Key findings

The LabMAF project explored the potential of markets to revive and support a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable small-scale fishing sector. Collectively, the LabMAF project and the ensuing report aim to point out a gap between the large-scale fisheries industry in Mediterranean countries, and the local and small-scale market for more refined, high-value and sustainably sourced seafood.

Mediterranean small-scale fisheries (SSFs) have always been important to supply local markets with selectively harvested, high-quality and fresh seafood. Moreover, SFFs employ people directly or indirectly with estimated 3 to 5 ancillary jobs ashore for every job at sea. Besides, SFFs conserve an economically and culturally significant heritage of the region. Their importance is recognized in a number of recent policy objectives aimed to reverse unfavourable policies towards SSFs and integrate them better as to improve in the status of fisheries.

Commercially, SSFs products remain often poorly differentiated from products from large-scale fisheries and aquaculture. Freshness, quality and inherent value of SSF products (e.g., authentic cultural aspects, traditionally prepared products, locally produced) are generally under-appreciated. Furthermore, the season-dependent, and quantitatively and culinary varied nature of SSF products is seen as poor opportunities for market development. The current market is dominated by lack of product traceability, missing capacity to meet requests of sensitive consumers, as well as the overdominance of a few established products. In addition, small-scale fishers remain the weakest in the value chain, lacking a coherent organisation and the capacity to act, leading to little to no control over prices and accept prices, rather than make prices. In summary, existing organization of value chains and market structures fuel a vicious circle of low profitability and increased vulnerability of an aging fisher’s workforce, economic uncertainty, environmental risks, consumer alienation and weak trust in institutions.

Responding to these weaknesses, a number of grassroot initiatives have emerged across the Mediterranean. Through a mapping exercise and case studies, the report showcases the geographic extent and the range of initiatives, as well as the main areas of improvements in the existing initiatives: shortening of the value chain; innovation in the distribution channel (usually using ICT); diversification of products; promotion and education about SSF products; brand development; empowerment of SSF communities through improved leadership, ownership, cooperation and coordination. Shared among these initiatives is a bottom-up approach, responding to specific local contexts (e.g. system of organization, local purchasing habits, natural fishing cycles, cultural specificities, historical traditions, the ambition and pace of founders and stakeholders). The report also illustrates good practices and the types of promising actions currently missing in this region.

If capitalised on, we are convinced that the crossover among different initiatives magnifies the potential to accomplish policy goals and achieve a better status of both the oceans and the fishers. The report identifies the need for greater differentiation of seafood products that recognises the difference in the quality of products and their social and environmental impact. Such differentiation requires an organisational transformation that goes beyond a label. To be successful, the required labelling scheme needs to be tailored to local contexts but must operate on the recognition that each distinct initiative forms part of the same movement.

To that end, a number of interventions at various levels of governance seem desirable:

1. Encourage acceleration and up-scaling of local initiatives, through

  • Shared learning and exchange of good practices among various Mediterranean SSFs as well as encourage formation of new initiatives.
  • Structured capacity-building, via training programs and tailored advice.
  • Implementing ancillary measures, such as provision of infrastructure, promotional campaigns and funding, which benefit SSFs’ market development.

2. Establish a standard of good practice, based on inclusiveness and a principle of progression, through:

  • An explicit and accessible guideline, which provide a reference point and a standard for consumers and producers regarding good behaviour.
  • The promotion of such a standard to the consumers and citizens.
  • Peer recognition and support for a shared movement among SSFs.

3. Complement the ongoing shifts in markets with synergistic policy reforms, through:

  • Removing subsidies harmful to SSF.
  • Improving access of SSFs to fishing resources.
  • Altering requirements for documentation and improving the enforcement therof to improve traceability, which in turn, aids marketing of SSF products as well as consumer and governance decisions.

The LabMAF project has developed new resources to support such shift, notably:

  • a draft of a holistic standard (Guidelines for Responsible Small-Scale Fisheries Products in the Mediterranean) as a signpost for action,
  • recommendations of future actions for stakeholders,
  • communication tools to explain the transition needed to fishers, consumers and policy-makers.

The next step in formalising market initiatives for small-scale fishers needs to be built with sensitivity to local contexts and with an active participation of stakeholders, while emphasizing inclusiveness, co-responsibility and trust. The Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) developed in the context of certification of organic agriculture, especially for small-scale farmers, provides as an example of a promising, yet unexplored direction.

A successful SSF sector should look outward for inspiration. Synergising with other small-scale food producers represents an opportunity in terms of capacity-building as well as joint representation in front of policy-makers and consumers. The increased pressures on the space in the Mediterranean Sea originating from large scale endeavors such as the oil industry or large-scale fishing sector, pose an imminent threat on the SSF fishing sector.