Illuminating Hidden Harvests: The contributions of small-scale fisheries to sustainable development

All over the world, small-scale fisheries (SSF) provide livelihoods for millions, essential nutrition to billions and contribute substantially to household, local and national economies and economic growth. In the oceans, more people work in SSF than in all other sectors combined (World Bank 2012; OECD 2016). Inland rivers, lakes and floodplains support even more men and women fishers, processors and sellers than do marine systems. Furthermore, SSF are often culturally important to the identity of those involved, and can be central to trade, social structures and interactions within and among communities. Yet due to the highly diverse and dispersed nature of SSF, quantifying and understanding their multiple contributions is difficult. As a result, despite impressive headline statistics, SSF are too frequently marginalized in political processes and not given due attention in policy. This is becoming increasingly problematic as pressure from outside the sector (e.g. globalized trade, competition for space and resources, climate change) and from within (e.g. rising fishing effort, limited investment in management) increases and the costs of marginalization are ever more apparent.


Fig. 1 – HIDDEN HARVEST: The Global Contribution of Capture Fisheries (2012).

The Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (SSF Guidelines) have the ambitious goal of supporting the development of SSF and fishing communities through a human rights-based approach to fisheries that is socially and environmentally sustainable. Achieving this goal will require substantial support from governments, private enterprise, international donors and NGOs. A key element in building the case for this support is better illuminating the diverse contributions of these fisheries, and providing new evidence in a way that can be used by communities and advocates to make a strong case for investment in the sector. In 2012, FAO, the World Bank and WorldFish published Hidden Harvest: The Global Contribution of Capture Fisheries (HH1) (Fig. 1), which produced valuable new estimates of relative importance of large-scale and small-scale fisheries. Millions of metric tons of fish from the sector are hidden (unreported), with HH1 suggesting underreporting rates from inland fisheries globally of about 70%. SSF in developing countries produce almost as much fish for direct domestic consumption as large-scale fisheries, and most of this is consumed locally in rural settings where poverty rates are high and quality nutrition is sorely needed. Importantly, the study highlighted that almost 50% of workers in the sector are women.

Org. Framework_IHH

Fig. 2 – Organizational framework of the “Illuminating Hidden Harvests” (IHH) study. SDGs = Sustainable Development Goals.

To support the growing momentum in implementing the SSF Guidelines, and in response to the Sustainable Development Goals, FAO, WorldFish and Duke University are working in partnership with experts globally to revisit and build on this initial HH1 study. Encompassing the pre-harvesting, harvesting and post-harvesting sectors of inland and marine fisheries, the new study entitled “Illuminating Hidden Harvests” (IHH) asks the questions: 1) What are the social, environmental, economic and governance contributions of SSF at global and local scales? And 2) What are the key drivers of change in these sectors, including both threats and opportunities? As with the HH1 study, we will use a case study approach to engage with local expertise in priority countries that have substantial SSF sectors or notable nutritional dependence on SSF. The study will also take advantage of improved availability of relevant national and global datasets on fisheries, demographics, employment, fish consumption and nutrition in the synthesis and extrapolation process. Besides updating many indicators from the first study, the new study seeks in particular to provide new synthesis on social and nutritional benefits, and social differentiation in the flow of benefits from different fishery sectors. A series of thematic studies will highlight available information on important themes that may include among others climate change impacts, contributions to conservation and governance, where global synthesis is perhaps not yet possible (Fig. 2).

IHH pamphletThe project will produce a major synthesis report in 2020. Thematic studies and possibly some country case studies will be published as separate reports and scientific journal articles where appropriate. A major communications effort will accompany the project, involving close engagement with key stakeholders to understand communication needs to support SSF communities and the drive to implement the SSF Guidelines. The project provides a ‘snapshot’ of the current contributions from SSF but importantly also looks at drivers of change. Associated with the project, but extending beyond the 2020 reporting date, will be an initiative that integrates methods and outcomes from country case studies, thematic studies and global synthesis into a framework for monitoring change trajectories and impacts of investments and management innovation in the SSF sector.

For further information see project pamphlet here, or please contact:

Project Coordinator FAO: Giulia Gorelli (
Duke University: Maria del Mar Mancha-Cisneros (            WorldFish: David Mills (