September 28, 2023

Five Key Takeaways: Fishing For Subsistence as a Livelihood Safety Net

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

People in coastal and inland communities around the world turn to fishing as a source of both food and income. These informal workers tend to use simpler technology than industrial fisheries in what are known as “small-scale fisheries.” While vital to their communities, they often go uncounted in economic statistics—and overlooked by policymakers when deciding how to govern access to and use of the resources that they rely on.

Building on a global study released earlier this year, a new paper led by Duke University researchers provides global estimates of the number of livelihoods supported by small-scale fisheries, distinguishing between subsistence and commercial fishing. The paper, published Monday in the journal Nature Food, uses measures of subsistence fishing to highlight the importance of small-scale fisheries as a safety net for local communities.

Here are five key takeaways from the paper:

  • Subsistence fishing is much more important than previously acknowledged. The study documents for the first time that almost the same amount of fishers engage in subsistence fishing (52.8 million) as in commercial employment (60.2 million) around the world. However, commercially employed fishers spend much more time engaged in the activity.
  • In Asia and Oceania, the majority of people fish for subsistence. Slightly more than half of people estimated to work in small-scale fisheries in Asia do so for subsistence only. The percentage is even higher in Oceania, covering two-thirds of people who work in these fisheries.
  • Subsistence fishing is more important for poor countries than for wealthier ones. Approximately 60 percent of people estimated to engage in subsistence fishing activity are found in low- or lower-middle-income countries.
  • Subsistence fishing has great importance for food-insecure countries like Bangladesh. Within low-income, food-insecure countries, 62 percent of the people estimated to work in small-scale fisheries do so for subsistence only, although the ratio drops to 48 percent if Bangladesh is excluded.
  • Most small-scale fishers are located in countries especially vulnerable to climate change. Based on the World Risk Index, 54 percent of employment is located in countries ranked as having “high” or “very high” vulnerability. That figure rises to 79 percent if China is excluded.

The two Duke scholars who served as lead authors on the paper were John Virdin, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability, and Xavier Basurto, associate professor of sustainability science at the Nicholas School of the Environment. Additional authors are affiliated with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), WorldFish, World Bank, University of Victoria, Scripps Institute of Oceanography and University of Washington. 

“The paper estimates how many livelihoods worldwide depend upon small-scale fisheries, and in particular how many people do so for subsistence—often uncounted by governments and hence marginalized in policy choices,” said Virdin, who is also an assistant professor of the practice at the Nicholas School of the Environment. “The estimates provide a crude global measure of the importance of these fisheries as safety nets for vulnerable coastal and riparian populations worldwide.”

About Illuminating Hidden Harvests

Published in March, the Illuminating Hidden Harvests report sheds light on the outsized role of small-scale fisheries in global food security and sustainable development. The report culminates a years-long, collaborative research effort—led by FAO, Duke University and WorldFish—to better inform governance of these critical resources.

The report drew on contributions from more than 800 experts around the world, including dozens of Duke scholars and students. The Illuminating Hidden Harvests initiative is part of a broader partnership between FAO and Duke to build a scientific evidence base for policymakers to develop strategies and solutions to support small-scale fisheries.


CITATION: Virdin, J., X. Basurto, G. Nico, S. Harper, M. del Mar Mancha-Cisneros, S. Vannuccini, M. Ahern, et al. 2023. "Fishing for Subsistence Constitutes a Livelihood Safety Net for Populations Dependent on Aquatic Foods Around the World." Nature Food.

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