ELI Primary Menu

Skip to main content

ELI’s Small-Scale Fisheries Law Project: Bringing the Ocean’s Wealth Back to Those Who Need It Most

Monday, December 2, 2019
Xiao Recio-Blanco

Xiao Recio-Blanco

Senior Attorney; Director, Ocean Program

I was raised in Illa de Arousa, an island right off the coast of Galicia, in northwestern Spain. As any kid, I would spend the summers biking around the island and swimming in the sea. My sister and I would walk around the beaches collecting seashells, looking for crabs, anemones. We would see many. We would often see schools of small squid, mackerel, arroaces (dolphins), octopuses. We used to go fishing for camarons (prawns) with my grandad. I remember watching him from the shore, walking slowly, arms spread, with the water up to his waist, holding the two ends of a net he would use for slowly surrounding the prawns. Then, he would unload his catch in the sand, were my sister and I would take the prawns and put them in a bucket. Fishing just by walking right off the beach. This was not in the Middle Ages; I am not that old. This was the early 1990s.

I visited that same beach with my son almost two years ago. The location still holds the charm and beauty of my childhood, despite the horrendous road and the excessive housing developments that have been built right along the island’s coast. But we did not see any prawns there, nor mackerel or squid. We did see the anemones and a few crabs. To see the famous and tasty Galician camarons though, we had to pay a visit to a well-stored fishmonger in Galicia’s capital Santiago de Compostela, where they were being sold for over 90 euros (approx. 100 USD) per kilogram.

Since I started studying small-scale fisheries governance, I have heard similar childhood stories like mine, repeated time and time again. The names of the people, the locations, change, but the problem is global. I heard several of these stories last week, as I had the honor of participating in the 41st Annual Forum of Parliamentarians for Global Action, which was held in Praia, Cape Verde, to present the Environmental Law Institute’s Small-Scale Fisheries Law project, an initiative through which ELI is trying to play its part in confronting this challenge.



The global depletion of coastal fishing resources is an environmental catastrophe, an economic ticking bomb, a cultural disaster. It is a serious human rights problem. In most coastal areas, the fish are gone, just like the crabs, octopuses, lobsters, shrimp, and prawns. If you are over 30 and grew up in a coastal area, seafood was probably the cornerstone of your diet. You might remember eating fish several times a week because it was nutritious and cheap. Maybe also because there were not many other options. In the developing world, thousands of coastal communities that used to live off fish cannot anymore. Since the fish are not there, fishers venture further offshore in search for it in crafts not fit for open waters. Some fishers are lost at sea and end up on foreign shores, stranded for weeks. Some never return. Since seafood is now more expensive, people in the developing world are changing their diet, substituting the traditional, locally-harvested, ocean-based protein for imported rice, pasta, and low-quality meats. Although seafood consumption in southern Europe is still among the highest in the world, it has decreased significantly in the last three decades, as food choices there also evolve with the price of food.

At the PGA Forum, I heard these concerns, but I also heard a clear, encouraging call for action. Parliamentarians from all over the world are focusing unquestionably on this issue, which is crucial for them and their constituencies. The ELI Small-Scale Fisheries Law project aims to help parliamentarians combat this challenge by identifying, organizing, and delivering detailed model legal language that policymakers can use to implement the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (the SSF Guidelines). The SSF Guidelines is a key fisheries governance document outlining effective policy approaches for small-scale fisheries sustainability. ELI’s project aims to turn the SSF Guidelines into a regulatory roadmap through a global search for best practices and comparative legal approaches. I would like to think that the interest and passion about this challenge we heard from parliamentarians at the PGA Forum is a sign that ELI is serving an important need with this project. The main outcome of our research, the Small-Scale Fisheries Regulatory Toolkit, will be publicly available in mid-2020. The Forum’s session on Small-Scale Fisheries governance can be seen here.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.