Ocean grabs: fighting the 'rights-based' corporate take-over of fisheries governance

A fisherman walks among the boats in the harbor in the fishing village of Essaouira on Morocco's Atlantic Ocean coast. Photo: Mark Fischer via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
A fisherman walks among the boats in the harbor in the fishing village of Essaouira on Morocco's Atlantic Ocean coast. Photo: Mark Fischer via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
This World Fisheries Day, a new report shows how the 'rights-based approach' to fisheries governance is in fact a mechanism for depriving indigenous and subsistence fisherfolk of their traditional waters, write Astrid Alexandersen, Sif Juhl & Jonathan Munk Nielsen, and transferring them to corporations and economic elites. It must be replaced with a 'human rights approach'.
Fisher movements use the term ocean grabbing to highlight how fishing rights are being concentrated in the hands of a small economic elite at the expense of the millions of small-scale fishers who depend on oceans for their livelihood.

The world's shores and marine resources are at the centre of an important struggle.

Today and every day, fishers' movements from Sri Lanka to Honduras are confronting the destructive political agenda posed by a toxic marriage of governments, multinational corporations and environmental NGOs.

These actors have cleverly disguised their policies, which effectively rob fisherfolks of their human rights, by calling the new legislation 'a Rights-Based approach'.

But this protection of private property comes at a high cost for those who make their livelihoods from fishing, as it neglects their human rights.

As Sherry Pictou stresses on behalf of the fisher movement World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), there is a "fundamental difference between Property Rights-Based and Indigenous Rights-Based Fisheries ... the International Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small Scale Fisheries and the International Tenure Guidelines are premised on the human rights approach, including indigenous rights, not property rights." [1]

The fisher peoples' struggle is fundamental, taking place over core questions of our world's aquatic resources: Who should have access and control over these resources? On what terms and to what ends? And who gets to decide? This struggle is currently playing out in relation to the Voluntary Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries (SSF guidelines).

Small-scale fisheries employ more than 90% of the world's capture fishers and play a crucial role in food security, poverty eradication, and sustainable use of resources. However, many of the world's small-scale fishing communities face severe threats from powerful forces that are dramatically reshaping existing access rights regimes.

In 2014, after many years of hard work, the world's small-scale fishers finally saw their human rights acknowledged at the UN in the form of the Voluntary Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries (SSF guidelines), which marked a historic victory for fishing communities.

Throughout the negotiations, fisher movements articulated the need to respect the human rights of the poor, vulnerable and most marginalised communities of fisher folk around the world. But challenges remain. The SSF guidelines contain ambitious and potentially transformative ideas, but how should they be put into practice to ensure the protection of small-scale fishers' rights?

Especially when different stakeholders have different interpretations and there is no universal agreement about what form of governance is best suited to accommodate a sustainable fishery.

'Privatize or perish': The rights-based approach to fisheries

Global governance processes have shifted in the past 20 years. Private companies, environmental NGOs and financial actors have gone from being governed by states to being consulted and treated as partners of states in solving pressing global issues. [2]

This 'multi-stakeholderism' means that actors as diverse as Goldman Sachs and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) are now heavily involved and consulted on the design of international policy.

Indeed both Goldman Sachs and WWF have been discussing how the pursuit of what they call 'blue-growth' will supposedly lead to win-win situations in which the environment, the communities and the global economy will all prosper. As a means to attaining blue growth, these actors are increasingly advocating for a rights-based approach to fisheries, claiming this is the only means to a sustainable future for the oceans.

This rights-based movement is ideologically based on the most fundamental assumptions in neoclassical economics: the establishment of clear property rights and the unleashing of 'free' market forces.

Drawing on 'tragedy of the commons' reasoning, a key aim is to limit the number of fishers under the assumption that 'too many boats are chasing too few fish', leading to what the noted scholar, Seth Macinko, has called a 'privatize-or-perish' dogma. Missing in these accounts is a crucial question - whose fishing will be limited?

Contrary to the promises of proponents, experience with rights-based fisheries shows that fishers who are practicing small-scale sustainable forms of fishing actually lose out. For small-scale fishers, rights-based fisheries have often led to exclusion from fishing grounds and social disruption in their communities, when large tracts of ocean resources have been handed over to industrial fishing companies.

When the government of South Africa adopted its long-term fisheries policy in 2005, designed on the principle of individual quotas at locations, 90% of the 30,000 South African small-scale fishers were left without any access or fishing rights. Deprived of their fishing rights, these fishers were forced to look for other 'alternative' livelihoods or continue with the now criminal practice of feeding their families.

Fisher movements have called these experiences ocean grabbing [3] - a term that highlights how corporations are favoured and how fishing rights are being concentrated in the hands of a small economic elite at the expense of the millions of small-scale fishers who depend on oceans for their livelihood.

Amplifying the voices of small-scale fishers

Fisher movements have not only denounced rights-based fishing, they have actively pushed for an opposing agenda and promoted the human rights based approach that is the backbone of the SSF guidelines.

This approach is grounded in principles of social justice and the universality of human rights. But to ensure that everyone's basic rights are respected universally, special attention must be paid to the most marginalized communities. A human rights based approach must therefore prioritise the rights and participation of vulnerable and marginalised communities above other groups.

For these reasons, international NGOs or large corporations cannot - and can never be - considered equal stakeholders with small-scale fishing communities, whose concerns must come first.

Fisher peoples' movements have denounced earlier rights-based initiatives for being top-down and for lack of inclusion of small-scale fisher peoples. The rights based approach claims to represent a win-win solution.

But despite claims that privatization of marine resources brings growth and conservation, there is no denying that this corporate capture of the fisheries is a top down approach - a process in which the small scale fishers themselves are not included.

Fishers refuse to become mere 'stakeholders'

Calling on governments to stop the ocean grabbing, movements of small-scale fishers stated: "This exclusion of the vast majority of the world's fisher people from decision making in reform processes is a fundamental denial of their rights". [4]

The increasing corporate capture of global governance processes related to fisheries runs counter to the human rights based approach and raises important questions on what should be the way forward for the fisher movements in the process of implementation of the SSF guidelines.

In the report on the SSF guidelines published today, the small-scale fisher movements themselves propose concrete ways to continue the struggle to resist rights based approaches. Their strategy has two related dimensions.

  • One is to reframe the debate. Only by exposing the real-life consequences and power dynamics that lie behind the property rights agenda is it possible to raise awareness and strengthen alliances between the small-scale fishers and the general public and policy-makers.
  • Another is to actually engage with decision-makers. By means of advocacy and ongoing discussions at local and international levels it is possible to ensure the implementation of the SSF guidelines in line with the human rights based approach.

Privatisation of ocean resources clearly has large and severe consequences for the fishers living on the shores who rely on the fisheries resource for their lives and livelihoods. This is exactly why fisher movements call for action on World Fisheries Day and refuse to be reduced to mere stakeholders with equal status with private corporations, NGOs and academics.

Using the SSF guidelines, which are built in pursuit of a human rights-based approach to fisheries, is their answer to this.



The report: 'Human Rights vs. Property Rights: Implementation and Interpretation of the SFF Guidelines' is published today by the Trans National Institute, World Forum of Fisher People and Afrika Kontakt.

Astrid Rinder Alexandersen is a sociologist and has been working with development politics and and jounalism in the NGO sector as well as in the public sector the past years.

Jonathan Munk Nielsen is an activist at Afrika Kontakt and holds a BSc in International Studies and Sustainable Environmental Planning from Roskilde University.

Sif Juhl Jacobsen is a Human Geography master student at Lund
University and an activist in Afrika Contact.

Afrika Kontakt is a solidarity organisation supporting social movements in their struggle for social, economic and political rights. It is based in Denmark


1 FAO, 2015. Tenure & Fishing Rights 2015: A global forum on rights-based approaches for fisheries, 23-27 March 2015, Siem Reap, Cambodia fao.org/3/a-i5812e.pdf p. iii.

2 Quip taken from Seth Macinko - see his presentation at WFFP's 2014 general assembly for more information on rights-based fisheries

3 theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2598963/ocean_grabbing_a_new_wave_of_21st_century_enclosures.html

4 WFFP worldfishers.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/WFFP-WFF-Call-on-Governments_GPO_200313.pdf.

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