Artisanal & Subsistence Fisheries

Defining small-scale fisheries vs. large-scale fisheries

Fish are a vital source of protein for millions of people and are often the primary source of protein for indigenous coastal communities who rely on small-scale, subsistence fishing for their survival and livelihood. While the goal of a large-scale fishery is to increase catch for maximum economic profit, the goal of a small-scale fishery is to catch enough fish to feed a family or a community.

Artisanal fisheries can be broadly defined as small-scale fisheries operating mainly for subsistence purposes (a percentage of catch may be allocated for barter or trade), by coastal communities in developing nations or small companies, rather than large corporations. Artisanal fishing utilizes small boats and small fleets, with little or no reliance on technology to locate, harvest and process catches.

Artisanal fisheries utilize traditional, low-impact, more selective fishing techniques, including pole-and-line, casting nets, and hand spears, favouring local production and consumption of seafood. Artisanal fishing differs from industrial fishing in terms of reduced bycatch and less damage to marine habitats and contributes to food security and poverty alleviation.

Comparing small-scale fisheries vs. large-scale fisheries

A study by Jacquet & Pauly (2008) published in Conservation Biology investigates the costs and benefits of large-scale fisheries compared to small-scale fisheries. In this context, we can assume that large-scale fisheries are ‘industrial’ or ‘commercial’ and small-scale fisheries are ‘artisanal’ or ‘subsistence’.

Annual catches taken for human consumption is the same for each type of fishery – approximately 30 million tonnes. This equivalent figure provides an excellent baseline that enables a sound, fair comparison to be made between the economic, environmental and social differences between small-scale (artisanal, subsistence) fisheries and large-scale (industrial, commercial) fisheries.

Small-scale fisheries employ 25 times more people than large-scale fisheries (12 million compared to 500,000). Small-scale fisheries catch almost no fish for fishmeal (to feed farmed fish in aquaculture systems) or fish oil (for Omega-3 supplements), compared to an additional 35 million tonnes caught for these purposes in large-scale fisheries.

Small-scale fisheries use about a seventh of the amount of fuel oil required to operate large-scale fisheries yet catch about four times more fish per tonne of fuel oil consumed. Small-scale fisheries produce very little bycatch compared to the millions of tonnes caught and discarded every year by large-scale fisheries.

The artisanal fisheries model

But according to Jacquet & Pauly (2008), small-scale fisheries receive four to five times less subsidies than large-scale fisheries. Lack of financial support is not the only issue. The artisanal fisheries model has limitations, including lack of data, infrastructure and resources available for research, management and monitoring. If small-scale fisheries are to serve as a model for a sustainable fishery, these issues must be addressed.

The UN Fishing and Agriculture Organization identify post-harvest loss, where substantial amounts of catch are wasted due to spoilage, as a major problem. Many fisheries classified as ‘small-scale’ or ‘artisanal’ employ fishing techniques using dynamite and cyanide that destroy marine habitat (see Coral Reefs, Seagrass Beds & Mangrove Forests under Impacts).

© 2016 – 2021 Seafood Free September


FAO, Reducing Post-harvest fish losses for improved food security,

FAO. Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries Rome, FAO. 1995. 41 p.

FAO. 2016. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016. Contributing to food security and nutrition for all. Rome. 200 pp.

FAO. 2020. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020. Sustainability in action. Rome.

Jacquet, J., and Pauly, D. (2008). Funding priorities: big barriers to small-scale fisheries. Conservation Biology 22(4): 832-835.