Inland fisheries: Better management can’t wait

© Polsin Junpangpen

A classic aphorism in the business world holds that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Versions of the quote are attributed to various management gurus, including Peter Drucker and W. Edwards Deming.

Regardless of who said it first, the quote’s wisdom also applies outside of corporate conference rooms, including on the banks of rivers and lakes around the world. That’s because poor measurement of freshwater fish catches can lead, both directly and indirectly, to poor management of both fisheries and of the freshwater ecosystems that support them. Many of these fisheries are seriously threatened, sometimes without us even realizing it!

Why is measurement so poor? Generally, inland fisheries comprise many fish species, many fishing gears and involve millions of part-time and occasional fisherfolk, and take place in often remote bodies of water, the access to which is often poorly monitored. This means that it’s challenging to regulate who can fish or keep track of what is being caught. And, declines in fish catch may be tied to stresses unrelated to fishing pressure, like dam development. As a result, conventional fisheries assessment is expensive, time consuming, and complicated. Typically, it’s done poorly, if it’s even done at all — leaving much uncertainty about the findings. And that uncertainty, combined with under-measurement, means that inland fisheries are often discounted when critical water resource, land, and energy development decisions are made.

A new Inland Fisheries Alliance

There is ample evidence that freshwater fish make significant contributions to people’s diets and livelihoods around the world, yet the often-incomplete numbers have failed to attract the attention of national or international decision makers. The value of inland fisheries are little known to the Western media and general public, and we often use terms like “hidden harvests” and “forgotten fish” when we talk about them. With their value unrecognized, they are inadequately included in plans to use inland waters for other purposes, such as domestic, industrial and recreational water use, irrigation, energy, or waste-disposal. Similarly, they are often overlooked in global sustainability policy, such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

A group of organizations is coming together under a new Inland Fisheries Alliance to tackle this challenge — to catalyze efforts to improve the health and management of inland fisheries and the ecosystems upon which they depend, improve measurement of those fisheries and, crucially, shine a spotlight on the importance of these fisheries for both people and nature.

Millions of people depend on inland fish

We are not starting from a blank slate. For one, a conservative estimate is that inland capture fisheries exceeded 12 million tons in 2018, or approximately 13% of the global total harvest from capture fisheries, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). This level of harvest could meet all requirements for animal protein for approximately 160 million people. Further, the UN estimates that inland fisheries provide livelihoods for 60 million people, and we know that the people who rely on inland fisheries are disproportionately poor and tend to live in marginalized communities where access to wild fish and other aquatic animals can make the difference between adequate and inadequate nutrition, and between sustainable livelihoods and deepening poverty.

These numbers are substantial on their own, yet several scientific estimates indicate that inland fisheries may make an even greater contribution to global diets. Based on improved quantification of the surface area of inland waters and yield data from various types of aquatic habitats, it has been estimated the potential harvest could be nearly 7 times greater than official statistics report.

That staggering number is considered a theoretical maximum. To ground that estimate in data from the field, Etienne Fluet-Chouinard and co-authors synthesized household surveys of food consumption — “counting the fish eaten rather than the fish caught” — and estimated that actual global harvests of freshwater fish are 65% larger than previously reported.

Inland fisheries — and freshwater ecosystems — are under stress

Despite these impressive numbers, development decisions that affect the health of watersheds and their freshwater ecosystems are routinely made without adequate consideration of their impacts on inland fisheries. In fact, 90% of global freshwater fish catch comes from river basins with above-average stress levels.

We are already seeing what those impacts can look like in some of the world’s critical fisheries. A recent Wildlife Conservation Society-led study of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake finds that intensification and expansion of rice cultivation, likely combined with other threats, has caused reduction of essential floodplain habitat for fish and other species. There are few viable protein substitutes for the Cambodians who rely on the Tonle Sap’s fish — a group that includes the small-scale rice farmers who make up the majority of Cambodia’s rural population.

In Tonle Sap and elsewhere, a better quantification of fish harvest and the range of benefits fish provide may help raise the visibility of inland fisheries and lead to more effective ecosystem-based management. But, can we afford to wait for better measurement to ensure better management?

Supporting management decisions now

Let’s revisit that famous management quote. It turns out that the full statement from W. Edward Deming says something quite different than the excerpt that is commonly attributed to him: “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it — a costly myth.” (Emphasis added to highlight the additional words). According to an essay from the Deming Institute, Deming was in fact a strong supporter of using data to make better decisions, but he also felt that management decisions must often be made with incomplete information.

And that’s true for inland fisheries, too. While there is a clear case for much better measurement, and many decisions could improve accordingly, we cannot afford to wait for more complete information before we seek to advance better management of fisheries — and of the rivers, floodplains, lakes, and wetlands that they depend on. In the absence of data generated by science — but with an abundance of local and traditional ecological knowledge — we can apply the precautionary principle in the course of making essential management decisions, provided management structures are in place that allow us to do that.

Thus, a primary focus of the Alliance will be to ensure that decision makers and funders are fully aware of the fundamental insights we already have: inland fisheries are critically important to food security and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of vulnerable people, and the sustainability of this resource depends on healthy freshwater ecosystems.

To advance both sustainable management and awareness, the Alliance will promote the use of the best available knowledge (including local ecological knowledge), practices, tools, and approaches in partnership with resource users and other key stakeholders, and we’ll build a dialogue with decision makers in food, water, environment, and energy sectors to incorporate those resources into plans, policies, and practices.

Even as the Alliance works to expand what we know about inland fisheries, we’ll push hard to halt destructive practices, to amplify the voices of inland fishery-associated communities proposing their own management solutions, and to promote those measures that we already know can make a positive difference. For the many millions of people whose lives and livelihoods are interwoven with inland fisheries and the freshwater ecosystems that underpin them, there is no time to waste.

Founded by conservation, research, and development organizations, the Alliance is guided by a vision shared among its diverse members.