human rights and the marine environment to support sustainable fisheries, so we remain available to explore how this approach can contribute to the debate on destructive fishing. Further, there will be excellent opportunities in 2022 during the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture.

The One Ocean Hub also emphasises expanding human-rights-based research and policy-making in several ways that relate to fisheries and mitigating destructive fishing. Along with exploring occupation safety aspects of destructive fishing, Hub research in Ghana, Namibia, South Africa and the Caribbean also highlights how fishing embodies identity, valuable knowledge and cultural heritage, and source of pride for local communities. Acknowledging and recognising the intangible heritage associated with fisheries and the use of the ocean, is an undervalued, but critically evolving topic which ‘can nuance existing discourses of ocean use and benefits, revealing human priorities and potential obstacles to conservation.’ As Boswell (2021) notes, the social dimensions of destructive fishing have been largely ignored in the discussion on the subject due to overwhelming focus on environmental and economic side of the issue. Turning to intangible heritage preservation of indigenous and traditional small-scale fishing practices is another strategy for approaching destructive fishing as a human rights challenge.

In conclusion, the two-part Blog Post has shed new lights on the lack of definition and need to describe destructive fishing practices, the reasons underpinning continuous practices of destructive fishing, and the Hub’s contribution in addressing the issue of destructive fishing in our activities. It draws attention on how the gears and practices that are highly destructive in nature are continued to be used today despite various efforts have been made at national, regional, and international levels. The Blog Posts have also identified key factors that leading to sustain used of destructive fishing practices including strategic intervention by some countries to secure access to marine resource, the presence of legislation and legislative action which does not address fair and beneficial access to the ocean, emerging new threats from the intersection of marine fisheries and transnational organised crime, the lack of inclusion of indigenous and traditional practices into decision-making, lack of participation of transnational fisheries/seafood corporations in efforts to counter destructive fishing, and short-terms benefits from the operation of destructive methods often are deemed as more important in comparison to long-term benefits of using sustainable gears.

The Hub proposes that to tackle destructive fishing, it is essential to address the question of destructive fishing in a rounded manner by emphasising the interconnection between the environmental, social, and economic impacts of ‘destructive fishing’ and reflecting on the inter-dependence of human rights, particularly of indigenous peoples and small-scale fishing communities.


Senia Knowledge – Exchange Associate, the One Ocean Hub

Warwick Sauer – Professor, Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science Department, Rhodes University

Alexander Winkler – Researcher at the Ichthyology and Fisheries Science Department, Rhodes University

Joseph Aggrey-Fynn – Professor of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences in the University of Cape Coast, Ghana

Bernadette Snow – Deputy Director of the UKRI GCRF One Ocean Hub and Adjunct Professor, Institute for Coastal and Marine Research at Nelson Mandela University

Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster – Lecturer in International Environmental & Energy Law at the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill; Executive Member and Co-Investigator with the UKRI GCRF One Ocean Hub.