Exploring the roles of research for development at Symposium for Small-Scale Fisheries

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Exploring the roles of research for development at Symposium for Small-Scale Fisheries

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This is a modified version of a blog article published on the WorldFish blog, The Fish Tank, on 15 November 2017.

There was a slightly awkward pause in the conversation: I was seeking approval from a rural village chief in Timor-Leste to research small-scale fisheries in his community – he had just asked if I could help get the fishers some new equipment. I took a sip of the sweet tea in front of me, replaced the special lid to keep away the flies, and tried to reiterate in my broken Tetum (the local language) that I was just a student doing research. My research assistant continued more eloquently: we were not part of a development project, but we would be happy to share our findings with government and other organisations if the community wanted us to do so – maybe they could help in the future. This was true, but the chief had raised a good point, and one that had often somewhat bothered me: how would my research actually benefit the fishers in this community who would generously share their time and knowledge with me? What was the contribution I was hoping to make through my PhD research on Timor-Leste’s sardine fisheries?

In many instances, research focused on small-scale fisheries is ultimately trying to improve human wellbeing, nutrition, and the way we manage our natural resources. But how does “doing research” lead to such real-world change? This was the topic of discussion at a Symposium on Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries hosted by WorldFish in September last year. The diverse range of presentations and discussions led me to reflect on the multiple roles of research, and I tried to sketch out how the examples presented from Asia, Africa and the Pacific fitted into the various overlapping and interlinked categories identified in the initial introductory sessions.

(Some of) The multiple roles of small-scale fisheries research – with a few examples from the 2017 Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Symposium.

Small-scale capture fisheries in developing countries are estimated to employ over 100 million fishers and post-harvest workers, who catch or process over half the fish caught in these regions[1]. Despite these large numbers demonstrating their collective significance, the small size of individual boats and catches (as well as other factors) have meant that, in many places, basic details – like how many people are involved, how many fish are caught and how they contribute to people’s income, food security and nutrition – have been overlooked or not fully documented. Research in small-scale fisheries is critical here to fill these information gaps (look for the red splotch on the sketch above for some examples from the Symposium). By building this picture, small-scale fisheries can begin to be recognised by governments and supported by national policies. Research also enables us to investigate the social and ecological factors behind problems like declining fish stocks, malnutrition or poverty in fishing communities, and enables us identify opportunities for making improvements (purple). This can lead to introducing new or adapted technology such as solar fish drying tents, different management approaches, or products like nutritious fish chutney (dark blue). Through research we can evaluate the effectiveness of these improvements and changed practices (green) – for example whether fish stocks recover when the local community is involved in managing the resource. By looking at places with similar types of management, we can also get an idea of what works well, and develop best practice guidelines that can be adapted to local contexts.

The activity of research itself can also act as a catalyst for change (yellow). In participatory action research, fishers, fish processors or fisheries managers become co-researchers – they identify the problem to be researched and are actively involved in data collection, analysis and interpretation of findings. In this way, research can empower local people, prompt them to question the way things are done and make decisions that lead to locally-driven, lasting change.

Contributing to real-world change

Riding back from the rural villages in Timor-Leste on my motorbike, the dusty road winds along a beautiful coastline, past clusters of wooden canoes, alongside rice fields and through villages with a mixture of traditional palm-frond houses and those of more modern, concrete construction. On this journey, between the potholes, goats and other hazards, I’ve often contemplated how my PhD research fits into the broader Timor-Leste landscape and the landscape of research for development.

My PhD research is looking at small-scale sardine fisheries, how they operate and contribute to livelihoods and nutrition. You can see these fisheries in action along parts of the Timor-Leste coast, but they haven’t been documented before. So I’m in the category of gathering evidence to build recognition and support. I also hope to identify entry points for improvements, which may guide government, other organisations, or even community members themselves. But no one is actually going to read a PhD thesis! Here there is value in working in partnership with research organisations such as WorldFish, who have an established presence in the country and can use findings from such research to plan and implement future work with their Government and community partners. Will I still feel awkward talking to the village chief about the role and benefits of my research? Yes and no. I will have more confidence in explaining its intended role, but the timeframe of a PhD is really too short to take a locally-empowering participatory action approach. However, I am trying to make positive contributions in other ways, such as by engaging local youth as data collectors.

The range of research presented at the Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Symposium (the examples above are just a selection, and a full summary of proceedings is available here) clearly demonstrate how research is critical for informing decisions at many stages in the process of achieving real-world change. However it was also emphasised that just “doing research” and flinging out findings doesn’t usually create lasting change. The way research is carried out, how it is communicated and how it involves the people it is relevant to – the fishers, their communities, other fishery workers and government decision-makers – are critical. When these components (and often other locally important ‘ingredients’) are brought together, that’s when we can start to see research having an on-ground impact and contributing to real-world change.

The Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Symposium was organised and hosted by WorldFish from 5-7 September 2017 in Penang, Malaysia. Funding for this event was provided by ACIAR project “The contribution of small-scale fisheries research to a food secure world” (FIS/2017/003). The symposium was part of the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agrifood Systems (FISH).

Kim Hunnam is undertaking her PhD research through Charles Darwin University and the Australian National University, in collaboration with WorldFish Timor-Leste. Her participation in the WorldFish Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Symposium was funded by The Crawford Fund, an Australian non-profit organisation that works to raise awareness of the benefits of international agricultural research.