For the fourth installment of the Global Water Institute’s informal talk series, Water Conversations, we had the pleasure of hearing from Dr. Steven Cooke of the Carleton Department of Biology and Institute of Environmental Science on his research into the state, use, and regulation of inland fisheries.

Salmon fishery, British Columbia. Photo credit: Pierre Mineau.

Dr. Cooke is the Canada Research Chair of Fish Ecology and Conservation Physiology, and he runs a laboratory by the same name here on campus. The Fish Ecology and Conservation Physiology Lab (FECPL) does research into all aspects of aquatic ecology, conservation biology, physiological ecology, animal behavior and environmental science. Lately, however, Cooke Lab activities have been increasingly focused on human dimensions, and working alongside social scientists and economists in the hopes of integrating their scientific contributions into global fisheries policy considerations, and finding solutions to some of the most pressing human security issues the world is facing today. Dr. Cooke hopes his team’s findings on the importance of inland fisheries will influence policymakers and the global community to better account for them and integrate them into the sustainable development goals.

Inland fisheries are difficult to account for and regulate for a variety of reasons: they are often small-scale and highly dispersed, the fish species they include are diverse, and markets are distributed and often unregulated. Much of their use is informal, artisanal or for subsistence. Inland fish catches tend to be underreported, and vastly overshadowed by reported marine catches (where large-scale commercial fisheries play a significant role.) Due to the difficulty in generating accurate numbers, the existing body of information simply does not reflect the relative importance of the sector. As a result, inland fisheries suffer from a lack of public awareness and political will, and receive little consideration in water resource allocation decisions. Dr. Cooke argues that this needs to change, because inland fish and fisheries make a substantial contribution to meeting the needs of individuals, society, and environmental services; they provide livelihoods for millions, and food for billions.

10 reasons why inland fish and fisheries are important

Food security. Over 90% of global inland fish capture goes to consumption, particularly in the developing world. The countries with the highest catch rate per capita also tend to be emerging economies and food insecure countries. Small species we might consider bait are an important source of nutrients in places where children have high rates of vitamin deficiency.

Empowerment. Inland fisheries provide income and livelihoods through secondary service activities – such as gear provision, maintenance, processing and distribution – as well as through direct fishing activities. Statistics on the economic value are difficult to capture, but the non-monetary value of inland fisheries is arguably of greater importance. It empowers individuals to meet their own needs and those of their dependents, and this is particularly important to poverty reduction for marginalized groups, including racial minorities, rural populations, and women. For groups whose economic opportunities are limited by lack of land ownership or investment capital, fisheries provide a low entry cost opportunity for subsistence and livelihood.

Recreational services. Inland fisheries provide a host of recreational services, not limited to fishing; they also support diving, snorkeling and boating activities, and the public and private aquarium trade. The benefits of these recreational services extend to other industries as well, and create economic growth and employment opportunities in the tourism, restaurant and hotel industries. Beyond the economic value, recreational activities associated with inland fisheries also provide an opportunity to engage with the natural world, which has been shown to cultivate interest in natural sciences and conservation.

Human health and wellbeing. Inland fish are used extensively for the control of disease-carrying pests, and are particularly useful in cases where the use of pesticides is unsafe or ineffective. They are also used as biomedical research models, particularly for human disease research.

Knowledge transfer and capacity building. Like rivers and lakes, inland fisheries often transcend national boundaries. While this has led to conflict over access, control and use, it also presents an opportunity for international cooperation, shared management, and the transfer of scientific knowledge and sustainable management practices.

Ecosystem function and biodiversity. Fish occupy almost all aquatic ecosystems and play an important role in their functioning through predation, habitat alteration, and the transport of energy and nutrients to distant aquatic and terrestrial food webs in the case of migrating fish. A balanced and properly functioning aquatic ecosystem provides a host of valuable services to human populations, including cultural and recreational services, detoxification of wastes, and management of infectious diseases.

Ecosystem monitoring. Inland fish are the proverbial “canaries in the coal-mine” of aquatic ecosystems. They are good indicators of ecosystem change, and changes in their behaviour, population size or local species assemblage can serve as warnings of current and impending impacts on human well-being. Fish respond directly and indirectly to environmental stressors such as toxic and thermal pollution, flow regime change and habitat perturbations, climate change, and nutrient overload. Inland fish species are commonly used a laboratory models to assess water quality and environmental toxicology in the pesticide and chemical approval process, and have even helped detect chemical leaks and spills overlooked by sensors.

“Green food”. If sustainably sourced or farmed, inland fish can be considered a more environmentally-friendly source of food. Sustainable harvest of wild inland fish has fewer environmental costs in comparison with other livestock products, and the local, informal nature of most inland fisheries translates into lower fossil fuel dependence for gear manufacture, transportation to and from fishing sites, processing, and post-harvest transportation of the product when compared to many other sources of food. Sustainable aquaculture also has a more efficient food conversion ratio, as most inland fish species are on a lower trophic level (and can subsist on more sustainable sources of feed, such as algae.) They lend themselves well to integrated food system initiatives, such as rice field-fish culture (with the added benefits discussed earlier, such as pesticide-free pest & disease control.) Not all inland fisheries and aquaculture operations are so environmentally friendly: there are numerous examples of overfishing, instances of unwanted bycatch (accidentally catching and harming the wrong species), and some negligent aquaculture practices can have significant environmental impacts (such as nutrient loading, spreading disease, and releasing cultured species). Nevertheless, inland capture fisheries and inland aquaculture have a low environmental footprint when compared to many other animal-derived food sources.

The relationship between inland fisheries, ecosystem services, and the three dimensions of the human well-being framework.

The uncertain future of inland fisheries

Sadly, inland fishes belong to the most threatened group of vertebrates on the planet, in part because their much of their habitat is either moderately or highly threatened by anthropogenic stressors such as habitat degradation, water pollution, species invasion, flow modification, and overexploitation. Many sectors compete for the use of freshwater resources, including resource exploitation, hydroelectric power, agriculture and navigation. And due to the difficulties discussed earlier in properly recording and accounting for the monetary and non-monetary benefits of inland fisheries, they receive little consideration in discussions of water resource allocation. Failure to protect inland fisheries against new and intensive ways of manipulating global freshwater resources threatens the food security, economic security and empowerment of billions, many of which already fall within the most vulnerable and insecure groups of the global population.

Dr. Cooke and his team make three key recommendations to overcome these issues and prevent these disastrous eventualities:

Invest in improved valuation and assessment. The global status and value of most commercial marine fisheries are well understood thanks to measures such as quotas/total allowable catch restrictions, embedded fisheries observers, landing statistics at port, tracking experts on international markets, and vigorous stock assessment programs. Small-scale and recreational marine fisheries are harder to assess and value but are still reasonably well characterized. Due to their diffused, localized and informal nature, inland fisheries are of low priority for data collection efforts, and as such, lack both accurate global-level production and harvest statistics, and local-level biological assessment data. While evidenced-based sustainable management practices for inland fisheries are desperately needed, lack of information with which to inform management decisions makes that goal impossible. Valuation and assessment strategies must be applied to inland fisheries, and the strategies chosen must reflect and emphasize their importance to human well-being, not simply their monetary value

Build capacity and incentives for effective governance. In order for assessment and valuation of inland fisheries to be improved, governance structures must first be improved and expanded on. Rather than remaining solely the responsibility of fisheries departments, inland fishery management could be integrated into the mandate of sectors with stronger assessment and cross-sector governance capacity, such as public health and nutrition, or agriculture. The value of traditional ecological knowledge, user rights and governance structures has been emphasized in several international accords – including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the U.N.D.R.I.P., and the FAO’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and Voluntary Guidelines – and should be put to greater use. Issues that transcend national boundaries and involve multiple sectors could be addressed through greater cross-sectoral and cross-jurisdictional coordination. And finally, incentive structures must be created to encourage local-level self-governance and co-management, the collective use of sustainable practices, and long-term conservation of freshwater habitats. Such incentives can be broken down into four main categories:1)

  1. Strengthening fishing rights;
  2. Increasing participation in fishery and environmental management decision-making;
  3. Reducing the vulnerability of fishing people to pressures that reduce their capacity or incentive to participate in collective environmental management systems; and
  4. Payments for ecosystem services that incentivize conservation.

Manage inland waters across sectors and scales. There is a need for more integrated water resource management strategies that goes beyond inland fisheries. Institutional frameworks that treat agriculture, nature conservation, fisheries, industry, human health, etc. as separate sectors that fall under the mandate of separate agencies understandably fail to adequately address cross-sectoral issues relating to freshwater use and water resource management. Existing institutions and decision-making frameworks must be reorganized and new ones created to provide a space for the integration of numerous stakeholders. An ideological shift is required that puts human well-being and ecological integrity on the level with other water use priorities. Co-management agreements formed around natural boundaries (such as watersheds) and that explicitly include socio-ecological considerations have found some success; but the development of tools and approaches that incentivize collaboration are key.

In conclusion, inland fisheries are at once of critical importance to the wellbeing of the global population, and dangerously overlooked and undervalued by our current regulatory systems. Increased awareness of the importance of inland fisheries in sorely needed, and a significant first step would be to include them as priorities in the deliberations of international fora such as the FAO and the UN. Inland fisheries are important to food and economic security and human well-being, and as such, are connected to nearly every Sustainable Development Goal established in 2013 by the UN General Assembly. In fact, the SDGs could provide the integrative, holistic framework to better value inland fisheries and integrate them into broader discussions relating to water resource management and aquatic ecosystem planning, enhancing their value and sustainability for the future. All that is needed is greater public awareness, understanding and desire, and political will.

The above is just a very brief summarization of Dr. Cooke and his team’s work on the importance of inland fisheries and the strategies that will help protect them. For greater detail and more information, read his two key publications on the subject, “The social, economic, and environmental importance of inland fish and fisheries” and “On the sustainability of inland fisheries: Finding a future for the forgotten”.