Who Fishes, Matters

reefnet fishing is a traditional, sustainable method of fishing for salmon

Traditional Salmon Fishing in Puget Sound, WA

Small-Scale Fisheries – and Why they’re Good for the Oceans 

by Lionel Binnie

Small-scale, locally managed fisheries are how fish have been captured throughout history.  And they are still an important part of the fishing industry.  What we’ll show here is why they have many positive effects on the health and sustainability of our oceans and fish stocks, as well as important community benefits.  They are one of the many inter-related factors affecting ocean sustainability.

Some Numbers

  • Capture (wild-caught) fisheries plus aquaculture produced 148 Million tons of fish in 2010, worth $217B
  • In 2009 16.6% of the world’s human intake of animal protein, came from fish
  • By 2050 it is projected that 9 Billion people will live on the earth
  • The world’s food supply will need to increase by 70% to feed them
  • Taking care of our oceans and fish stocks has never been more important.


  • In 2010 fisheries and aquaculture provided jobs for 56 Million people, worldwide
  • We can add an additional 500 to 600 million jobs if we include all the support activities like processing, packing, transportation, and marketing
  • Small-scale fisheries, as opposed to industrial fisheries, contribute about 50% to 65% of the global food-fish catch
  • These small-scale fisheries employ from 80% to 90% of the world’s fishermen and fish-support workers.
  • About half of these workers are women.

(Bailey, Kevin. Fishing Lessons: Artisanal Fisheries and the Future of our Oceans, University of Chicago Press, 2018, pgs 5, 6)

Industrial and Small-Scale Fisheries – What’s the Difference?

Small-scale fisheries, or artisanal fisheries (not always the same thing) are those that use smaller boats, simpler and traditional fishing equipment and methods and are family or community owned.  This is how fishing was done, throughout human history.

example of a large industrial fishing vessel

A large, industrial fishing vessel

After World War II, governments around the world subsidized the building of fishing fleets, to replace vessels lost in the war, and also provided subsidies for fuel and marketing.  Global fish catches doubled from 1945 to 1965.  The new ships were large and efficient and had the latest equipment to find, catch, process and freeze fish.

“The rebuilt Russian and Japanese fleets roamed the world’s oceans in search of more and more supply. They were joined by the Spanish, Americans, Norwegians, Cubans, Chinese, Koreans, Germans, Poles and others.”


“After thousands of years of small-scale traditional fishing, the wave of industrial change began to wash over and suffocate the small-scale fishermen.  Then in 1953, the Birds Eye division of General Foods announced the production of frozen fish sticks…”

(Bailey, Kevin. Fishing Lessons: Artisanal Fisheries and the Future of our Oceans, University of Chicago Press, 2018, pg 25)

Birds Eye fish sticks were followed by frozen fish fillets, and then the fast food industry also began selling inexpensive fish products.  The fishing industry, food marketers and fast food chains all moved into high gear together.

Who Fishes, Matters

Small-scale fisheries, often using traditional methods, are usually less destructive to ocean health than large-scale and industrial fisheries.  Traditional gear is usually fixed in place or confined in space and tends to be less destructive to the ocean habitats than large scale trawling equipment.  Traditional gear is usually more selective of the species being targeted, resulting in less bycatch (species caught incidentally to the target species). And the bycatch from traditional fishing methods is often used as food or released alive, rather than just wasted.  As part of the local community, locally-managed fisheries tend to support the local economies of coastal communities.

And most important, it is small-scale, local and indigenous fishermen who are some of the most vocal and effective voices in defending the seas against industrial over-fishing and pollution.

Two examples:

The Monterey Fishing Community Sustainability Plan was created in 2013 by the city government of Monterey, California, to acquire, hold and manage fishing quota shares, and lease them out local fishermen.  This ensures that fishing is done by qualified local fisheries.

This safeguards the local fishing economy and supports a healthy and functioning Fisherman’s Wharf, critical for tourism. It also ensures a supply of high-quality local seafood.  And of course, the fishing quotas prevent over-fishing.

Another example of a well-managed fishery overseen by the local community, and which also focuses on traditional fishing methods is in Legoe Bay, just west of Bellingham, WA.  Here, reefnet fishing, developed hundreds of years ago by the indigenous Salish people, is used to catch salmon.

Reefnet fishing involves guiding salmon, during their annual run, through a guided channel into a system of nets and pulleys stretched between two boats or permanent platforms.  It virtually eliminates by-catch and only captures sustainable quantities.

drawing of how traditional reefnet salmon fishing works

Reefnet fishing method

The Legoe Bay fishery is recognized by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch as being the highest level of sustainable fishing. Seafood Watch gives it a “Best Choice” rating for sustainability practices.

In addition, the local Salish and Lummi indigenous communities, have been very vocal and effective in limiting harmful industrial developments in their area, such as a proposed coal-loading dock in Bellingham, WA that would have hurt the local fisheries.

In his recent book ‘Fishing Lessons: Artisanal Fisheries and the Future of our Oceans”, fisheries Scientist Kevin Bailey offers many other examples of locally-managed, small-scale fisheries and how they work to protect and maintain their fish stocks, in Italy, Norway and the Amazon River Basin.

A Nobel Prize

In fact, responsible use of common resources by local users is such an important concept that in 2009 Professor Elinor Ostrom (Indiana University) won the Nobel Prize in Economics for her thesis showing how and why it works. The idea that common resources will always be exploited by self-interested parties (tragedy of the commons) isn’t in fact correct and is a self-defeating simplification.  She presents working models from places as diverse as Switzerland (grazing), Japan (forestry), and Spain (irrigation).  Read more about these co-operative models for using common resources here.


Corporately-owned fishing with large ships and high-tech equipment are not always destructive and will likely always need to have a place in the fishing industry.  It is an important way to make seafood affordable. But we need to be aware of the potential of unseen costs to the oceans and future generations of fish and people.

You may not always be able to buy from smaller, artisanal fish suppliers, but maybe you can, at least some of the time.  But by being more informed, you can ask better questions of your suppliers.  And provide better answers to the stakeholders you work with.  Do we know how the fish we use was caught and by whom?  Do we know if the species is sustainable?  Do we know whether the fishing process helped a local community or if the profits simply went back to corporate stockholders?

The more we in the food industry understand how fishing is done, and by what types of businesses and organizations, and what their values are, the more we can play an effective and responsible role in these areas.

References and further reading:

Bailey, Kevin. Fishing Lessons: Artisanal Fisheries and the Future of our Oceans, University of Chicago Press, 2018

Book Review of Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action by Professor Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, 2009




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