Fostering Cooperation to Advance the Protection of Small-Scale Fishers’ Human Rights

By Senia Febrica

This blogpost summarises key points discussed during the webinar titled, “Fostering Cooperation Among Relevant UN bodies to Advance Small-Scale Fishers’ Human Rights in the Face of Climate Change” organised for the COP27 Virtual Ocean Pavilion on 14 November 2022. The webinar panel brought together SSF representatives, researchers, and representatives from different UN bodies to exchange ideas and experiences on the needs and opportunities to ensure the full realisation of small-scale fishers’ human rights in the face of a changing climate.

See event recording here


Globally, small-scale fisheries contribute to nearly half the world’s seafood and employ around 90 per cent of the world’s fishers, playing a critical role in food security, nutrition, and livelihood. Natural disasters and weather fluctuation caused by climate change are already causing large-scale shocks to the sector and negatively affecting the livelihoods and cultures of small-scale fishers, fish workers, and their communities. At the same time, climate adaptation and mitigation measures that are implemented with little to no consultation with small-scale fishers are detrimental as they limit small-scale fishers’ access to resources, food and nutrition security, livelihoods, and social justice. The nexus between the ocean, climate change and human rights has yet received insufficient attention in the policy debates on transforming ocean governance. 2022 is the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA) and is an opportunity to raise awareness on the human rights of small-scale fishers (SSF) and fish workers, and on the importance of adopting specific national laws, public policies, and programmes to enable the sector to operate sustainably. The event explored common areas of concern, mutual objectives, and areas for improved collaboration among participants for cooperative international support to improve small-scale fishers’ resilience at the ocean-climate nexus.

Latest Hub research

The event began with the screening of the One Ocean Hub’s short animation film titled “The Protectors of the Ocean” that highlighted the role of SSF as environmental and human rights defenders.

A joint presentation on “Co-production of Solutions with Small-Scale Fishers as a Way to Ensure Inclusive Ocean-Climate Action” by Dr Philile Mbatha (University of Cape Town, South Africa), Dr Tapiwa Warikandwa (University of Namibia, Namibia) and Dr Bolanle Erinosho (University of Cape Coast, Ghana) highlighted the following key points:

  • In Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa, SSFs contribute significantly to income, livelihoods, and food security. Climate change has led to declining fish catch in these countries. For many SSFs, fishing is more than just an occupation for income or of “last resort”, it is a way of life and forms part of their identities that are rooted in local histories, traditions, and customs. As a consequence, climate change impacts on fishers livelihoods, cultures and identities.
  • It is important to acknowledge that SSFs exists in a complex socio-ecological system. Climate change coupled with anthropogenic induced changes threatens coastal ecosystems and marine species that SSFs depend on for livelihood and food security. Also, SSFs are further affected by blue economy activities such as offshore oil and gas, aquaculture, and tourism that have resulted in the marginalisation of small-scale fisheries as a sector.
  • Fishers’ knowledge and perception of climate-related risks are important and need to be recognised. Fishers have observed impacts of climate change including flooding—caused by rougher and higher sea, colder winters, rougher seas, stronger winds, fewer fish, and changes in species distribution. These also inhibit their ability to fish and adversely affects their communities. Yet, government interventions to help SSF to adapt to climate change are non-existent.
  • Protecting the right to culture in the context of fisheries co-management strengthens the recognition of customary fishing norms, which, if adequately observed and sustainably applied, can be beneficial for the environment. The protection of SSFs’ cultural rights also involves their inclusion in decision-making processes that affect them.
  • We need to improve capacity-building on small-scale fishers’ human rights for national human rights institutions.
Partners’ contributions

Ms Kate Cook (Matrix Chambers in London) presented on “Defending Small Scale Fishers: the Critical Role of Human Rights in the Era of Climate Emergency” that drew attention to the right to life. Ms Cook noted that:

  • The Paris Agreement, international and domestic courts, and human rights bodies have confirmed that human rights are critical in the protection of individuals and communities from climate change and environmental disasters.
  • States and relevant authorities should conduct a comprehensive right-to-life audit of all policies, laws and institutions that impact on the protection of the lives of SSF communities. The audit should address:
  • The adequacy of early warning systems and search and rescue provisions;
  • Threats to food security from illegal fishing and movement of fish stocks;
  • Representation of SSF communities in relevant institutions and policy making processes; and
  • Protection of the right to life of defenders.

Ms Stefania Tripodi (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), which has been partnering with the Hub and FAO on IYAFA activities on SSFs’ human rights, discussed “Human Rights as Normative and Policy Guidance Tools for Small-Scale Fisheries and Climate Change” and stressed that:

  • Climate change poses serious threats to the wellbeing of SSFs that are already facing lack of access to water, food, and exploitative working conditions;
  • Women bear the brunt of climate change impacts because they have less access to resources and are most likely to be excluded from leadership roles;
  • Warming of the ocean is worsening threats to people who rely on fisheries. For example, in the Pacific, SSFs face challenges such as rising sea level, unsustainable tourism and development projects. 
  • SSFs’ rights need to be protected. International human rights law provides a robust framework for SSFs’ human rights protection with legal and policy guidance applicable in climate action.
  • Full and meaningful participation of SSFs must be guaranteed in all decision-making processes and independent SSF organisations should be encouraged and respected by states.

 Dr Soo-Young Hwang (UN Environment Programme) gave a presentation focused on “Implementation of the Right to a Healthy Environment for People and the Planet.” Dr Hwang outlined the following key points on the importance of the right to a healthy environment to protect SSFs that are vulnerable to climate impacts:

  • Recognition of the right to a healthy environment can ensure climate justice for all;
  • The right to a healthy environment is a new right that was recognised through the General Assembly Resolution 76/300 in July 2022 and will continue to develop. Sustainable production and consumption is one of the elements of the human right to a healthy environment;
  • SSFs play a crucial role in the context of the right to a healthy environment because they are made up of right holders, affected groups, and agents of change in protecting everyone’s right to a healthy environment and right to food.

The event was closed with a presentation by Mr Hermann Honeb, Director of the Hanganeni Artisanal Fishing Association (HAFA), Namibia. Mr Honeb explained that the main reason underpinning HAFA’s establishment is the need for SSFs to come together to realise common aspirations and address their needs and interests that are often overlooked in fisheries governance. He noted that climate change has led to a grave decline in fish stocks in Namibia.


The One Ocean Hub continues to work closely with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), UNEP and UNHCHR and other partners to capture learning and innovative approaches for the recognition and protection of human rights of small-scale fishers and their communities during the IYAFA, including for the planned concluding event of IYAFA in March 2023.

In addition, the Hub published the following papers that advance our understanding of SSFs’ human rights in 2022:

  • Golo HK, Ibrahim S, and Erinosho B. (2022). “Integrating communities’ customary laws into marine small-scale fisheries governance in Ghana: Reflections on the FAO Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries.” Review of European, Comparative, & International Law
  • Nakamura, J, Diz D, and Morgera E. (2022). “International legal requirements for environmental and socio-cultural assessments for large-scale industrial fisheries.” Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law
  • Switzer S, Morgera E, and Webster E. (2022). “Casting the net wider? The transformative potential of integrating human rights into the implementation of the WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies.” Review of European, Comparative, & International Law.

Finally, Hub researchers are preparing a new research paper on SSFs’ human rights and climate change for the Hub-led special issue of the International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law in early 2023.