Perspective: Fisheries

Kristen Lowitt

From water to plate: Making fisheries a part of sustainable food systems
Kristen Lowitt is an Assistant Professor in the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University. Her interdisciplinary research program is directed towards working with communities to build just and sustainable food systems in rural and coastal settings. Areas of interest include the role of small-scale fisheries in sustainable food systems, Indigenous-settler collaborations for food sovereignty, and collective action for food systems governance.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Articulate different positions on fisheries and their governance.
  • Explain the ways in which fisheries contribute to food systems.
  • Describe and define key concepts and terminology related to fisheries.


From inland lakes to the world’s oceans, the harvesting and eating of fish are woven into the cultural identities, values, and traditions of coastal communities. Nearly 60 million people around the world are involved in the primary sector of and , with many more, especially women, undertaking related tasks such as fish handling, processing, and selling.[1] The majority of this employment is in the Global South, among and aquacultural workers, who catch a diversity of species from small boats near shore or who tend low-input fish farming systems. Most of the fish from these small-scale operations goes towards local markets and directly to feeding households, providing a culturally preferred source of protein and valuable source of micronutrients. Fisheries are also crucial to livelihoods and in fishing-dependent regions of the Global North. For example, on Canada’s Atlantic coast, fisheries continue to be the backbone of regional economic development for numerous small communities called “outports,” in addition to forming a vital part of local foodways. Around the Great Lakes of North America, a range of Indigenous, commercial, and recreational freshwater fisheries are key features of the regional landscape. For many Indigenous peoples around the world, fisheries are integrally tied to traditional food practices and self-determination.

However, fisheries are under considerable stress. Industrialization and in the fishing sector are placing mounting pressure on fish stocks and aquatic ecosystems and threatening the livelihoods and food security of those most reliant on fisheries. Industrial fishing is highly uneven across countries, with a small number of higher-income countries accounting for the majority of industrial fishing activity and accruing the benefits in terms of profits and seafood supply.[2] Fishing pressure is exacerbated by broader forces such as climate change and toxic pollution. Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that the share of marine fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels is declining.[3]

Against this backdrop, this chapter asks, can fisheries be a part of feeding people sustainably in the coming decades? To answer this question, I begin by reviewing two contrasting perspectives on fisheries: efficiency and transformation. These are adapted from Garnett’s (2014) typology of perspectives on sustainable food security.[4] I then discuss the implications of these perspectives for fisheries’ roles in sustainable , ultimately arguing in favour of a transformational perspective that resists the dominant view of fish as a , and places the goal of providing food for people at the centre of fisheries.

Efficiency perspective: The pursuit of profit

This can be considered the prevailing view on fisheries, often held by governments and large industry actors. Fish are seen foremost as a commodity to be managed for economic efficiency, meaning the key aim is to minimize fishing costs and maximize outputs and profits. The pursuit of efficiency spurred the global industrialization of fisheries that took off in the 1940s following World War II, as more sophisticated technologies expanded the speed and scale at which fish could be caught.[5] Small boats using mostly household and family labour, and bringing catches to shore at small processing plants, were deemed “inefficient” and became increasingly marginalized by a large-scale industrial sector of corporate-owned fishing vessels. These large-scale fleets sometimes fish in the same waters as smaller boats, as well as further from shore. The largest of these vessels can freeze and process fish directly on board. High-seas fishing is yet another scale of fishing that takes place beyond the jurisdiction of any individual country and is characterized by vast freezer trawlers that can process thousands of tonnes of fish while at sea.

The mantra of economic efficiency gained further credence with the publication in 1968 of a famous essay called the “Tragedy of the Commons.” In it, economist Garrett Hardin wrote that “ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”[6] This essay is based on a limited view of people as being out to maximize their own personal gain. It was nonetheless highly influential in shifting the policy landscape around fisheries, with what had long been a shared and common resource becoming enclosed through new management tools designed to incentivize individual ownership and stewardship. One of the most popular tools used widely in freshwater and marine fisheries today is (ITQs). ITQs are a type of that, as their name indicates, can be transferred (i.e., bought and sold) among fish harvesters on a free market. The logic behind ITQs is that fish harvesters will be less likely to “race for the fish” and put pressure on fish stocks if they can be assured of their exclusive right to a part of the catch.[7] Following this line of thinking, ecological sustainability is promoted and fishing rights are optimally allocated, given that the more efficient can “buy out their less efficient counterparts.”[8]

Of course, what may be economically efficient is not necessarily equitable or ecologically sustainable. ITQs have been critiqued for contributing to environmental , including the practice among some ITQ holders of “high-grading”—or disposing of low-value fish—to maximize the value of their quota.[9] Another serious critique of ITQs pertains to social equity. With ITQs, those with more capital can buy up more fish to catch. In many cases, the long-term outcome of ITQs has been fewer and larger boats, leading to a concentration of wealth and power in fisheries. This has direct implications for food systems. My research on Lake Superior in the Great Lakes has shown that the introduction of ITQs into commercial fisheries in that region has facilitated the export of lake whitefish into large markets in the United States for use as low-quality protein; this has disadvantaged its access among local communities across the Canadian shore of the lake, where it remains a desirable, culturally appropriate, and nutritious food.[10]

So far, this discussion has focused on capture fisheries. However, it is important to note that aquaculture fits particularly neatly within an efficiency perspective, because it is a more controlled form of production that lends itself well to private ownership. Unlike wild fish that cross ecological and political borders, farmed fish enclosed in a pen at sea or on land are much easier to own. As aquaculture has grown in recent decades, it is often heralded among policy makers as more advanced, forward looking, and the key to meeting food security needs by increasing fish supply.[11]

Lastly, an efficiency perspective applies not only to the harvesting and production of fish but to consumption as well. As demonstrated so far, an efficiency perspective sees markets as the most appropriate mechanism for allocating fishing rights, such as through ITQs. Likewise, markets are held up as a means of promoting environmental sustainability through consumer choices. An example is the proliferation of labels that have come to adorn fish products in the marketplace, which attempt to communicate something about the sustainability of these products to consumers. While there is some merit in promoting greater transparency in fish supply chains, a limitation of this form of sustainability is that it casts people primarily as consumers. This sidelines other possibilities for democratic engagement, such as policy advocacy or collective organizing, in favour of individual purchasing choices and buying power.

Transformation perspective: Prioritizing people and communities

The transformation perspective is in many ways directly juxtaposed to the ideas presented above. In contrast to an efficiency perspective, a transformational view places attention and priority on the world’s small-scale fish harvesters and workers, asserting that the people and communities most dependent on fishing for food and for livelihoods should be at the centre of decision-making. In this sense, fish is understood as much more than a commodity; it is appreciated as a vital part of foodways, local cultures, social identities, and histories. As many scholars and activists have pointed out, despite small-scale fisheries comprising the majority of livelihood opportunities and contributing the most to food security for vulnerable households[12], power and attention from governments often remains centered around corporate and industrial fleets and operations.[13] In contrast to the private property rights that characterize an efficiency approach, a transformational perspective emphasizes community-access rights and sees fish as a , to be shared and collectively governed. Here, a large body of research by maritime anthropologists, as well as foundational work by economist Elinor Ostrom, points to how communities have long governed access to resources through local institutions designed and adapted to their needs.

This perspective also sees privatization and capitalization in fisheries as the core problems that contribute to over-exploitation of fish stocks, degradation of aquatic environments, and insecure livelihoods. Wealth distribution is the goal of a transformational perspective, as opposed to wealth concentration, which is the goal of an efficiency perspective. A transformational perspective recognizes that the well-being of fish and people are interlinked, meaning that changes in the natural environment directly influences the well-being of people reliant on these ecosystems. An example of this interconnection comes from my doctoral research on the island of Newfoundland, Canada, which looked at how changes to fish stocks had an impact on the food provisioning practices of households in fishing communities. I found that what households ate closely mirrored changes in local fisheries and marine environments. This included seasonal changes in diets related to the availability of local fish, as well as shifts in the type of seafood consumed over time, such as the introduction of more shellfish (shrimp, crab) into diets, as these species started to be harvested more after cod and other groundfish declined.[14] Around the world today, multiple threats to aquatic ecosystems and fish stocks challenge the food security of fishing-dependent communities.

A transformational perspective prioritizing the needs of fishing people and communities is closely connected to the concept and movement of . Food sovereignty is understood as the “right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”[15] Recently, policy proposals for food sovereignty have emerged from fishers’ movements. For example, in 2017, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), a social movement organization representing ten million small-scale fishers from around the world, released the report, Agroecology and Food Sovereignty in Small-Scale Fisheries. This report provides an agenda for solidarity building and political organizing among fish harvesters, workers, youth, women, Indigenous communities, and related organizations and allies, in response to increasing corporate control of fisheries. The WFFP has become a key voice representing small-scale fishers’ movements in international governance forums, including at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security.

Another key policy accomplishment encompassing both inland and marine small-scale fisheries is the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Alleviation, led by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The Guidelines are significant as the first international instrument devoted to the sustainability of small-scale fisheries. The Guidelines adopt a human rights approach that asserts that supporting fishing communities and their empowerment is fundamental to the realization of these communities’ human rights. The Guidelines were endorsed by FAO member states in 2014, following a three-year dialogue and consultation process with civil society, fishers’ groups, and governments, among others. However, their implementation into national laws is ongoing and politically fraught because of some of the major policy reforms that are called for.[16] Small-scale fisheries and their sustainability have also been recognized as key to achieving many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including poverty and food security, and directly applicable to SDG 14: Life Below Water.


Ultimately, these perspectives reflect different views on fisheries . Governance refers to how decisions are made, including what values and principles should shape them. An efficiency perspective on fisheries emphasizes markets and private property as key principles, and, when food systems are considered, a focus on fish supply is the key concern. However, as Béné points out, the capacity to simply produce more fish “masks inequalities and inequities in who eats the fish and who benefits from the value chains.”[17] These are some of the key concerns raised by a transformational viewpoint. A transformational perspective problematizes the commodification of fish; it pushes beyond an efficiency lens to foreground questions of democracy and human rights within fisheries. This isn’t to suggest there isn’t a role for markets or technology, as promoted from an efficiency position. Rather, for fisheries to make meaningful contributions to sustainable food systems, the balance of power needs to be adjusted in favour of the millions of small-scale fish harvesters, aquaculture workers, and other labourers across fisheries value chains who are most dependent on fisheries for their livelihoods, culture, and food security. This balance may begin to shift as small-scale fisheries become an increasing locus of political struggle and social mobilization. Working towards sustainability in fisheries-based food systems will require the efforts of a range of actors and networks in advocating for change in support of fishing communities, from fishers themselves to governments, youth, researchers, students, and consumers.

Discussion Questions

  • What coastal communities are you familiar with? What role do fisheries play in the food systems of these communities?
  • What does the idea of ‘fish as commons’ mean to you? How might it challenge a dominant view of fish as commodity?
  • How are fisheries, food systems, and social movements connected?

Additional Resources

Too Big to Ignore, a global partnership for small-scale fisheries research.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water

Coastal Routes Radio, featuring stories of coastal community resilience around North America. (podcasts)

Stiegman, Martha and Pictou, Sherry. In the Same Boat. (2007). (videos)


Belton, Ben and Thilsted, Shakuntala Haraksingh. “Fisheries in transition: Food and nutrition security implications for the global South.” Global Food Security 3, no.1 (2014): 59-66,

Béné, Christopher, Barange, Manuel, Subasinghe, Rohana, Pinstrup-Andersen, Per, Merino, Gorka, Hemre, Gro-Ingunn, and Williams, Meryl. “Feeding 9 billion by 2050 – Putting fish back on the menu.” Food Security 7 (2015): 261–274,

Declaration of Nyéléni, 2007.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020. Rome, 2020.

Finley, Carmel. “The industrialization of commercial fishing, 1930-2016.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Garnett, Tara. “Three perspectives on sustainable food security: efficiency, demand restraint, food system transformation. What role for life cycle assessment?” Journal of Cleaner Production 73 (2014): 10-18,

Hardin, Garrett. “The tragedy of the commons.” Science 162 (1968): 1243-1248.

Jentoft, Svein, Ratana Chuenpagdee, Maria Jose Barragán-Paladines, and Nicole Franz. The Small-Scale Fisheries Guidelines: Global Implementation. Springer, 2017.

Lowitt, Kristen, Levkoe, Charles, & Nelson, Connie. “Where are the fish? Using a fish as food framework to explore the Thunder Bay Area fisheries.” Northern Review 49 (2019): 39-65.

Lowitt, Kristen. “Examining fisheries contributions to community food security: Findings from a household seafood consumption survey on the west coast of Newfoundland,” Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition 8, no. 2 (2013): 221-241.

McCauley, Douglas et al., “Wealthy countries dominate industrial fishing.” Science Advances 4, no.8 (2018).

Sumaila, Rashid. “A cautionary note on individual transferable quotas.” Ecology and Society 15, no. 3 (2010): 36.

  1. FAO 2020.
  2. McCauley et al. 2018.
  3. FAO 2020.
  4. Garnett 2014.
  5. Finley 2016.
  6. Hardin 1968, 1244.
  7. Sumaila 2010.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Lowitt et al. 2019.
  11. Belton & Thilsted 2014.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Béné et al. 2015.
  14. Lowitt 2013.
  15. Declaration of Nyéléni 2007.
  16. Jentoft et al. 2017.
  17. Béné et al. 2015, 271.


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