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Fisheries research for sustainability

by Cornelia Nauen

About five years ago, Amy Diabang and a few of her friends from a women's fish processing group in Casamance, southern Senegal, invited me for dinner in the home of their coordinator. At the end of a long day's work, the women had prepared a traditional meal and, of course, lots of deliciously fresh local fish. They were tired, but they wanted to discuss a project they intended to set up to improve the range of their businesses. They had practically all started with small loans to buy knives, buckets, headpans and the other utensils of their trade. They had also received some training through a joint project involving the French government, an NGO and the EDF, aimed at revitalising artisanal fishing in Casamance. Now, the women were planning to buy a lorry to break the transport monopoly of the established truckers. Using the limited transport available was putting a prohibitively costly price tag on their goods and preventing them from expanding their trade beyond Casamance.

At the time, I admired their courage and sympathised with their bold plan, but wondered whether it might not exceed their management capacity and leave them in debt. I am glad to say they ended up proving me wrong. Their business may not have developed quite as envisaged but they did do reasonably well and achieved a lot in the intervening period. And they had to weather a number of storms in the process: first a currency devaluation, followed by fierce competition from international factory buyers of fish. The women also challenged what they saw as unjustified local taxes and succeeded in strengthening their organisation. Amy and the many women and men working in fisheries merit our respect and deserve much more attention than has been given them in the past.

Small-scale operations dominate most of the fisheries in subSaharan Africa. Despite the fact that outsiders often brand them as 'backward', they are responsible for about 70% of Africa's total production of fish and other aquatic organisms. With little support, and often in a difficult infrastructural and institutional environment, they nevertheless succeed, demonstrating their vigour and adaptability to fast-changing conditions. For the fisherfolk, it is a competitive environment with no social security other than the family and community of which they are a part. So fishing is often complemented by other activities ranging from lifestock-raising to vegetable gardening and, of course, trading.

Why the emphasis on fisherfolk when the title of this article refers to fisheries research? One of the reasons is that those involved in conventional monitoring and statistical systems, and even in research, have had problems getting to grips with the diversity and dynamics of the sector.

Most researchers find it difficult enough to get reliable data even on industrial fishing and to analyse from that the state of the stocks. Yet at a time when fisheries is moving into the mainstream in many developing countries, notably in northwest Africa, and the crisis of overfishing in many areas has finally hit the headlines, research is all the more needed. The sector has obviously been affected by the progressive internationalisation of trade and it is clear from a number of global studies that'business as usual' - or even recourse to old remedies - is no longer an option.

Call for research initiative

It was against this background that the ACP-EU Joint Assembly adopted a wide ranging resolution on fisheries in October 1993. It referred specifically to the need for a special effort in research and the Commission reacted positively to this recommendation. Although the resolution speaks of a 'joint research centre' (Art. 66), it was clear from the preceding discussions that the drafters favoured the idea of a 'laboratory without walls'.

Stress was placed on the need for a collaborative approach which would avoid duplication and permit economies of scale through better use of existing resources. The idea of an 'ACP-EU Fisheries Research Initiative' was born.

Although the process may seem slow at times, the Initiative is now gradually getting off the ground. Following the publication of the Resolution in the quarterly EC Fisheries Cooperation Bulletin and in the EC's Official Journal, the Commission held a number of technical consultations with senior European fisheries cooperation advisers. Their advice was sought on the establishment of a consensus 'platform' which could serve as a basis for wideranging discussions with ACP representatives. The understanding was that a new type of partnership was required to face the challenges and this drew a positive response from the ACP side.

Dialogue for a new partnership

A first dialogue meeting was held in Swakopmund, Namibia, on 5-8 July 1995, bringing together representatives from Southern and Eastern Africa, the Indian Ocean countries and Europe. This was held mostly in the form of workshops to allow all those taking part to express themselves freely. The 54 participants endorsed the Initiative and made a number of very useful recommendations for future progress. They came out strongly in support of the overall goal which is: The sustainable use of fishery resources for the benefits of sector stake holders and the conservation of the aquatic resource systems supporting them. The report of the meeting, including the core document and the invited review papers on major aquatic resource systems, has been published in a new series of technical reports designed to give visibility to the Initiative. The message that emerges is that the time of donor-driven projects in this area has passed. The partnership which the authorities are being invited to subscribe to involves scientific, financial and other efforts commitment - by all sides.

The Joint Assembly and various interested international partners are being kept informed as the Initiative unfolds. To ensure a constant flow of information to a wider public, a permanent feature on the Initiative has also been introduced into the EC Fisheries Cooperation Bulletin.

Dakar meeting

At the time of writing, preparations were in full swing for the second dialogue meeting to be held in Dakar in the last week of March. This was to bring together West and Central African representatives with the EU senior fisheries cooperation advisers and the Commission. The successful formula used in the first dialogue meeting will largely be followed with each country being invited to send two senior planners representing fisheries development and fisheries and/or aquaculture research, respectively. Regional organisations with a strong fisheries mandate will also be invited to send a representative. The idea is that developers and researchers should jointly examine the issues and identify the priorities for research to help solve the most pressing problems.

It is recognised, of course, that even the existence of a very strong research base in each country would not, by itself, be enough. As in many other areas, one has to lock at the interfaces of research. There needs to be an enabling environment 'up-stream' in which relevant research can be carried out to high standards. Meanwhile, 'down-stream' there must be a delivery mechanism so that research results get fed into the planning and decision-making process in a user-friendly way. It is also clear that research cannot be carried out for long periods in isolation. Some researchers now even advocate participatory research, in which fisherfolk are active and recognised partners in the process and the results are shared with them as well as with public planners and decision makers.

A number of review papers have been commissioned on the major aquatic resource systems in the West and Central African region (see box). These have been prepared by teams of people from different countries, thereby underlining the collaborative nature of the Initiative. They are currently being sent to delegates who will attend the Dakar meeting as background information, allowing them to take stock of the achievements so far and to focus on the future. It is worth noting that a few collaborative research efforts have already been initiated around the basic ideas launched by the Initiative. Some of these are being funded by the Commission's budget for north-south research cooperation.

Two more dialogue meetings are planned, one for the Pacific and Caribbean countries and one 'wrap up' meeting, where representatives from all regions can synthesise the various recommendations and condense them into one shared reference document about the Initiative.

From talk to practice

Recognising the crucial importance of information for sustainable fisheries management, and the associated need to create an enabling environment for research in ACP countries where the sector is socially and economically important, a new 'All ACPs' project is currently being prepared for consideration by the EDF Committee. me plan is for FishBase, the worldwide electronic encyclopedia on all known finfish (some 25 000 species) to be made available, along with training and equipment, to all ACP countries. FishBase, funded largely by the Commission, has been developed by the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management based in Manila, in collaboration with the FAO and numerous other partners.

Its expansion into a tool for documenting aquatic biodiversity and extending management advice, combined with investment in human and institutional resources in ACP countries, will be a practical step towards building the aforementioned enabling environment for fisheries research and management. Its institutional sustainability is sought through interaction and networking at national, regional and international levels and through strong collaborative links between individuals and institutions. Close relations with other components of the Initiative will be ensured with special emphasis on making use of electronic and other linkages between ACP institutions and between ACP and EU partners. The global information society must be truly open to ACP countries to ensure their competitiveness in the future.

A programme which has the potential to develop into something equally ambitious started modestly at a workshop in Dakar in 1993. Consultations in West Africa showed there was a need for a harmonised Fisheries Information and Analysis System (FIAS). This would enable people to access databases not yet linked together on various aspects of the sector thanks to the integration provided through a powerful analytical interface. This should allow for data to be analysed in ways that are currently not possible allowing comparisons to be made of different policy options available to decision makers in both the private and public sectors.

Because of the difficulties in finding a suitable institutional framework for collaboration between the institutions involved in fisheries in each country, progress towards implementation has bean slow. Such institutions include fisheries departments, research bodies in ministries or universities, and agencies responsible for monitoring, control and surveillance, statistics, and fiscal questions. All have important roles to play in the planning and management of the sector. In the meantime, several countries have embarked on national efforts with a more limited scope in order to serve their immediate needs. Any FIAS work in West Africa should involve collaboration with these valuable efforts with a view to enhancing their usefulness further - drawing on the experience that has already been gained and sharing the relevant information with other countries.

A module of the FIAS has also been developed by the University of Warwick's Ecosystem Analysis and Management Group in collaboration with Asian partners. This programme, which is entitled SIMCOAST, allows for realistic simulations of various planning and policy options in complex situations involving the competitive use of coastal resources, both marine and land-based. Used properly, SIMCOAST demystifies some of the intricacies of integrated coastal area management and helps to streamline data requirements.

A long road ahead

At this stage, some readers might well ask whether the gap between the high-tech wizardry implied in the preceding description and Amy Diabang's problems 'at the grassroots' can successfully be bridged. In short, is all this talk about integrating databases and policy models or simulations of any practical use. A similar argument, we might recall, was advanced when personal computers appeared on the scene. Then it was suggested that researchers and others in developing countries should not be given such technology, because it would be 'unsustainable'.

Perhaps we should be wary of becoming too dependent on electronic gadgetry. But at the same time, we must recognise that proper analysis of information that is currently highly dispersed, and suitable access to the research results, are among the keys to the future sustainability of the fisheries sector. And returning to Amy and her colleagues in the artisanal fish processing business, we should acknowledge that they recognise the importance of market and other information for their businesses. That is why they already participate in the Regional Programme to Improve Postharvest Utilisation of Artisanal Fish Catches (featured in issue 147 of The Courier, September-October 1994).

Information is obviously important, but so too are the mechanisms to make good use of it. We live in a complex and fast changing world and the need for investment in human and institutional resources is greater than ever. The ACP-EU Fisheries Research Initiative has an important role to play here. C.N.