But they face the same environmental and economic challenges as everyone else, and small-scale fishermen in Croatia and Greece are finding innovative ways to respond.
Sustainable fishing as a premium product
“All my life, ever since I was young, I have watched the fishing boats at sea right in front of my house,” says langoustor Šime Barić. “And I imagined how one day I could become like them. Fishing has always fascinated me and I love being in the sea.”
Šime catches Norway lobster in Velebit Сhannel for Roza Fishing. Also known as scampi, they are Croatia’s most iconic and prized seafood. But despite the high value of her catches, she has chosen to fish less.
The size of Šime’s boat and the type of equipment officially make him a “little fisherman”.
In political debates, artisans like him are often overshadowed by the large fishing industry.
But they play an important role, both cultural and economic, in small coastal communities such as the village of Šime, Barić Draga.
“Here, in this area, there’s really no other source of income than fishing,” he says.
“Maybe it’s the only way to work all year and earn money.”
About one morning out of two, when the weather is favourable, Šime checks his lobster pots: they are the cages that capture the scampi on the seabed.
“What’s very important is that there is no trawling in this channel,” he says. “We don’t drag the nets on the seabed. All the Norway lobster in this area has been caught with selective gear, which means it only catches the bigger ones that cannot pass through the net. The seabed remains intact and the Norway lobster is untouched, with minimal stress, so it’s truly a premium product.”
Help fish populations recover
Šime is working together with Marina Mašanović, an oceanologist from the University of Zagreb.
The daughter of a fisherman herself, she is using her PhD research project to help fishermen like Šime make their pots even more selective: They want to avoid catching smaller Norway lobster that is legal to catch, but so cheap it’s not worth it. worth.
“I did an analysis and found the optimal size for the shirt,” explains Marina. “So that the fishermen no longer have to waste time sorting their catch: they will only catch the largest specimens that are the most suitable for the market.”
Šime also puts back all the female scampi that he catches, even the bigger ones that he could easily sell for €35 a kilo. Each female can produce a thousand eggs, so for Šime, releasing them means more catches in the future.
Those freed are likely to survive their encounter.
“This is not something the current regulation requires,” says Marina. “Some fishermen are doing it on their own initiative. It would make a big difference if it were legally prohibited to take females with eggs.”
Choosing to catch less has its costs: for example, new selective gear can be expensive.
But NGOs like WWF are using European support to assist fishermen in this transition.
They want to show that in the long run this will help both the environment and the small-scale fishermen themselves. Sustainably caught fish and seafood have higher value – they are more suitable for more expensive restaurants. And so, by choosing a more selective approach, fishermen can work less while earning more.
“We connect them to the market,” says Fabijan-Hrvatin Peronja, project manager at WWF Adria. “We form cooperatives, we build business plans for them. We build brands, brands that customers would recognize and appreciate. And in this way, we want to differentiate these sustainably working fishermen from other fishermen. We want fishermen who live by the sea to be the guardians of the sea, to protect this source of life for all future generations.”
With this support, local artisans have formed a sustainable fishing cooperative and are about to open a brand new fish market. For WWF, such examples demonstrate that, with the right assistance, more small-scale fishermen across the Mediterranean could choose to fish less and earn more, helping fish populations recover while preserving their jobs and the their professional assets.
“The idea is to demonstrate that a sustainable way of fishing is possible,” says Marco Costantini, Fisheries Project Manager at the WWF’s Mediterranean Program Office. “By directly supporting small-scale fishermen on the ground, or helping them to develop cooperatives and by doing so, they can apply for European funds for the maritime, fisheries and aquaculture sectors to modernize their vessels, change their nets, increase selectivity.”
There are other solutions as well. In some tourist areas, artisan fishermen are reinventing themselves as tour guides. On the island of Kythnos, Greece, we meet Christos Iliou and Lia Kountouraki. After catches in the area dropped significantly, this lifelong fishing couple set up a fishing tourism business.
“The problem here is overfishing,” Christos explains. “With so many boats, casting and hauling their nets day after day, fish are becoming scarce. In general, around the island, there is a steep decline. Every year it gets worse. And personally, fishing is the only work that I know. But now, thanks to fishing tourism, we can go back to the sea again, the sea that I love”.
During their day on the boat, tourists can learn how artisan fishermen work and how they take care of the well-being of the sea. They also catch enough fish for a tasty lunch on board.
It’s not cheap: a group of 4 tourists pays €400 for a 5-hour trip. But many consider the unique experience well worth the price.
“It’s a nice thing to do,” Lia says. “But a lot of people don’t know that. They visit the island without realizing they should experience it. I think that’s something we need to fix, because it’s a really good experience.”
As yet another way for small-scale fishermen to catch less while earning more, the transitions to fishing tourism are also supported by EU and WWF programmes.
“They need to get special permission to engage in fishing tourism,” says Michalis Margaritis, project manager, WWF Greece. “They have to make some modifications to their boat, for which they will need money. And they need to learn some new things because tourism is an activity they are not familiar with. So through our program, we have organized some workshops for fishermen to teach them about fishing tourism and the ways in which they can practice it”.
Assistance is needed
SSF fishermen are not small: they account for half of all jobs in the fishing sector in Europe. They need assistance to address growing economic and environmental challenges.
“Most of the investments and most of the attention of governments is all concentrated on large-scale industrial fishing,” says Marco Costantini. “But small-scale fishermen are a bit isolated. To be transformed into sustainable small-scale fishermen, they need support. There are many things we can do, but there needs to be a coherent interaction between fishermen, scientists , NGOs and decision-makers all together involved in the transformation of this fisheries sector.”