Sea Heroes: Working Side by Side with Indigenous and Small-Scale Fishers

15 May 2019

For many small-scale fishers and coastal indigenous communities, fish means much more than food: their relationship with the sea plays a vital role in maintaining their distinct livelihoods.

These communities are facing significant threats from climate change and industrial fishing, which risk cutting the ancient ties between indigenous peoples’ and the oceans. On the last day of Slow Fish, three guests from the Netherlands, Finland, and South Africa shared their experiences of working with their local indigenous and small-scale fishing communities.

Concern for the future

Mariëlle Klein Lankhorst is a Dutch photographer with a passion for travel. Her most important journey has turned into a long-term project around Europe’s coasts, including the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Ireland, where she met small-scale fishers, and told their stories through pictures.

“Everyone knows what a fisher is and everyone is aware of the crisis in fisheries. However, the story often lacks nuance, so I share more colorful light on small-scale fishing as a livelihood. What I have learned is that fishers are extremely passionate about what they do. It is not just their job; it is their way of life.”

Through her observations of small-scale fishers, Klein Lankhorst has learned about the daily obstacles that small-scale fishers face in Europe. She noticed that despite having a generally optimistic nature, fishers tend to become melancholic when discussing the future.

“The European Union creates regulations for fishing, but these rules don’t reflect reality. Small-scale fishers face a lot of competition from industrial fishing and other businesses which use the same resources, the same space, and which also apply for EU funding. Fishers are less well-organized than these businesses, have less time and do not know how to approach governments.”

Klein Lankhorst called the current situation “threatening”, and drew attention to the shocking contrast in the statistics: “80% of fishing boats in Europe are small-scale, yet they account just 14% of the total value of the catch.”


Small-scale fishing boats in Sicily. Photo: Marielle Klein Lankhorst

Mobile app empowers small-scale fishers in South Africa

Loubie Rusch from South Africa works side by side with local communities to promote their products. She told the Slow Fish audience about a new project in Cape Town, “ABALOBI”, which works with small-scale fishers.

“It is a series of five applications that we have developed along the entire supply chain. In South Africa small-scale fishers are marginalized, completely invisible, and the quotas give preference to industrial fishing. This application has enabled small-scale fishers to collect their data and gave them direct access to chefs.”

The project has also developed a QR code, which is used by partnering chefs and their restaurants. By scanning the QR code on the menu, customers can read about who caught the fish and how it was caught. It also provides further information on the sustainability rating of the fish and a detailed description of the species.

“It is an incredibly empowering tool which is benefiting small-scale fishers,” said Rusch, who is planning to introduce fishers to indigenous coastal foods which could be either harvested wild or brought into cultivation. “This is another layer that could contribute to the fishers’ livelihoods.”


A South African fisher using Abalobi. Photo:

Climate change and traditional fishing in the North

Lauri Hamalainen is a Finnish fisher from North Karelia, and a member of Snowchange, an organization that works with indigenous communities in the north of the country. Over the years Snowchange has become an essential scientific reference point in the debate on climate change and traditional fishing techniques in the region.

“In recent years, winters have become very warm and secure ice, a central requirement for seining, today comes a few months later and starts melting a few months earlier than it used to be. Often fishers take risks by working on unsecure ice. In the North, we are clearly witnessing climate change in action, and its effect on our fishing tradition.”


Traditional ice fishing in Finland. Photo:

Hamalainen showed the audience a short film about the Koitajoki river, which supports one of the few remaining, self-sustaining populations of whitefish, now threatened by pollution in the river and sediment loading from forest and peat mining. The elders of North Karelia tell how just a few decades ago the river was densely populated with whitefish, which used to be caught in seine nets by many fishers. The fishers believe that the pollution and changes in fishing methods have had an adverse effect on the condition of whitefish spawning grounds.


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