The Impact of Wasted Fish on Subsistence Fishers / by Francisco Blaha

Despite fish waste being a global problem, post harvest losses mostly affect the subsistence fishers in developing countries, who depend on fish for food, nutrition and income.

Back in May, I wrote about a contract with APEC with aim of the project is to develop a manual to facilitate the improvement of the catch condition of subsistence fishers (aiming at food security) by reducing economic losses and overfishing by the deterioration of fish products that were not properly handled, achieving that consumers receive high-quality products.

I'm off to present the resulting Manual at the APEC Ocean and Fisheries Working Group meeting in the north of Peru.

The topic is much complex that I anticipated, fish post harvest losses are the measurable reduction in the quality or quantity of the fish produced in a value chain. Losses and waste can occur at varying intensities in different stages of the value chain, which themselves vary across countries, production systems and fisheries.

There are four types of fish losses and waste:

  1. Physical: when fish are completely lost from the value chain
  2. Quality: when the quality of a fish is harmed (usually expressed in a reduction in monetary value) and is the most common type.
  3. Market: when market forces create high marketing and production costs or gluts cause prices to drop
  4. Nutritional: linked to biochemical changes within the fish flesh as a result of spoilage, processing or meal preparation.

My friends in FAO estimated that for small-scale fisheries in lower-income countries, quality losses account for more than 70 % of total losses, compared with only 5 % physical losses . These losses because of the processing, transport and marketing techniques used, make the fish vulnerable to external forces.

When fish is wasted, less fish is supplied, meaning less fish is available for consumers. This increases the price, which most affects poor consumers, and limits their access to fish, an important source of protein and micronutrients.

For those working in the value chain, as the value of fish degrades because of poor handling, the reduced market price means their income is decreased. When the quality of fish deteriorates, it is not wasted but sold at cheaper prices to consumers, often the poor. This may create negative health impacts as they are consuming fish with a lower nutritional value or that is unsafe to eat.

Fish loss has gender impacts too. In developing countries, men, women, the young and the old all have different roles in fish value chains. But women are most affected as they do up to 90% of post harvest activities (FAO data), where the majority of losses occur.

Lower-quality fish sell for less, making it a cheap protein source for low-income consumers, who cannot afford the higher prices of better quality products and whose diets often lack the micronutrients present in fish.

The manual I wrote is (in a modest way) trying to help APEC Economies to tackle this problem. The manual is intended for use as a training aid to help introduce and explain post-harvest fishing topics to subsistence fishermen and others actors in the coastal fisheries value chain.

To support this aim, the manual presents as much information as possible in a visual form, for the benefit of fisherfolk whose literacy may be limited. For the same reason, the text has been kept as simple and non-technical as possible.

In compiling this manual, I have split the many interwoven aspects of post-harvest and fishing into a series of individual topics. Each covered in “chapters” intended to convey the information and practices relevant to that particular subject. I have tried to be comprehensive in the coverage of each topic.

The manual has a structure of separate but consecutive chapters, as to allow for training delivery in an integral programme or by chapters. Each chapter has guiding text to be used as “aide memoir” by trainers and illustrations for each concept, as to convey the message without relying only on written words.

  • Chapter 1 deals with the basics of good fish handling and is general to all other chapters
  • Chapter 2 deals with good fish handling at the time of capture and harvesting.
  • Chapter 3 deals with good fish handling at the landing.
  • Chapter 4 deals with good fish handling during transport.
  • Chapter 5 deals with good fish handling at point of sale and the prior importance of these practices
  • Chapter 6 deals with very basics of traceability at all stages
  • Chapter 7 deals with the very basics of the importance of the ecosystems approach to fishing.

The pages of each chapter present the contents in a “graphic narrative” with the key concepts of the chapter supported by minimal text and examples of common good and bad practices.

The illustrations are based on a fisherfolk family along with different “characters’ representing fish, bacteria and enzymes. The fisher guides the explanations to his family and colleagues along the manual.

The illustrations are in black and white to facilitate printing, but also to be used as “colouring book” and encourage the children in the fishing families to keep the manual in their households. (I really like this idea)

Predictably, it has proven impossible to avoid overlap altogether. However, I hope that the cross-references in the text will enable trainers and trainees to follow a given theme through the manual, independently of the mode and time of training delivery.

All the illustrations were done by my friend David from Emphasise and Kim Thomson helped me with the research and language