Narrowing the Access to Justice Gap in Small-scale Fisheries: How the Legal Community Can Help

Posted By on Jan 14, 2014 | 5 comments

By Adam Soliman

Plentiful in numbers but with a muted collective voice, the majority of fisheries around the world are small in scale.

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Comprising roughly 90 per cent of all fishers around the world, small-scale fisheries (SSF’s), make up the bulk of the estimated 34 million individuals who eke out a living in the low skill trade of fishing. Roughly 8 per cent of the world’s population finds itself depending on these fisheries for support.

Although significant in numbers, this type of fishing correlates with extreme poverty in much of the world. It is pursued as a source of food and employment by many, requiring relatively insignificant amount of startup capital, yet many of these fishers find themselves out of work often due to the seasonal nature of fishing.

In addition to the challenges posed by nature, fishers also have to deal with lob-sided supply chains that fail to adequately reward those who find and catch the fish.

Fish, and seafood in general, are considered high-margin, highly profitable commodities, yet many SSF’s fail to see the money trickle down into their communities. The bulk of the profits in the seafood business are typically earned by post-catch processors – generally large multi-national entities with sufficient resources to jump ship once a marine resource has become exhausted or worse, collapses – long before indigenous fishers have tied up their boats and put away their lines and nets.

Successful SSF’s have contributed to the resilience, revival, and rejuvenation of the many small communities they represent, and have helped maintain vibrant and cohesive societies. Research suggests that those able to enforce their fishing rights can ensure their well-being, as well as contribute to the sustainability of the natural environment in which they live and work.

With so much to offer, why then do many SSF’s find themselves at the fringes when it comes to policy decision-making? Why do ‘fisherfolk’ find themselves watching their livelihoods being negotiated and discussed by policymakers without actively participating themselves?

These fishers, undereducated in many parts of the world, often find themselves with a lack of understanding of their own situations and far away from the necessary resources to help them affirm their rights at the bargaining table. However, an initiative currently being undertaken by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), aims to address this issue through the drafting of Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication.

Human dignity, respect of cultures, non-discrimination, equality, meaningful consultation, enforcing the rule of law, transparency, and accountability are among the rights recognized by the guidelines.

Additional guiding principles include economic, social, and environmental sustainability, recognition of a holistic approach toward SSF’s, acknowledgment and protection of tenure rights to marine resources, social responsibility, and ensuring the social and economic viability of policy.

Acknowledging these rights and implementing the FAO guidelines will require the buildup of legal capacity to ensure SSF’s can obtain sufficient access to justice.

The Fisheries Law Centre (FLC) aims to play a role in the implementation of the guidelines and securing access to justice for SSF’s by providing legal analysis and research to NGO’s, governments, and other interested parties.

For SSF’s, the concept of access to justice has evolved to include, at a minimum, the enforcement of the rule of law and access to courts for resolving legal disputes. While this remains the minimum required, the concept is often beyond what is accessible or even insufficient in what is desired by these communities.

Many SSF communities crave broader involvement and more thorough consultation when policy is devised that affects their way of life and their natural environments. The ability to move beyond this basic concept of access to justice and to allow them to assert their human and democratic rights requires social and political involvement and a reworking of how they interact with power centres.

Deploying legal professionals to these communities through the support of pro bono work, simplifying legal systems through the removal of jargon, promotion of community-based justice, and the provision of resources for self-representing individuals have all been proven to be successful initiatives at improving access to justice.

Yet, a threefold gap in providing access to justice remains: a gap in education on fisheries law, a gap in legal research in this area, and a gap in advocacy due to insufficient numbers of law students engaged in fisheries law research.

Through two new projects – the Global Summer Internship Program in Fisheries Law (GSIP) and the Global Fisheries Legal Education Program (GFLEP) – the FLC is helping to resolve this gap in access to justice and contribute to implementation of the FAO guidelines.

The Global Summer Internship Program in Fisheries Law (GSIP) aims to help by training and raising awareness among law students about the complex problems facing SSF’s and the livelihoods of those involved. As a highly specialized area, fisheries law is not taught at the majority of law schools and as a result, there is a visible gap in education. With this internship program, the FLC has its sights on developing a group of specialized individuals who are familiar with the law and understand the challenges of SSF communities around the world.

The Global Fisheries Legal Education Program (GFLEP) has been designed to provide continuing legal education on fisheries through courses, workshops, and lectures to law-industry professionals. By bringing in non-legal experts such as fishery managers, government employees, and fisheries science academics, the Fisheries Law Centre strives to provide meaningful, insightful, and relevant program content.

Small-scale fisheries, indigenous peoples, and small coastal communities are often at the periphery of decision making processes, and marginalized by existing legal and regulatory structures.

By enabling them to access the legal system and engage with stakeholders and lawmakers, it will help them to respond to policies that affect their lives, their environment, and assert their human and democratic rights.


  1. I agree, there is much to be done in coastal communities and small-scale fisheries and I am really impressed with the work you guys are doing. The question that I have is: are law students interested in studying fisheries law? I don’t see many schools offering this kind of course.

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Jessica,

      Thank you very much for your comment and encouragement. Your question is really interesting. There are courses that slightly touch on fisheries but not dedicated to fisheries and therefore unable to offer students a complete & meaningful experience. What I am advocating for is a remake of courses that is dedicated to fisheries and that put social issues at the centre of the curriculum design. That can be done by focusing on independent and small-scale fishers. Old courses focused on prosecution and criminal law defences for licence violations! So no wonder students were not interested and attendance dropped. I am seeing students and the legal community now more interested. I am also seeing scholars from other fields wanting to attend these courses.


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    • It’s a pleusare to find someone who can identify the issues so clearly

      Post a Reply
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