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Words by Moenieba Isaacs

The Blue Economy development agenda raises a myriad of red flags relating to the issues small-scale fisheries face. Small-scale fisheries contribute to food security, poverty eradication, sustaining ecosystems, supporting local communities and livelihoods, and promoting cultural inheritance.

The Blue Economy development agenda for coastal, lakes, and marine protected zones looks to protect and restore the ocean’s resource base that supplies food and livelihoods to billions of people. It also provides space for economic activity.

But much as land grabbing in developing countries stimulates food production and financial capital growth for the west, ‘seascape grabbing’ outstrips blue rights. This means tenure, access rights, and equity issues facing small-scale fisheries (SSF) are jeopardised by the blue economy development agenda.

In my presentation at the third World Small-Scale Fisheries Congress (WSFC) in Thailand in October 2018, I raised concerns about the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s side-lining of key international instruments. This includes the SSF guidelines, the right to food, and governance of tenure. I framed it with a strong social justice narrative to restore the rights to access and tenure for the marginalised, vulnerable, poor, and often ostracised SSF.

By shifting the focus from social justice instruments to the new Blue Economy development agenda – rooted in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) – there is now potential for foreign direct investments in extractive industries such as oil, gas, minerals, and fisheries. The FAO, development agencies, World Bank, governments, regional bodies, international conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and philanthropies all align with the UN SDGs.

These direct investments could stem from fast tracking aquaculture growth through establishing hatcheries, investing in fish farming production and markets, and claiming large areas of ocean space for protected areas.

Using slogans such as payments for environmental services, Green Economy, and the The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, the public, private and non-governmental sectors seek ways to turn the non-material use of nature into capital in order to simultaneously ‘save’ the environment and establish long-term modes of capital accumulation.

The method of ‘Accumulation by Conservation’ led to a growing split between protectionist and community-based conservationists – albeit not in terms of ‘pro-people’ versus ‘pro-nature’, but rather with respect to conservation values and scale (Buscher and Dressler, 2007). Large-scale investments connected to oceans target protected areas through the Blue Economy link. Elite tourism and fortress-conservation on the other side, seek shelter under the sustainability umbrella.

In the same WSFC presentation, I called on the Too Big To Ignore network, researchers, NGOs, and community based organisations to adopt a Blue Justice approach for small-scale fisheries to critically examine the political economic and ecological processes of Blue Economy development initiatives.

At the centre of the Blue Justice narrative is social justice. Small-scale fisheries need equity, access, participation and rights within the Blue Economy. In order for the Blue Economy action space to be equitable and transparent, rights, land, and resources should be restored to small-scale fisheries. The Blue Economy should be an inclusive space where small-scale fisheries can challenge the exclusion and marginalisation brought on by the “neo-liberalisation of oceans, the promotion of elite tourism and fortress-conservation” (Bryceson pers. comm.).

At the Sustainable Blue Economy conference in Kenya in November 2018, there was no mention of small-scale fisheries’ access to resources and markets. Despite 90% of the inland fisheries and oceans on the continent being small-scale. A vague and indirect reference was made by mentioning an inclusive blue economy for people, culture, communities and societies.

Operation Phakisa — a South African case study

Operation Phakisa or ‘operation hurry up’ is an integrated oceans governance and protection framework to fast track and unlock South Africa’s ocean economy through growth policies and job creation. The initiative was launched in July 2014, and creates jobs in extractive industries (oil, gas, and seabed mining), spatial marine planning and coastal development, marine protected areas, and aquaculture development zones.

Operation Phakisa is part of the National Development Plan (2012) to address key issues of poverty, unemployment and inequality. A five-year plan sought to bring R20 billion to the gross domestic product (GDP), create 22 000 direct new jobs by 2019, and boost the GDP by 5%. Of the R24.6 billion made available to Operation Phakisa, the government invested R15 billion in port infrastructure, marine manufacturing, aquaculture, and oil and gas survey. However, this venture only created 6 517 jobs in infrastructure support, and not necessarily sustainable jobs (Walker, 2018).

In the aquaculture sector, big fishing companies like I&J, Oceana, Pioneer Fishing and Viking Fishing control 45% of the abalone aquaculture share. Smaller companies control the remaining 55% (DAFF, 2016).

Many established companies have already invested in aquaculture. I&J obtained Aquaculture Stewardship Council certification, and Sea Harvest built an aquaculture plant near the small-scale community of Buffelsjagbaai that can deliver 300 tonnes of produce per year. Here, job creation relates mostly to infrastructure, building and maintenance work once the plant is operational. Coastal communities need unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, whereas the development of the aquaculture sector seek technically trained professionals.

Many government community projects have failed, and aquaculture oysters are plagued with diseases. Community aquaculture in South Africa is dependent on the intellectual property (IP) of the aquaculture sector. The IP of this sector comes from government officials moving into this sector in the early 1990s. While Operation Phakisa mainly supports the capital-intensive abalone aquaculture sector, the sector is not creating the jobs it promised — here, few jobs are for unskilled or semi-skilled workers. This lead to high unemployment rates in coastal communities and in South Africa. Apart from this, the aquaculture industry has captured the environmental narrative by moving to green energy (wind turbines) and Aquaculture Stewardship Certification — despite all evidence indicating that small-scale fishing is more sustainable and provides livelihoods and jobs to many (Pauly, 2006).

Failure of Blue Growth Economy to benefit small-scale fisheries in Tanzania

The discovery of oil and gas in the southern Tanzanian region of Mtwara Rural District led to large-scale investment with the promise of attracting outside investors to Tanzania. There were high expectations for socio-economic development and hopes for a bright future, especially among the local population. Investors planned to transform community livelihoods through corporate social responsibility (CSRs) and social investments (SIs). With little compensation, the Tanzanian government removed communities from their land and livelihoods to make space for oil exploration and the drilling of gas wells. Communities soon realised their livelihoods did not improve; investments did not transform lives or bring tangible changes to rural livelihoods. Over time, there are decreasing trends of employment. This indicates that investment does not necessarily generate more jobs. This prompts people to turn to self-employment practices such as fishing and or agriculture.
Access and tenure systems for natural resources play a key role in the multiple livelihood strategies of farming, livestock grazing, fishing, the collection of fuel wood, minerals, and more, as well as the sustainable usage and management thereof. However, participation in decision-making processes to ensure procedural and distributive justice failed the coastal communities of Mtwara. There, the reality is that many rural people are displaced, have insecure tenure, are landless, and are asset and resource poor.

The implementation of Blue Economy development initiatives in South Africa and Tanzania vividly shows the need for blue justice for small-scale fisheries.


Prof Moenieba Isaacs’ research focus is understanding the social and political processes of fisheries reform in South Africa. She is the regional coordinator and founding member of Too Big To Ignore – a global partnership for the future of small-scale fisheries.



Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (2016) Developing an Appropriate Policy Environment in Support of Operation Phakisa. Belemani Semoli, Chief Director Aquaculture (DAFF), FishSA Conference 5 June 2016.

Pauly, D. (2006). Major trends in small-scale marine fisheries, with emphasis on developing countries, and some implications for the social sciences. Maritime Studies, 4: 7-22.

Walker, T. (2018). Securing a sustainable oceans economy, South Africa’s approach. [Online] Institute for Security Studies. Available at: [Accessed 23 Jul. 2019].


Featured image by Anna Fawcus