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Large vs small scale fishing – which is more sustainable?

Two people standing on the deck of a trawler with a boat in the background.
Two people standing on the deck of a trawler with a boat in the background.

Fisheries play a vital role in food security and global economies as well as social structures in coastal communities. With a growing recognition that individual livelihoods are heavily dependent on healthy fishery resources, more and more players in the fishing industry are making stronger commitments to sustainable fisheries management.

Along with the growing need for sustainable fishing, technology has developed significantly in the last 50 years, with large-scale commercial fishing becoming more widespread. Large scale fishing by so-called ‘factory ships’ has attracted criticism.  However, large-scale commercial fishing is not synonymous with ‘unsustainable’. In fact, advances in technology are also leading to more selective and sustainable fishing, with lower impacts on the environment.

Comprehensive assessment of fisheries

Certification to the MSC Fisheries Standard is based on comprehensive assessment of the impacts of a particular fishery and the environment within which it operates. These differ depending on a particular fishery, and different types of fishing practice –small scale and industrial alike- can pose different specific threats to the environment if not properly regulated or monitored. That’s why the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) does not discriminate which size of vessels can enter its certification program.

Industrial, large-scale fishing explained

Large-scale commercial fishing can often involve the use of large high-capacity boats, equipped with on-board facilities for freezing and processing seafood at sea. These boats can reach over 130m long with a hold capacity of more than 2,000 tonnes. They remain at sea for long periods of time and carry large crews for catching and processing fish on board.

Why bigger can be better

There are three key reasons why commercial fishing with larger boats is not necessarily worse for the environment than using multiple small boats to catch your fish.

Large fishing vessels are able to stay out at sea for longer, fishing greater areas of ocean.  A large freezer-trawler vessel could stay out at sea for months at a time, operating in an area thousands of miles wide. This can limit the ability of management authorities to monitor their fishing activities, but it can equally mean that the overall intensity of fishing is reduced and that they can fish far away from continental shelves and sensitive marine habitats. Onboard observers and satellite tracking can help to ensure that these boats operate responsibly, thus making the most of the benefits. By comparison, smaller vessels, which must frequently return to port to refuel and unload their catch, are more easily monitored, but fish a smaller area with greater intensity. In summary, a fleet of small boats, catching the same volume of fish as one large factory boat, will have very different impacts on the environment which need to be managed in different ways.

Large, commercial fishing operations are often more capable of implementing technological advances which support sustainable fishing. Whether this be trialing new fishing gears to reduce bycatch, improving monitoring and data collection, or funding science, responsible commercial fisheries can have a huge positive influence on the fishing industry.

Access to experts in fisheries management and marine science means that large commercial fisheries can respond to the latest science and information to ensure a sustainable level of fishing. Despite their potential to catch more fish over a shorter period of time, careful management of fish stocks and self-imposed restrictions on fishing mean than they can operate responsibly and in an informed manner.

It’s also important to note that the size of the boat does not necessarily determine the amount of fish it can catch. Some boats need to be big in order to carry the processors, crew and storage facilities to remain at sea for extended periods of time.

Small scale fishing within the MSC’s program

Small scale fisheries, operated by numerous individuals, small local fishing cooperatives, and subsistence fishers, usually using smaller boats, provide a vital source of income for over 90% of the world’s fishers.

Small-scale fisheries contribute around half of global fish catches in developing countries and employ about 90% of the world’s wild capture fishers. More importantly, more than 90% of small-scale landings are destined for local human consumption. Small-scale fisheries therefore play a vital role in directly increasing the availability of nutritious food for local, national and international markets as well as providing a valuable source of income to those directly and indirectly employed in the sector. The sustainability of small scale fisheries is therefore critically important to achieving the MSC’s vision of oceans teaming with life and seafood supplies secured for future generations.

These fisheries come with their own set of challenges in order to ensure sustainability. For example, they need to reach agreements and coordinate fishing efforts between multiple fishers.  Small scale fisheries in developing countries may also lack the investment needed to gather data to inform their fishing practices and have less access to marine experts, scientists and technologies. As with commercial fisheries, these challenges can be overcome through collaboration and projects such as those incorporated into the MSC’s accessibility program, which support small-scale fisheries on the journey to sustainability.

The MSC program: a healthy mixture

MSC certified fisheries are a mix of large and small. The size of a fishing vessel does not determine whether it can fish in a sustainable manner or not.  What is important is that effective management is in place and the fishery complies with relevant national and international laws. Only well-managed fisheries which ensure the long-term security of fish stocks, without causing irreversible harm to habitats and ecosystems or hindering the recovery of other species in the ecosystem, achieve MSC certification. The MSC program seeks to inspire the whole fishing industry to find solutions to the challenges of fishing in a sustainable manner.

Both large-scale and the small-scale fisheries can become certified as sustainable if they can demonstrate that they meet the MSC’s strict requirements. After all, safeguarding our oceans is the duty of all.