Inland fisheries – the network of lakes, rivers and streams that provide fish and freshwater to millions across the world – need to be better managed in order to safeguard their contribution to healthy diets and economies, particularly in developing countries.
These are among the key recommendations of international experts at the Global Conference on Inland Fisheries that concluded in Rome this week. During the event leading researchers in the field of fisheries and water management, along with indigenous peoples groups, warned that a dearth of data and sound policies means development decisions fail to take into account adverse impacts on inland fisheries.
Lakes and rivers are an essential source of protein, micronutrients, vitamins and fats for diets, particularly in developing countries, where more than 60 million people rely on them for their livelihood. Some 71 low-income countries currently produce nearly 7 million tonnes a year, or 80 percent of global inland captures.
But these waters are often impacted by other human needs, including energy creation, tourism and competition for freshwater.
“Inland fisheries provide a valuable but often overlooked source of nutrition and employment around the world,” said Árni M. Mathiesen, FAO Assistant Director-general in the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. “But to date, the international effort to effectively integrate inland fisheries into the broader development agenda has fallen short of what is needed.”
Globally, some 70 percent of available freshwater supplies are currently used for agriculture. Pollution and the building of hydro-electric dams and channels further impacts the availability and quality of inland waters that are home to diverse types of fish.
International cooperation key
“We hear a lot about the threats to coral reefs, but freshwater fish are the most threatened group of vertebrates used by humans,” said Mathiesen.
This is why water management and fisheries management ought to go hand in hand. It also means international cooperation is essential.
“If a country upstream dams a river or drains a wetland, fisheries management downstream is fairly useless,” said FAO’s Devin Bartley, Senior Fishery Resource Officer at FAO.
Currently less than half of international or shared inland water bodies have international agreements on their management and only 11 percent have a mandate covering fish. Experts who attended the meeting encourage increasing the number of international accords to ensure freshwater resources are used sustainably and smartly– especially in light of the growing demands for food associate with feeding a world of nine billion by 2050.
They also called for stronger national and international institutions that can address inland fishery issues and help to better integrate the sector in global development agendas.
Recognizing the value of local and traditional knowledge and respecting indigenous cultures is key to doing this sustainably.
Better data for better policy
Because most inland fishing activity is small scale, much of it goes unreported and data on the sector is incomplete, meaning its contributions are undervalued in decisions on water management and development.
Research suggests that the harvests from river fisheries that are reported only account for 30 to 50 percent of the actual bounty that fisherfolk bring home.
Having more and better data –on inland fisheries’ contribution to local nutrition and economies, as well as for the environmental impacts they suffer from other industries— will allow decision makers to make more strategic choices.
A new partnership
The conference was co-organized by FAO and Michigan State University in the United States. Both institutions signed a memorandum of understanding that outlines a new partnership to raise the international profile of inland fisheries.
“Human nutrition, environmental sustainability, and community prosperity are closely linked to the health of freshwater fisheries around the world,” said Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon.