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Why Fisheries Aid to Developing Nations Has Plummeted

Official development assistance for fisheries in developing nations dropped by about one-third between 2010 and 2015. University of British Columbia researcher Colette Wabnitz says the trend is surprising, but the story is complicated.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Fisheries are vital source of income and nutrition, but investing in them is expensive.Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

For many developing nations, fisheries are a vital source of income and nutrition, but investing in them is expensive. That’s where official development assistance (ODA) can come in. This global aid is distributed by donor nations to developing countries to bolster their economy, society or government.

ODA money set aside for fisheries allows developing nations to improve fishing methods, better manage their fish stocks, increase scientific research and invest in a myriad other areas that make fisheries more efficient and sustainable. Yet according to a recent study published in the journal Marine Policy, this kind of funding has been shrinking.

While the study found that, overall, total development aid funding increased by 13 percent between 2010 and 2015, fisheries aid plummeted by 30.6 percent in the same period. By 2015, only $166 million in ODA funding was spent on fisheries worldwide (out of a $134 billion total), even though fishing and aquaculture support the livelihoods of an estimated 10-12 percent of the world’s population. Even in similar areas, such as forestry and agriculture, aid increased, while for fisheries it dropped.

Colette Wabnitz, a research associate at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the study, said that this change could be explained in several ways. Often, aid money is directed toward problems such as political instability, poor infrastructure or other more urgent threats. Another reason may be that donors are scared off by the difficulty of getting accurate fisheries data. A third possibility is that ODA money which does help solve fisheries issues – such as better fish monitoring equipment – gets labeled in other categories, such as “technology.” Oceans Deeply spoke with Wabnitz about her research.

Oceans Deeply: In the paper you present three hypotheses for why there might have been a drop in fisheries aid money since 2010. Do any of them seem most likely to you?

Colette Wabnitz: That’s a very good question, and it’s a tricky one for me to answer. I would feel uncomfortable saying that one is more important than another because I think it’s context-dependent.

Fisheries are at the nexus of so many different things. In talking to [ODA] donors, when we asked, “Why do you think we’re having these results?” they were very keen to highlight this exact case; to say that, “Well, fisheries are quite complex. We can get at fisheries in various ways.”

I think that there has also been an underlying notion that what has been going on so far [in fisheries funding] has not registered as many successes perhaps as expected or as desired, and so that there is a need to change things up a little bit.

Oceans Deeply: Fisheries funding is broken down by category, and from 2010 to 2015, you found that money for fisheries management became a significantly larger piece of the funding pie. Why?

Between 2010 and 2015, the total funding pie has not only decreased – it has also been redistributed. (Robert Blasiak)

Wabnitz: There is the realization that having strong institutions is really critical to having sustainable fisheries. It’s all very well to do fisheries research and to try to understand the various components of a fishery from a scientific perspective, but ultimately if you really want to have sustainable practices, that only happens through working with the communities and developing management institutions that actually work with the communities that depend on these fisheries.

Also, the thing that is important to remember is that although the size of the different pie pieces has changed, the thing that’s worrisome is that the overall size of the pie has declined.

Oceans Deeply: You found that some areas of the world lost more fisheries funding than others, particularly the Americas. Do you know why this is?

Wabnitz: I’m postulating here, but I would say that there’s been an increase in philanthropic funding to issues concerning the ocean over the last few years. That funding has been allocated mostly to the Americas. It could be that, because of this trend, ODA grants declined. I’m not suggesting that they talk to each other and that they go hand-in-hand, but some initiatives may have registered successes and consequently donors feel like, “OK, there’s been a success here so let’s allocate the funding to somewhere else where there’s a greater need for it.”

Oceans Deeply: Do you think that there will be any improvements in ODA funding for fisheries in the near future?

Wabnitz: As a consequence of this paper, [my co-author] Robert [Blasiak] and I became really interested in expanding the research even further. We’re putting together a special issue for Marine Policy. In doing so, we’ve also continued to look into the question of marine issues, fisheries in particular, and funding. Whatever we’ve come across so far seems to indicate that there’s definitely a change. The funding seems to be increasingly allocated to support initiatives for sustainable management of the oceans.

Correction: This Q&A was updated to correct a transcription error. Wabnitz said in the interview, “We can get at fisheries in various ways,” rather than “we can’t.” 

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