ELI Primary Menu

Skip to main content

Finding Legal Avenues for Bottom-Up Management of Small-Scale Fisheries in the Mesoamerican Reef

Wednesday, September 5, 2018
Sierra Killian

Sierra Killian

Research Associate

According to the World Bank, small-scale fisheries (SSF) in developing countries produce over one-half of total fish catch and employ almost 90 percent of part- and full-time fishers. Despite the subsector’s clear importance to food security and the financial sustainability of fisheries-dependent communities around the world, there are considerable gaps in both knowledge of and management strategies for small-scale fisheries. Because fishers in the SSF subsector are widely dispersed, it is difficult for governing bodies to collect data and make management decisions based on incomplete information. Given the precarious state of global fisheries, one-third of which are fished beyond biological sustainability, managing SSF despite the lack of data is a crucial component of sustainably feeding the world into the future.

Recent developments at the international level have pushed issues surrounding SSF toward the fore. In 2015, the United Nations released its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, known as SDGs, as an ambitious blueprint to improve human well-being and the planet. For example, SDG 14: Life Below Water aims to “effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing” while also providing “access for small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets.” Also, in 2015, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) set voluntary guidelines for SSF in order to sustainably manage fishery resources and include SSF communities in decisionmaking processes, among other objectives. These high-level plans are designed to apply broadly across geographies, but as a result, they are not immediately actionable in individual countries or communities. 

Filefish in Cozumel, Mexico

Courtesy of Skinned Mink, Flickr (2007)

Reusable under Creative Commons license

In partnership with Rare’s Fish Forever program, ELI is working to fill in the gaps between international priorities and local SSF governance in the Mesoamerican Reef region. The reef, abbreviated as MAR, lies off the Caribbean coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico and is home to corals, manatees, sea turtles, and abundant tropical fish.

ELI is creating country-level policy analyses of legal and regulatory mechanisms to leverage the management of MAR small-scale fisheries in collaboration with fishing associations, municipalities, and indigenous communities. For instance, national fisheries legislation that delegates authority to local governments can be used to increase community participation in deciding how to sustainably use coastal resources. In so doing, existing laws can be used to follow the FAO voluntary guidelines’ call to promote participatory management systems. This strategy, called co-management, meaningfully includes citizens who directly use a natural resource in developing a management plan for that resource. Management involving fishers throughout the decisionmaking process has been more effective than top-down governance in the Mexican MAR, showing that the approach has the potential to positively impact the region as a whole.

Like SSF itself, laws and regulations that relate to SSF are spread widely, falling under the purview of a variety of national ministries focused on food and agriculture, natural resource use, and national protected areas. The legal analyses in development bring together these disparate sources of authority by drawing on existing laws and regulations and on interviews with in-country experts. Based on this synthesis, ELI and Rare will identify potential paths for national and municipal governments to implement community-based management.

Policy changes made at the national level to promote co-management are primed to be scaled up in the MAR region more broadly. In 1997, the four MAR countries signed the Tulum Declaration, jointly agreeing to manage the MAR and its exceptional biodiversity. The governments reaffirmed their commitment to protecting the reef in 2006 and pledged to increase their efforts to reflect the changes in the state of the ecosystem. More recently, the Central American Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization (OSPESCA) has worked to develop and coordinate regional fisheries management across the isthmus. The Confederación Centroamericana de Pescadores Artesanales has added to the momentum by advocating for national governments to coordinate small-scale fishery management policies.

These and other efforts to integrate policy transnationally need to be reinforced by harmonizing regional laws that further sustainability and long-term environmental protection. The regional scope of Rare’s and ELI’s legal analysis will enable the MAR countries to collectively put into practice the aspirational principles developed at the international level, advancing food security and sustainable livelihoods in the MAR and beyond.

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