Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen

Radical paradigm shift needed for small-scale fishers

A crew member overlooking traditional ‘chukkie’ vessels moored in the Struisbaai harbour. (Photo: @ABALOBI)

The tidal wave of fishing rights transformation implemented in South Africa over the past two decades has yet to reach the majority of local small-scale fishers. Fortunately, innovative efforts to enable change in this sector are surfacing, including plans to establish the country’s first community-driven fisheries improvement programme.

Part 2 (Read Part 1 here)

A radical paradigm shift is needed to turn the tide for local small-scale fishers and their coastal communities, believes Dr Serge Raemaekers, director of ABALOBI.

ABALOBI, a fisher-driven social enterprise based in Cape Town, employs technology to disrupt the dynamics of the value and supply chain in local small-scale fisheries, for the benefit of both planet and people.

In practice, ABALOBI’s hi-tech, yet user-friendly, apps establish direct links between fishers and the marketplace, underpinned by a traceability framework.

A manifesto for change

Many structural and distributional inequalities — characteristics of the South African economy and many global economies — pin small-scale fishing communities in positions of poverty and food insecurity.

“It’s time we look beyond just the fish and look also at the fisher,” Raemaekers says. “Turning the tide for these vulnerable fishers requires new strategies, innovation and a disruptive approach towards ensuring social justice, resilience and transformation. We need to widen the lens on sustainability in the sector and on possible ways to get there.”

Chris Kastern, ABALOBI’s product and traceability manager, says small-scale fisheries’ value chains are still “inherently inequitable”. This creates incentives for overfishing that are often not talked about.

“Mainstream seafood market approaches often work against fishers’ efforts to address sustainability concerns. Small-scale fishers remain at the mercy of opaque supply chains that trap them in a position of price-taking, having to accept whatever is offered to them,” he says. “That’s why we’ve got a problem — small-scale fishers have very limited economic breathing room, which limits their ability to engage in any initiatives that fall outside of basic day-to-day livelihood activities.”

A disengaged broader society could also, unwittingly, drive unsustainable ocean practices due to the effect of market incentives for overfishing.

Small-scale fishers are often paid a pittance for their fish, even for species considered “high value” in the consumer market. This leaves them with few options but to catch more fish to sustain their livelihoods, perpetuating their marginalisation and incurring huge social costs in fishing communities, while the environment faces increasing pressure.

“It is high time for change in the small-scale fishing sector — a reality that is highlighted in ABALOBI’s manifesto for change,” Raemaekers argues.

An app suite for fishers

In 2015, ABALOBI embarked on the journey of co-designing technology with small-scale fishers to enable them to collect reliable data and record their local ecological knowledge. The shared vision was that this would enable small-scale fishers to play a meaningful role in co-management structures and address issues of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in their coastal waters.

What soon emerged, however, was another key challenge faced by small-scale fishers — that of inequitable markets. As a result, in the space of two years since 2017, the prototype of ABALOBI Marketplace was built as a means to push certain key data collected through ABALOBI Fisher into supply chains.

What followed has been a groundswell “from hook to cook” movement via the development of a restaurant-supported fishery, supported by top chefs in South Africa, as a precursor to opening up the ABALOBI Marketplace to the public and regional nodes.

This was achieved through design of a suite of integrated, cloud-based mobile apps and systems. ABALOBI Fisher, for instance, serves as a logbook, accounting tool and diary for fishers. It enables fishers to log data about their catches, providing them with insights into catch trends and their economic operations. This was complemented by refining ABALOBI Marketplace, an app that directly links chefs and fishers, enabling fair and transparent transactions for small-scale fisher catch, and building opportunity for collective action and social business development in coastal communities.

Several times a week, weather-dependant, fishers advertise their fully traceable, seasonal and local “catch of the day” to chefs via ABALOBI Marketplace. Once ordered online, the catch of the day is transported from fishing communities right to the doorstep of restaurants using the platform.

Since 2018, ABALOBI Marketplace has managed to link six fishing communities between Lamberts Bay and Arniston to more than 250 top chefs in the Boland region, Cape Town metro and Gauteng.

Over the past 20 months, 55 tonnes of fully traceable and verifiably legal seafood were sold through this digital seafood marketplace, resulting in more than R4-million being paid directly and digitally to participating small-scale fishers. This represents a markedly improved return on their fishing efforts, triggering a range of positive social impacts in coastal communities, as they emerge from a spiral of debt and economic hardship.

Over and above this, chefs are able to celebrate a range of local seafood. They now have access to a “basket of resources” harvested by small-scale fishermen and women using fishing methods that have very low impact on habitats, and channelled through a supply chain with minimal carbon footprint. Previously, many of these species were unavailable at premium quality, or simply unknown to many chefs.

“Critical to the success of ABALOBI Marketplace is complete traceability and transparency,” Kastern explains. ABALOBI believes this approach could pave the way to the country’s first community-driven fisheries improvement project — C-FIP for short — that is benchmarked against ecological and social indicators. This would involve the evolution of the more traditional fisheries improvement programmes (FIPs), typically multi-stakeholder efforts to primarily improve the ecological sustainability of a fishery. A C-FIP, by comparison, is community-driven and includes cultural, socio-economic and supply chain elements.

A wider lens on sustainability

Traceability is an absolute prerequisite to ensuring sustainability in the fishing sector, believes Dr Jaco Barendse, senior accessibility manager in the Global Accessibility Programme of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). “Traceability provides a pathway towards eco-labelling and other types of certification, should that be what the sector wants.”

Dr Yemi Oloruntuyi, the MSC’s Global Accessibility Programme Head, adds:

“Efforts to support FIPs in developing countries and the Global South remain key, given the contribution of small-scale fisheries to food security and the provision of livelihoods.”

But just how does one manage governance and rebuild a fishery to support both social justice and environmental sustainability? “Many examples are proving that community-based, conservation-focused fishing programmes can provide a valuable starting point to move fisheries towards long-term sustainability,” Barendse says. “It can help fisheries gain access to different ecological, social and ethical certification processes, for example, through the capture and provision of data not previously available for small-scale fisheries.”

Raemaekers says there can be no cut-and-paste option in the local context. “Given our specific realities, South Africa needs to develop its own version of a traditional FIP based on a new understanding of sustainability, hence the drive towards a C-FIP. There is enough evidence globally, that through carefully constructed stakeholder processes and incentives, fisheries can be rebuilt to a sustainable status.”

ABALOBI supports a bottom-up approach towards developing such a C-FIP. Kastern explains:

“We have to start with the fishers’ perspective to understand the challenges they face. More often than not, the most immediate challenges raised are social and economic rather than ecological. We have to find a way to engage meaningfully with fishers that enables them to co-design, self-empower and jointly implement measurable solutions.”

A story on a plate

“The degree of transparency that ABALOBI Marketplace drives into value chains is unusual, yet critical if we are to enable fishers to realise a fair value for their catch and build tangible market incentives for responsible fishing practices,” Raemaekers argues.

Consumers can now tuck into a meal that was caught by a small-scale fisher, knowing that the fish on their plate is fully traceable from hook to cook.

Each fish that has travelled through the platform to be served at a restaurant is accompanied by an ABALOBI QR code. When scanned, this code reveals a dynamic story about the fisher who caught the fish, where the fish was caught, which vessel and method was used to catch the fish, and the cultural perspectives of the fishing community. These stories accompanying the real-time traceability data are carefully curated by the fisher communities themselves.

While ABALOBI Marketplace has catalysed a from hook to cook movement among chefs, changes to fishing communities and their practices have also been set into motion. On average, fishers who use ABALOBI Fisher and ABALOBI Marketplace are catching less and have shifted their fishing effort, yet are earning up to three or four times more than they did before. They are now able to afford to take a portion of their catch home to their families and communities, which addresses food security.

All fish were created equal

ABALOBI is for the most part aligned with voluntary consumer seafood guides such as WWF-SASSI, although there are key differences in its approach, as ABALOBI places strong emphasis on creating tangible market options for small-scale fishing communities to help disrupt market forces that have often driven negative incentives.

Chefs may find that species that were conventionally viewed as being of low value may seem more expensive to order on ABALOBI Marketplace, while conversely some high-value species that traditionally carried a higher price tag may now be priced lower than expected. This is part of a deliberate process to assign equal value to the full range of species in the small-scale fisher’s basket, Kastern explains.

ABALOBI’s approach is that the small-scale fishers involved in working towards a C-FIP should initially be able to sell their entire basket of species legally allocated to them by government, in a fully traceable manner through the ABALOBI Marketplace, without excluding the minimal portion comprising species regarded as over-fished on consumer guides.

This strategy has been specifically deployed because, in order to sustain their livelihoods, small-scale fishers rely on having access to a basket of species — not just one or two — and most fishers are yet to be included in the fishery assessment process.

“The problem is that market incentives to date have often led fishers to target only a couple of species,” Kastern highlights. “Those tend to be the species where there is some sort of sustainability consideration, at least from an environmental perspective.

“We are saying: ‘Let’s start by spreading fishing efforts across the entire range of resources that these fishers legally have available to them and that they have traditionally harvested. Let’s engage fishers in data collection. From there we can start to work with fishing communities to map a way forward’.”

Raemaekers adds: “Key outcomes are that the fish are legally caught and fully traceable, the fishers are engaged in the process and are earning a fair price. From this foundation, it is possible to start co-designing and jointly implementing solutions with set targets and timeframes.”

This approach has already begun to enable change, in a tangible way.

“We have already seen a distinct shift in fishing incentives with the implementation of ABALOBI Marketplace. Previously, only 37.98% of the total catch comprised species considered ecologically sustainable as per consumer guides such as WWF-SASSI; this has grown to 68.4% over the past 20 months,” Raemaekers points out.

“This progress over a limited space of time is unprecedented in any fishery in South Africa; evidence that an engaged market can achieve meaningful change: supporting these fishing communities by embracing the diversity and seasonality of their catch, and encouraging their journey towards sustainability and self-empowerment. Insisting on traceability in this approach is foremost, as provenance is a critical precursor towards achieving and claiming any sustainability status.”

Timeframe before and after the implementation of ABALOBI Marketplace showing the change in recorded catches classified according to the WWF-SASSI consumer guide (green-, orange- and red-listed, and not assessed). Catches represented are those logged with ABALOBI Fisher and only represent fishing communities where ABALOBI Marketplace has been activated. There is every indication that ABALOBI Marketplace has created a positive market incentive for the harvest of WWF-SASSI green-listed species. This is likely the result of active work by the ABALOBI restaurant engagement team to encourage chefs to support small-scale fishers by preferentially procuring what were previously considered ‘low-value’ species, the majority of which are WWF-SASSI green-listed. Subsequent to market engagement, there is also a noticeable shift in fishing effort demonstrated by a reduction in the harvest of WWF-SASSI orange- and red-listed species. Although the ‘active’ ABALOBI Marketplace period comprises a relatively short time-series, it demonstrates active monitoring of these metrics by ABALOBI to ascertain whether ABALOBI Marketplace is potentially creating incentives or ‘loopholes’ for an increasing amount of red-listed species to enter the seafood market within which it operates. As depicted, indications are that this is not occurring. Further, the proportion of catch data logged for other market channels reinforces the willingness of participating fishing communities to record catches and engage in a community-driven fisheries improvement project (C-FIP).

Raemaekers concludes: “Although this is a complicated journey to navigate, it is a vital undertaking if we are to join fishing communities in the fight for the health of our oceans and seafood stocks.” MC

Jorisna Bonthuys is a journalist. This content has been paid for and was developed in conjunction with ABALOBI.


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