Small-scale fisheries: Caught between the devil and the deep blue growth?

Over the past five years the ‘Blue Economy’ has emerged as a new concept in global governance of the oceans. This concept is usually traced to the Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012. It was advocated as complimentary to the ‘green economy’, both focussing on the need to reverse environmental degradation and to move towards a more sustainable economy that supports poverty reduction. 

Since Rio+20, large numbers of governments and international organisations have adopted blue economy programmes and policies. Some apply it only to the oceans, others take a broader perspective and see the blue economy as including fresh water ecosystems as well. As the blue economy concept has gained popularity, it has also started to be used interchangeably with the concept of 'blue growth’. The relationship between the two can be confusing, although as reported by the FAO:

"The proponents of the “Blue Growth” prefer this terminology instead of “Blue Economy”, to emphasize the need for growth, because there has been criticism in some development circles of the “green economy” concept, in particular its early emphasis on conservation and environmental protection at the cost of economic growth and social development."

One of the first blue growth programmes was launched by the EU, in 2012.  The EU's Blue Growth Strategy is characterised by providing research and resources to support five growth sectors, namely coastal tourism, offshore mining, blue energy, marine biotechnology and aquaculture. These are sectors the EU believes have the most potential to generate added value and jobs. Although other sources of EU funding support fisheries, the fishing sector is largely absent from the EU’s blue growth strategy. 

This contrasts to the Blue Growth Initiative launched by the FAO in 2013, which is being implemented in 10 developing countries in Africa and Asia. It has an explicit focus on the small-scale fisheries sector. It overlaps with the EU 's strategy in terms of supporting aquaculture, but also differs as it puts emphasis on payments for ecosystems services, including ‘blue carbon’. 

In Africa, Blue Growth has become increasingly important as the overarching framework for the African Union’s work on marine and freshwater habitats, supported and promoted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. A blue growth strategy is also being developed by countries and regional inter-governmental organisations in the West Indian Ocean. However, it is not yet clear in what direction Africa’s own blue growth strategies will take; following the EU approach or that of the FAO. Nevertheless, it is clear we are witnessing a surge in interest and activities to make ‘blue growth’ a reality. 

From the perspective of small-scale fishing communities in Africa, a key question is how ‘blue growth’ will affect them? Is blue growth compatible with other international commitments on fisheries reforms, such as the FAO ‘voluntary guidelines on securing sustainable small-scale fisheries’, and the ‘voluntary guidelines on responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests’? 

Blue growth: A new paradigm? 

The way in which the concept of the blue economy and blue growth is presented suggests substantial new thinking in how governments manage marine ecosystems. The concept is presented as a “paradigm shift”. The African Union refer to blue growth, as the "New Frontier of African Renaissance". 

This is not necessarily the case. The blue economy concept was presented in Rio+20 primarily as means to ensure the importance of the oceans was given prominence in the final agreement, particularly for Small Island States given that their economies depend to such a great extent on marine ecosystems.  

The idea of countries managing the oceans in a way that balances economic activity with environmental sustainability is the overall message conveyed in the blue economy concept, but the means or ‘tools’ to implement this do not represent a huge change from what has been familiar for several years. For example, one of the central policies of blue growth is that authorities should ensure that marine governance is approached in an integrated way, thereby understanding and enhancing the interactions between different users and interest groups. This is often referred to in blue growth strategies as Integrated Marine Management, and is essentially the same as Marine Spatial Planning that has been developed since at least the early 2000s, MSP is defined as a ‘public policy process for the allocation of marine space over time that aims to achieve ecological, economic and social objectives that are defined by a political process”.

However, there are some aspects that mark the emergence of the blue growth concept as indeed shifting thinking about the oceans. In the past five years or so, reports and presentations on the blue economy have presented an increasingly alarmist view of the sea, on the disastrous rates of ecosystem damage, including the damages done by climate change, pollution and overfishing. However, they have also become increasingly optimistic - about the huge economic wealth contained in the oceans. A raft of new studies on the blue economy have claimed it is much more valuable than people have realised. 

WWF captured the headlines with a study in 2015, which claimed the oceans contributed 2.5 trillion dollars a year to the global economy. One of the messages from this study was that if the blue economy was considered a county, it would have the 7th largest economy in the world. Similarly, the OECD published a report estimating the immense value of the ‘ocean economy’, which found that the ocean was worth 1.5 trillion dollars. By far the largest sector was the oil and gas industry. 

A common claim surrounding this literature is that authorities and investors have neglected the blue economy because they do not fully appreciate the economic wealth at stake; this is why the oceans are under threat and under-performing. To make the case more appealing, estimates of the potential value of the blue economy include sectors such as mining and shipping, that have absolutely no interest or need for healthy ocean habitats and ecosystems. 

Blue growth is therefore premised on the argument that oceans can be saved if we understand how much money can be made in the process. For example, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in their policy handbook on the blue economy write: 

“Through a better understanding of the enormous opportunities emerging from investing and reinvesting in Africa’s aquatic and marine spaces, the balance can be tipped away from illegal harvesting, degradation, and depletion to a sustainable Blue development paradigm, serving Africa today and tomorrow. If fully exploited and well managed, Africa’s Blue Economy can constitute a major source of wealth and catapult the continent’s fortunes.”

However, this understanding of the blue economy or blue growth, which depicts wealth as  economic profits, has much more to do with marketing the oceans than it has to do with new policy thinking. This raises worrying questions about the ability of blue growth strategies to recognise and overcome the persistent problems that have pushed the blue economy into a perilous position. 

The value of blue economy as profits

The idea that the wealth potential of ecosystems has to be appreciated in order to protect them has been popular for some time. It overlooks the fact that the degradation of our environment has been driven largely by greed and profit maximisation, and that the complicit role of governments has not been due to a lack of awareness on the money at stake. Nevertheless, it has led to an interesting literature on how'ecosystem services' can be measured. In other words, how can we put a value on on the benefits people experience form the environment and nature, which spans multiple dimensions, from profits, to food, jobs, recreation and cultural and spiritual well-being. 

Blue growth strategies, including the FAO’s BGI, sets out to help countries understand the value of their blue economy, which in turn should influence national and sub-national policy debates. This is treated as a technical challenge, for which valuing ecosystems services can be used by decision makers to make the right choices. 

The worrying aspect of blue growth is how value is so often simplified to mean profits and total jobs created, as shown in the EU’s work on blue growth, but also in other African based work (albeit often by European consultants). While important factors, both require further interrogation; how is wealth distributed, what quality are the jobs and so forth. But equally important is that a range of other aspects need to be considered, including the fact that public wealth is not the same as private riches, and when it comes to shared ecosystems, the two can have a contrasting relationship; a beach that is free for everyone to use produces no wealth in traditional economic accounting, whereas it would if it was sold to a developer. There are several dimensions to understanding value in the blue economy that go beyond profits and jobs, as discussed in this report on cultural and social values of marine habitats and the limitations of a dominant western ideology.   

An approach based on profits may not be beneficial for advancing sustainable small-scale fisheries, although their profile in terms of job creation puts them in a better position. Still, a political environment where the emphasis is on maximising the fortunes from the blue economy does not seem compatible with promoting subsistence and small-scale fisheries and food production systems, particularly where fishers face competition for land and access to the sea from real estate developments, tourism and off-shore mining. 

Indeed, if we consider the EU’s blue growth strategy, the focus is entirely on sectors of high economic importance - mining, marine bio-technology, tourism, ‘blue energy’ and aquaculture. Fisheries is not considered a ‘growth prospect’, so is excluded. It is a worrying precedent for blue growth strategies in other regions, particularly as the EU seems to promote this approach in the way it envisages its future relations with developing countries. 

The FAO’s approach is clearly different, as it starts off with the premise that small-scale fisheries should be prioritised. Whether this position can be defended when national governments look at their priorities for blue growth is a key issue.

The commodification of nature: blue carbon

Valuing ecosystems services is central to the blue growth perspective, particularly by the FAO and partners in the BGI. There has been an enormous growth in studies that seek to place a monetary value on the benefits of ecosystems. Despite disagreement on how this is done and how value is understood, the valuation of ecosystem services can be useful tools for fishers and coastal communities. For example, the World Resources Institute, a promoter of these tools, refers to the case in Belize where an economic valuation of coral reefs showed the high costs of industrial bottom trawling fishing and the cumulative benefits to local coastal communities which would occur if this was not taking place. The evaluation was thought to be pivotal in convincing the national authorities to ban bottom trawling.  

However, the evaluation of ecosystems service is inevitably leading to the commodification of oceans habitats. That is, the ecosystem services provided by the oceans and marine habitats are being costed, so that they can be paid for, thereby making the oceans more profitable. The functions of marine ecosystems, such as the ability of seagrass to store carbon, are referred to as ‘asset classes’.  This jargon from the banking and finance sector is increasingly defining blue growth strategies. 

The marketing of this idea suggests it can be done in a way that increases profits, while simultaneously conserving nature and promoting the interests of poorer communities that rely on these ecosystem services. It is a feature of most of the international programmes on blue economy and blue growth. The FAO’s flagship blue growth programme, as well as the work of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and programmes of many of the leading international environmental NGOs, all describe how payments for ecosystems services can be used as a means to conserve the oceans and address climate change. 

The most tangible example appears to be the further development of initiatives that seek to conserve habitats such as mangrove forests and seagrass beds through paying for the large quantities of carbon they store. The idea is that this carbon storage function can be valued, and then sold, usually via an offset arrangement. Already, in 2011, led by the IUCN, numerous international organisations and multinational companies, including from the oil sector, have collaborated to establish the Blue Carbon Initiative.  

The extent to which blue growth strategies will be successful in establishing markets for blue ecosystems services is unclear. The same strategies have been used for several years in other ecosystems, such as forests. Demand for purchasing carbon credits and other similar commodities has been weak. Prices have never risen to the point these markets can have a global impact. This is one reason for scepticism about payment for ecosystem services. However, there also those who see considerable risks for coastal communities and small-scale fisheries from the commodification of ecosystems services. 

The way in which payment for ecosystems services work invariably requires external companies, consulting firms and certifying bodies. The is very little capacity within developing countries, and especially poor rural communities where carbon is stored, to establish complex valuations, satisfy international certification bodies, and then have the necessary networks and resources to sell the ecosystem services. Thus, projects for generating ecosystem commodities, such as blue carbon, are driven by foreign companies or NGOs. 

While there are some seemingly positive case studies, there has been substantial resistance to this new business sector among rural communities and NGOs working with indigenous peoples. Complaints include extremely unfair benefit sharing arrangements, and that the process of valuing ecosystem services invariably create incentives for state or private actors to gain control of land that was otherwise relied upon by less powerful groups. One of the observations of such innovations is that they raise difficult questions about who are the legitimate owners of ecosystem services, and therefore who can claim the rights to sell them? Moreover,  creating a new market value of ecosystem services can be a precarious development for those with informal, or insecure, user rights. This is a characteristic of many coastal states in developing countries, which led to the demand for guidelines on responsible governance of tenure. As Winnie Overbeek, writing for the World Rainforest Movement describes: 

“Communities are absent from all “Blue Carbon” publicity material…“Blue Carbon” initiatives…imposed from the top down tend to interfere profoundly with the life of these communities and to cause more problems than benefits…[they] necessarily imply the imposition of a series of restrictions on the communities’ way of life, and loss of control over their territories, in order to assure the financial markets that the carbon – converted into paper “assets” or environmental “titles” – stays “properly stored” in the forests.” 

How blue carbon will be paid for is unclear, although it is quite possible that blue carbon credits will be sold in 'offset markets’. Yet allowing companies, and perhaps even countries, to purchase carbon stored in places like forests or mangroves, so that they can produce the equivalent carbon from burning fossil fuels, is clearly objectionable, and in contradiction to the blue economy perspective. As Overbeek continues: 

“The emphasis of demonstration and research projects on putting mangroves on the global carbon markets, only postpones the necessary structural transformations of the production and consumption model based on burning fossil fuels. These changes are essential for humanity to have the opportunity to keep global warming within certain limits, and so ensure the future survival of mangroves and coastal ecosystems in general and that of the communities that depend on them. The new “Blue Carbon” trend, by not proposing these changes, is another false solution to the climate crisis, as well as being a way to maintain and strengthen the power of companies and financial markets, while hiding their responsibility for major environmental destruction and proposing that these companies and markets become part of the supposed “solution.”” 

The commodification of the environments through valuing ecosystem services is therefore another aspect for small-scale fisheries and coastal communities to question about blue growth strategies. How does valuing ecosystem services benefit the blue economy, other than providing opportunities for increased economic profit making? What safeguards are there to protect the rights of coastal people? 

Sustaining oceans through growth

In marketing blue growth, rarely is there consideration to the tensions between perpetual economic growth and the sustainable use of fragile ecosystems, which, as so many reports on the blue economy argue, are already at their breaking point from pollution, habitat destruction, ocean acidification and over fishing. It is remarkable that today, the most dominant ‘discourse’ on saving the oceans from unsustainable exploitation is so loudly extolling the opportunities of doing so in a way that can massively increase the fortunes of governments and the private sector. 

The marketing of blue growth is already being criticised for ‘policy incoherence’. The EU’s blue growth strategy, for example is promoting research and investment for expanding deep sea mining, which several organisations have pointed out might not be compatible with sustaining marine ecosystems, or the blue economy concept. A report on the relationship between the EU’s blue growth strategy and small-scale fisheries described that, although this strategy is likely to increase value added to the European economy, there will be rising environmental costs, which are likely to  impact coastal ecosystems in a negative way, and therefore threaten fisheries. 

Increasing growth and achieving a blue economy can therefore become contradictory objectives. This is too often overlooked when architects of blue growth speak about easy 'win-win' scenarios. There is no escaping the fact that the world's blue economy can not continue to grow without further stressing and depleting marine ecosystems. For subsistence and small-scale fisheries, the promise of blue growth must therefore be approached with caution. There must be a recognition that blue growth will have costs. If we are to limit these costs, particularly for the most marginalised and vulnerable,  growth in some sectors of the blue economy will have to be restricted.  

Negotiating blue growth for African small scale fisheries

There are many appealing aspects of the international movement towards a blue economy contained in proposals for blue growth. Despite the inherent contradictions and risk of policy incoherence, there appears to be increased awareness about the consequences of degraded ecosystems on society and businesses. This reaffirms the need for fisheries reforms to be placed in wider context; of climate change, pollution and increasing competition for access to the oceans. Fisheries can not be tackled in isolation. 

For small-scale fisheries, the project of achieving blue growth is essential to engage with. However, there are a number of issues that could help small-scale fisheries influence blue growth in order to minimise the inherent risks and contradictions. 

  1. Following the perspective of blue growth promoted by the FAO and other partners in the BGI, it is vital that small-scale fisheries and post harvest trade is put at the forefront of blue growth strategies. The EU approach is worrying as it places emphasis on high value and high tech sectors, which excludes the fisheries sector. The EU must recognise this limitation in its work to promote blue growth in developing countries. 
  2. The approach to creating and evaluating blue growth must move beyond seeing value only in terms of profits and jobs, and sustainability only in terms of the environment. The discussion on blue growth must appreciate social, health and cultural dimensions. Again, the EU are setting a poor example here, and there is a tendency for others at the forefront of blue growth strategies to do the same.  
  3. The blue growth perspective could be positive as it should force a wider discussion on policy coherence. Identifying and discussing policy coherence in blue growth strategies is critical for small-scale fisheries in developing countries. Investment priorities by governments and international donors in blue economy sectors, such as tourism, off-shore oil and gas and aquaculture will continue to pose threats to wild capture fisheries, particularly in coastal areas where small-scale fishers are dominant. These threats have multiple dimensions, including contributing to climate change, adding to pollution and diminishing space for fisheries at sea and on land. Blue growth strategies need to identify and take measures to limit such policy incoherence, and make clear that blue growth can not be a simple win win scenario. 
  4. Blue growth brings the prospect of more attention to marine spatial planning and integrated marine management. This multi-stakeholder approach to governing shared ecosystems is paramount, and has been largely absent in many developing countries. However, international experience shows that this can only be achieved where there are strong political and civil rights, such as access to information, freedom of expression, meaningful participation and access to justice. These are not present in many countries where blue growth is being advocated. In addition, it must be recognised that local and foreign stakeholders in the blue economy have uneven access to resources and widely different abilities to have influence on decision making. Small-scale fisheries may be placed at a disadvantage in national and regional planning processes as a result. Blue growth strategies must therefore proceed be ensuring necessary human rights and governance reforms are addressed before there is a substantial growth in investments.   
  5. The small-scale sector and coastal communities must be provided with impartial information on how payment for ecosystem services are being developed for blue growth, and what are the risks and opportunities presented by these schemes. Establishing a monetary value for the benefits provided by marine habitats that fishers have relied on for generations, with the intention of then asking others to pay for these benefits, is a complex idea. It raises difficult questions on who are the owners of ecosystem services, what rights fishers and others have to these commodities, and how are benefits from paying for these going to be distributed. The subject of blue carbon needs to be discussed more widely, and the discussion can not be led by those with a vested interest in these schemes. 


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