Understanding Our Oceans

Seven key reads to understand the rising pressure on ocean space.


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Fishermen Sri Lanka, Indian Ocean.


Oceans cover two thirds of the planet, and the struggle for control of these spaces, and their associated resources, is growing increasingly intense. In the years after 2007, global attention turned to “land grabbing” - a series of connected processes by which local communities and traditional users of land are being dispossessed to make way for large-scale projects ranging from tourism and infrastructure development, to industrial agriculture and mineral extraction. A similar but lesser-known process has been playing out in the world’s oceans. Small-scale fishers and other traditional users of ocean and coastal spaces are being marginalised and evicted, and losing control of the resources on which their livelihoods depend. As with land and land-based resources, this process is often veiled with language of development, conservation, and sustainable growth.

Small-scale fishers around the world rely on access to rivers, lakes and oceans for their livelihoods. These fishers play a key role in feeding their communities and supporting local food sovereignty. At the same time their traditional fishing methods tend to both rely on and support diverse ecosystems. However, converging trends at the global level are stripping small-scale fishers of access to and control over ocean resources, eroding democratic control of these resources and spaces, threatening their livelihoods, and degrading local ecosystems. In coastal areas around the world, the needs of small-scale fishers are coming into conflict with the drive for profit from industrial fisheries, deep-water mineral, oil, and gas extraction and “for profit conservation” projects that exclude local communities.

For over half a decade the Transnational Institute has been working closely with international movements of small-scale fishers. Together with activists and local communities we have produced a series of articles and research reports to document the changes in the way that oceans and ocean resources are understood and controlled, and the impacts that these changes are having on traditional fishing communities. These documents range from introductory primers to in-depth explorations of the way in which these dynamics are playing out in exemplary country cases. Together they paint a vivid picture of the state of the world’s oceans, and point the way towards genuine alternatives that would protect the rights of small-scale fishers, build community food sovereignty, and offer democratic pathways towards protecting marine ecosystems.

 Situating small-scale fisheries in the global struggle for agroecology and food sovereignty (2020)

This report explores the politics and practices in small- scale fisheries that form part of the global struggle for agroecology and food sovereignty. It first frames the political context and explains the challenges facing small-scale fisher (SSF) initiatives and communities as well as how fishers are organised in order to confront these. It goes on to map the recent articulation of agroecology and food sovereignty with SSF initiatives and shows how alternative food systems that include fisheries are situated in relation to food sovereignty and other allied struggles. It links fishers’ realities and struggles to three key debates within mobilisations in support of food sovereignty by focusing on local-level insights.

Trends in small-scale fishery in Myanmar: Tenure rights and gender in Mon State and Tanintharyi Division (2019)

Myanmar’s fishery sector is increasingly celebrated for its potential, and the country’s role as a major international source of fishery products (through wild-capture as well as aquaculture) is expected to expand further with investment in the years to come. Dramatic changes are reshaping the small scale-fishery sector, driven by new investment and government policies oriented toward “opening up” the country. Amidst all this, the voices and aspirations of those most impacted by these dynamics – including men and women in the small-scale fishery sector – are mostly unheard.

Marine Spatial Planning: resolving or entrenching conflicts over and in ocean space? (2019)

As struggles around ocean spaces intensify, governments are looking for ways to manage these conflicts. One key proposal is “marine spatial planning,” a multi-stakeholder process that brings together different users of ocean space to make decisions about resource use. Indonesia has been presented as a poster-child of MSP, showing the possibilities of this new way of planning. This report, based on on-the-ground research carried out by a local small-scale fishers’ organisation, reveals important weaknesses in this method. The research calls into question the ability of a neutral multi-stakeholder process to address imbalances in power, and identifies cases where already-marginalised people have been more deeply disadvantaged through the process. As more countries consider implementing MSP, this nuanced exploration of the ways that economic and political power impact the planning process offers an important caution.

The Blue Fix: Unmasking the politics behind the promise of blue growth (2018)

As the focus on ocean resources has intensified, international actors are increasingly using the language of “the blue economy”. Ocean space is seen as a new frontier for development, and blue economy advocates promise a “triple win” from pushing simultaneously for ocean conservation, large-scale industrial aquaculture, and increased offshore mining and energy generation. This research report explores the narratives and practices around blue growth. It reveals how key strategies are pushing for the continuation of business as usual at the global level and the further extension of resource extraction all while undermining the rights of small-scale fishers.

The Global Ocean Grab: A Primer (2014)

This accessible introduction explores the key concept of “ocean grabbing”: How does ocean grabbing take place?; What are the key drivers?; Who benefits from ocean grabbing, and who pays the price?; What narratives are driving ocean grabbing?; What are the alternatives to it? This short booklet reveals the current struggle over ocean space and resources. It also introduces some key ways that decision-making processes about oceans have been captured by large-scale private actors, to the exclusion of traditional fishing communities, and what we can do about it.

Blue Carbon: Ocean grabbing in disguise? (2016)

As the global climate crisis looms increasingly large, corporate actors around the world have come forward to offer their own “solutions,” often supported by governments and NGOs. Around the world, local small-scale food producers have denounced market-driven “false solutions” and “green growth” for their heavy impacts on local communities and their dubious effectiveness in meeting broader environmental goals. A similar process has been unfolding in ocean spaces, with a growing number of market-based conservation solutions being proposed. International environmental NGOs, governments, and private sector actors are coming together to push for these solutions, including integrating coastal ecosystems into carbon markets to allow the sale of carbon credits associated with coastal conservation. This brief explores the potential impacts of this kind of conservation and “blue growth” on coastal communities.

Human Rights vs Property Rights: Implementation and Interpretation of the SSF Guidelines (2016)

This new report explores two similar-sounding but critically different approaches to managing fisheries: the Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) and the Rights-Based Approach (RBA). So-called Rights-Based Approaches put property rights front and centre, and make so-called, ‘economic efficiency’ one of the central goals of policy. This approach has led to widespread social disruption in fishing communities. The HRBA, on the other hand, foregrounds the human rights of fishers and especially of small-scale fishers whose lives and livelihoods depend on marine resources and ecosystems. This approach can have profoundly positive structural, political, material, and cultural implications if implemented fully, making it a key tool in the struggle for social justice and food sovereignty. In recent years, the RBA to fisheries has undergone a ‘renewal’, being increasingly framed as a “win-win-win” solution that can cater at once to the needs of small-scale fisher communities, the environment, and profits. However, behind this new rhetoric lie the same privatization policies that fisher peoples have long denounced as ‘ocean grabbing’.

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