Ratana Chuenpagdee is a big thinker. As the Canada Research Chair in Natural Resource Sustainability and Community Development in Memorial's Department of Geography, she is deeply interested in the interconnectivity and interdependency between natural and human systems.
And that big thinking has led to a big project.
Dr. Chuenpagdee is the project director for the six-year, $2.5-million SSHRC-funded project, Too Big to Ignore: Global Partnerships for Small-Scale Fisheries Research. It involves 15 partners including intergovernmental organizations, research and academic institutions, environmental organizations and non-governmental organizations as well as 62 researchers based in Canada and 26 other countries around the world. The project’s inaugural meeting took place recently in St. John’s.
“This is the first time a project of this scale has focused on small-scale fisheries and I’m very pleased we here at Memorial University are hosting the initiative, given the importance of small-boat fisheries in the province,” said Dr. Chuenpagdee. “Historically the majority of research and policy discourses about fisheries have been centred on the large-scale industrial fishing sector.”
Dr. Chuenpagdee believes there is a lot to be learned from experiences across the globe.
“As coastal communities we share the same concerns – food security, well-being, ecosystem health and social justice. We want to be able to influence policy and decision making that affects our livelihoods,” said Dr. Chuenpagdee, who has been actively involved in fisheries research since 1985.
“I come from a place (Thailand) where fisheries are dominated by small boats – so when I hear the word "fisheries", I think about both sectors, not just one,” said Dr. Chuenpagdee, who explains that the needs and interests of this sector are often ignored in policy discussions and management decisions. She also says that one of the many challenges in small-scale fisheries is that they do not share the same characteristics worldwide. In other words, a small boat in one place might be considered quite large in another.
“But it is not just about the size or scale of the boat that matters at the end of the day – there are many more features and characteristics about the small-scale fishing sector that need to be understood and considered in management and governance. That is part of the goal of this global partnership Too Big to Ignore,” she said.
The Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations (FAO) already collect fisheries information from the commercial sector from member states using the same template to report catches, values and the species caught. Dr. Chuenpagdee believes that something similar could be used to capture details about small-scale fisheries.
Worldwide, small-scale fisheries represent an occupation, a livelihood and a way of life, she says.
“People say that one way of addressing food security is through large-scale fishing. But the fish caught by those industrial fleets doesn’t always go to the people that need it. If fish can be caught in local waters, by locally owned, small-scale fishing boats and supplied directly to local communities, throughout the world no one goes hungry. If you remove the small-scale fisher, who is going to feed those people?”
Small-scale fisheries also deserve better governance, which Dr. Chuenpagdee says can be fostered through collaboration and active participation of all actors, including state, market and civil society.
“The more we can work with people on the local level, the better we can go about making good decisions. We need to facilitate the interaction and to create a space – both metaphorical and physical – where voices can be heard.”
Those voices were heard loud and clear during the Too Big to Ignore inaugural meeting that coincided with a Memorial Presents event.
“The fishers know what fishers need – the voice of the fishers needs to be heard.”
That’s how Neseegh Jaffer of the Masifundise Development Organization, a South African non-governmental organization and a member of Too Big to Ignore, concluded his remarks at the forum.
Getting the voices heard, as well as heeded, is easier said then done. Apparently, the tension between scientists and fishers exists everywhere, and not just on CBC Radio’s Fisheries Broadcast, said Dr. Chuenpagdee.
In addition to enhancing the understanding of small-scale fisheries through their research, Dr. Chuenpagdee and her Too Big to Ignore colleagues hope to build a new generation of “transdisciplinary” scientists who will look at various aspects of the fisheries -- the ecological, social, historical and political dimensions, for example – and incorporate them into their work.
“It’s all just a start in terms of building on our knowledge and experience. The work is ongoing. I could have called it Too Big to End,” Dr. Chuenpagdee said with a laugh.