Sustainable small fisheries can help the planet – UP expert

More than three billion people, most of whom are in developing countries, rely on the ocean to make a living. Fisheries and aquaculture provide the main source of animal protein for some 17% of the world’s population. In the least-developed countries, fish contributes about 29% of animal protein intake.

The demand for seafood is predicted to rise by around 15% by 2030. Fish production has already doubled in Africa and Asia over the past few decades. 

This is according to a commentary article published in Nature by Professor Sheryl Hendriks, Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development at the University of Pretoria (UP).  

Despite the challenges of climate change and overfishing, studies suggest that seafood production can be sustainably expanded to meet future food demands. Last year, international efforts promoting this approach included the Blue Food Assessment (a joint initiative of 25 research institutions) and the United Nations Food Systems Summit.

Prof Hendriks explains the invited commentary was published ahead of the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon Portugal.  “The conference comes at a critical time where climate change and the neglect of our ocean’s resources threaten the future of oceans resources, food supply, food security and the potential for oceans to act as a buffer for climate change,” she says. The Conference will discuss much-needed science-based innovative solutions to turn the tide of decline and destruction.”

Fish form an essential part of solving world hunger and malnutrition. As one of the most efficient converters of feed to food, fish offer a good source of easily digestible, nutrient-dense food. Fisheries play a significant role among populations in the developing world, contributing directly to livelihoods and employment. 

Preserving and protecting environments and stocks is not enough to ensure sustainable fisheries and livelihoods for the future when the total global loss and waste from fisheries is estimated at between 30% and 35% annually.

Losses (before landing) and waste (post-landing of a catch) from the fisheries sector threaten the sector's sustainability and affect environmental and human health. This waste could be generated from a number of factors related to fisheries practices, storage of the catch, market constraints and policy gaps and loopholes, Prof Hendriks explains.

“Fisheries can create environmental hazards due to direct land and water contamination from waste disposal and water runoff from cleaning facilities. Waste in abandoned fishing gear and nets at sea presents ecological challenges,” said Prof Hendriks, adding that in production, processing and preserving can, themselves, pollute the air, land, and water, affecting the ocean if not managed. 

 “The inefficient management of waste from human settlements pollutes rivers that feed into the ocean, carrying litter (including plastics), sewerage and contaminants from landfill sites and waste disposal dumps. Agricultural and industrial runoff and waste also contaminate the ocean via rivers. Carbon emissions are causing ocean warming, acidification, and oxygen loss, affecting fish availability and the spatial distribution of fish. These pollutants threaten the sustainability of fisheries at all scales and the livelihoods and jobs of millions of people, she said.

Moreover, due to the sectorial organisation of most governments, very few take an integrated approach to policy development, implementation and enforcement. The inter-connectedness of agricultural and industrial pollution on fresh and marine systems may well not be deliberated in sectoral development policies. Urban sprawl, especially in fast-growing coastal cities, may not consider the implications of human settlements on the coast and marine systems. 

“Due to the significance of the global commons nature of the ocean and the inter-connectedness of marine systems with a wide range of environmental factors, the governance of marine systems is complex,” says Prof Hendriks.

She noted, however, that any change in consumption drives changes across the food system, not only for fisheries. “Change affects multiple other food system components such as the demand for more and distributed storage and processing capacity. This is especially true for highly perishable commodities such as fish, which have a very short shelf life unless processed or preserved. Extending the shelf life of foods requires greater energy for storage (refrigeration), rapid transportation, or processing plants.” 

What can consumers do to support small fisheries?

Consumers could support small fisheries by supporting local enterprises, increasing income for small fisheries. By supporting artisanal fishing (traditional or subsistence fishing) they can also contribute to improving livelihoods, boosting nutrition, and strengthening food systems, but fishers’ input is needed locally, nationally, and globally. 

Click on the gallery in the sidebar to see examples of small-scale, sustainable fisheries from across the world. 


Prof Sheryl Hendriks. Photography courtesy of FAO with individual credits

July 7, 2022

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  • Professor Sheryl Hendriks

    Professor Sheryl Hendriks completed her undergraduate studies, honours, master’s and PhD at the former University of Natal, where she also taught until joining the University of Pretoria (UP) in 2010.

    Moving to UP expanded and enhanced her research, not only because of the geographic proximity to government but because it allowed her to network with colleagues at UP, in Africa and internationally. Prof Hendriks says that the University’s reputation as well as UP management’s support of transdisciplinary research have been invaluable in advancing her research profile, impact and reach.

    Research in food security policymaking is essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and advance development. Understanding the causes, outcomes and impact of policy decisions related to a range of sectors (agriculture, health, trade, welfare etc.) helps to identify potential policy choices, combinations and directions. Ultimately, these decisions determine the levels of poverty, inequality and food insecurity experienced by households.

    Prof Hendriks leads a large research group that explores the emerging field of improving food systems to ensure fairer, healthier diets and sustainability. The group includes postgraduates and colleagues from UP’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS), and connects with colleagues in networks across Africa and beyond. Under the RETHINK@NAS initiative ¬– which allows for University-driven community projects that support transformation in all its forms – this group will expand across faculties.

    This work was carried out in Prof Hendriks’s role as a member of the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) Scientific Group and contributed a significant analysis to guide the group’s 2021 deliberations and plan of work. It will also expand to supporting the country implementation of actions to support the true value of food. The work was inspired by Prof Lawrence Haddad (leader of the UNFSS Action Track on ending hunger) and Prof Joachim von Braun (chair of the UNFSS Scientific Group).

    Prof Hendriks says that since 2006, her academic mentor has been Dr Ousmane Badiane, who introduced her to the dynamics of African development and has provided her with countless opportunities to work directly in applying research in practical support to African governments as they seek to achieve food security. “Through my engagement in various think-tanks and policy engagements, I find meaning in life – contributing to decisions that can improve the lives of ordinary people,” she says. “This is a dream come true for me.”

    Young people interested in following her field of research need to be passionate about helping others and acutely aware of the bigger picture in development, Prof Hendriks advises. Food security analysis can be attempted only at postgraduate level, she adds, when students have a solid grounding in a relevant field and have developed skills to cope with complex thinking.

    When not pursuing research endeavours, Prof Hendriks maintains a rose and herb garden, sews, scrapbooks and walks her dogs.

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