What we learnt at the Closing of the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture

The International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 (IYAFA) was officially brought to a close at the end of March 2023, where various partners gathered at the headquarters of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to reflect on progress made and follow-up action to keep the momentum built in 2022. This blog post reflects on the contributions made by the One Ocean Hub in and around the IYAFA closing events, the insights that arose from our interactions with various IYAFA partners, and ideas for follow-up action. 


IYAFA celebrated the work, knowledge and environmental stewardship of millions of small-scale fishers around the world, including women and children, contributing to the global challenges of food security, economic growth and livelihoods. Throughout 2022, the partnership between FAO, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the One Ocean Hub, and others, has contributed to clarify the role and benefits of the human rights-based approach in the implementation of the FAO Small-Scale Fisheries Guidelines. To capture progress and lessons learnt so far, as well as to plan next steps in this partnership, on 29 and 31 March 2023 the One Ocean Hub hosted three events in Rome to celebrate the IYAFA closing, focusing on: art-based research approaches as ways to develop more equitable ocean governance; the role of institutional human rights mechanism to protect small-scale fisher’s human rights; and on the relevance of the 2022 World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies for small-scale fishers’ human rights.      


Art is not only a form of communication. It’s a space where everybody feels valued and listened to in what they can contribute to the knowledge co-production” This is one of the key messages from the panel on the art-based research approaches and knowledge-solidarity networks, which took place on 29 March. The workshop saw primary contributions by South African Hub researchers Kira Erwin (Durban University of Technology), Dylan McGarry, Taryn Pereira and Buhle Frances (Rhodes University) and Philile Mbatha (University of Cape Town) – all of the Coastal Justice Network – as well as by Hub’s director Elisa Morgera (University of Strathclyde).  

Coastal Justice Network has pioneered participatory and more inclusive methods for public consultation and participation in decision-making processes based on arts – for instance, theatre performances, short films, popular articles, policy briefs, alternative and participatory mapping workshops, etc. Hub researchers reflected on how these art-based methods all help reflecting the memory and stories of the ocean of small-scale fishers, which are often side-lined in ocean governance processes. 

Hub researchers explained that their art-based methodologies are no less rigorous than traditional scientific methods, for they are grounded on qualitative research. For instance, as far as it concerns the Emphateather show ‘Lalela uLwandle’ (“Listen to the Sea”), the researchers first played the role of story-listeners: they spoke to a diverse range of people living along the coast – e.g. traditional healers and other small-scale fishers, marine scientists, lifeguards, women in the sea-food processing sector, etc. Then, they turned their research into a script and performed it back to these communities, thereby co-analysing issues and discussing with individual right-holders whether their stories were genuinely represented in the script. Mc Garry emphasised the importance of building relationships in the long-term with small-scale fishers through this process, as communities remain interested in seeing how they are portrayed in an art work and how different audiences connect to that. 

Dylan McGarry explained that art-based approaches are particularly important for ethics of representation and can be understood as an ongoing call and response, similar to the “echolocation”: in whales and dolphins that keep track of their location through listening to the echo made by their clicks and calls that bounce off objects. This careful listening and adjusting their response – enables them to locate themselves in murky waters, dark depths and locate moving targets. In this way calling and responding with the surrounding world provides right-holders with an updated vision of where they are, thus enabling them to constantly locate themselves within the fast-changing environment. In this way, art-based approaches are grounded on the co-definition of concerns by different communities, including those mostly affected by governmental policies. This is particularly significant for countries and communities that have a violent history of oppression, whereby art creates room to address such a historical legacy with a view to better understanding how history factors into communities’ present realities. Accordingly, whilst considering natural sciences fundamental in understanding the status and threats to ocean wellbeing, art-based approaches show that there exist other forms of – e.g. spiritual and cultural understandings. 

Hub researchers also shares words of caution about art-based research approaches, which may not necessarily hold the trust of communities or may be included in instrumentalised ways in participatory mechanisms, without truly changing unfair and unjust practices. Hub researchers therefore reflected on the importance to embed art-based practices within social justice movements led by small-scale fishers, with a view to strengthening solidarity amongst affected communities and with their allies (researchers, NGOs, others). Most importantly, solidarity networks must endeavour to counter and change the narrative depicting small-scale fishers as protestors and criminals, towards their recognition as ocean stewards and environmental human rights defenders. Hub researchers therefore recommended that ocean research and development funders should include art-based research approaches as an essential step towards devising locally grounded consultative and participatory mechanisms for local governance and decision-making processes. 

Thirty participants from the UN, NGOs and international SSF networks, recognised that often also meetings with communities organised by them may not be sufficiently participatory or meaningful, as funding is not available for interpretation in local languages or preparatory work to fully contextualise meetings. They exchanged ideas on how it would be possible to integrate short- and/or longer-term art-based methods to enhance participatory approaches in projects with small-scale fishers.  

The role of international human rights bodies to protect small-scale fishers 

What contribution can international and national human rights mechanism give to enhance small-scale fishers’ human rights? The second event, which was co-organised by the One Ocean Hub with the Danish Institute for Human Rights, featured an exchange among Margret Vidar and Ana Suarez Dussan from the FAO, Harumi Fuentes Furuya from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR), and Jamsheed Gaziyev from the team of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. 

The panel built upon the key messages in the   joint policy brief by FAO, the OHCHR and the Hub on the Human Rights-Based Approach in the context of SSF Guidelines, as well as other  tools co-developed by FAO and the Hub (the policy and legal diagnostic tool for sustainable small-scale fisheries, the e-learning course “Legal and Policy Considerations for the SSF” and SSF-Lex). Participants reflected that 2024 will mark the tenth anniversary of the SSF Guidelines, so it will provide an important occasion to assess gaps, progress and critical issues in the protection of small-scale fishers’ human rights. 

Harumi Fuentes Furuya encouraged civil society and researchers to engage with international human rights mechanisms who are specifically tasked with monitoring States’ performance of their human rights obligations: they can examine complaints and carry out confidential investigations. She also invited participants to rely on UN General Comments, whereby the committees set guidance on how to better implement their human rights obligations at the national level (see Hub’s contributions to the UN draft General Comment on Children’s Rights and a Healthy Environment and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ Draft General Comment on Sustainable Development). Likewise, she encouraged NGOs to directly engage with States in the drafting of national reports to these international mechanisms, through national and local consultative mechanisms.   

Jamsheed Gaziyev called attention to the opportunities for civil society’s direct engagement in the international protection of human rights with the UN Special Rapporteurs – independent experts tasked with addressing a county-specific human rights situation or a thematic issue with a more global or regional coverage. (see here, here and here). Interestingly, in light of the interdependency of human rights, complaints and reports received by a specific Special Rapporteur are shared with other international human rights processes, so there could be follow-up at different times. As to the protection of small-scale fishers, Jamsheed referred to three relevant global reports by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food: 

  • Jean Ziegler’s 2004 report on the Right to Food, defining “food sovereignty“ as also including people’s and communities‘ access to water and fishing areas as well as the determination of their own fishing policies (available here); 
  • Olivier De Schutter’s 2012 report on the Right to Food with a focus on women’s rights (here);  
  • Hilal Elver’s 2019 report on the Right to Food, with a special focus on fishers’ contribution to food security and nutrition as well as on their barrier to the full realisation of their own human rights (here);  

He also announced that the current Special Rapporteur, Michael Fakhri, will focus on human rights and fisheries, with specific observations on the protection of SSFs, in his 2024 upcoming report. 

Jamsheed also encouraged civil society to support UN Special Rapporteur’s country visits, when there are meetings with governments, parliament and judiciary, as well as civil society and human rights victims. He further encouraged submission of communications (complaints about human rights violations from the civil society), so that the Rapporteur can request information and clarifications from the government, including about actions undertaken to remedy said alleged violations. Both the government’s reply and the initial Rapporteur’s communication will be made public, so civil society can use them for advocate purposes, and/or to substantiate claims before national judges and public administrative procedures. So far, communications on fisheries and human rights have been very scarce (mostly dealing with Indigenous peoples). 

Protecting SSFs’ human rights through the WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies 

The third event, co-organised by the Hub and the Danish Institute of Human Rights, with technical inputs from FAO explored the human rights implications of the WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies (see here and here). 

Discussions focused on: understanding tensions and overlaps between large-scale and small-scale fisheries in relation to illegal activities and unsustainable fisheries; avoiding negative human rights impacts in removing fisheries subsidies; and reinvesting financial resources arising from the fisheries subsidies removal into small-scale fishers-led initiatives for sustainable fisheries and conservation policies, as part of the recognition of fishers’ customary rights and the implementation of co-management approaches. 

Discussions explored the importance of: 

  • the need for human rights, environmental and socio-cultural impact assessments of current subsidies and their removal, including a role for civil society organisations, particularly during developing countries’ longer period to enhance capacities necessary to implement the WTO Agreement; 
  • the creation of the WTO fisheries funding mechanism as an opportunity to include human rights expertise within the international trade and human rights safeguards in the implementation of the WTO Agreement;  
  • The role of the FAO capacity-building activities focused on national fisheries law, policy, management and economics to integrate human rights in the implementation of the WTO Agreement.  

The hybrid round table was moderated by Mitchell Lennan (University of Aberdeen, UK) with the panellists including Nicole Franz, Audun Lem, Mariana ToussaintBlaise KuemlanganYon Fernandez LarrinoaMele Tauati,   Joseph ZelasneySimon Funge Smith, Angela Lentisco (FAO); Marina Gomei (WWF); Elaine Webster, Elisa Morgera and Stephanie Switzer (University of Strathclyde, UK), Tulika Bansal (Danish Institute for Human Rights), and Bolanle Erinosho, Sulley Ibrahim, Georgina Yaa Oduro, John Ansah (University of Cape Coast, Ghana). The event gathered 56 participants from civil society organisations, researchers and FAO officers. 


Following the Hub’s contributing to the official closing event on 31st March, with remarks on the progress made on the human rights-based approach in 2022 and the performance of Empatheatre play Lalela Ulwandle at FAO (photos here), the Hub is already looking forward to a series of next steps to keep the momentum going on SSFs’ human rights: 

  • A policy brief with the Danish Institute on Human Rights on the human rights implications of the WTO Fisheries Subsidies Agreement, to be published online in mid May; 
  • Contributions to the global report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food on fisheries; 
  • Contributions to the future Draft General Comment on Sustainable Development and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; 
  • A policy brief on the implications of the UN General Comment on Children’s Rights and a Healthy Environment (expected in mid 2023) for the SSF Guidelines’ implementation; and   
  • A submission on key topics and arts-based methods that could contribute to the next Small-Scale Fishers’ Summit to be held in 2024. 


Related SDGs:

  • Good health and well-being
  • Reduced inequality
  • Life below water
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions