Global Fishing Index

Case StudY

Working smarter, not harder: empowering fishers to fish more responsibly

By Dr Hoyt Peckham, Wildlife Conservation Society; Cecilia Blasco, SmartFish NGO; and Jada Tullos Anderson, Wildlife Conservation Society.

Porfirio Zuñiga, a Mexico fisher, was trapped in a vicious cycle of overfishing. Forced to catch ever more fish at ever lower quality, to compensate for steadily decreasing prices and increasing costs, the outlook for Porfirio and the thousand or so other fishers who depend on Mexican sandbass was grim.

This cycle, which is common – even universal – where fisheries governance is relatively weak, perpetuates a poverty trap. It jeopardizes the wellbeing of small-scale fishers and fishworkers, their communities, and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

Porfirio, and Mexico’s 250,000 licensed artisanal fishers, would not be trapped this way if Mexico’s fisheries policies were backed by better information, management and compliance. But it isn’t.

In 2013, we built a hybrid social enterprise that combines a non-profit NGO with a for-profit business, the SmartFish Group, to empower Mexican fishers like Porfirio to overcome this vicious cycle of overfishing and poverty through an approach widely used in small-scale agriculture.1

On the supply side, the non-profit SmartFish NGO screens and then partners with artisanal fishing cooperatives (co-ops) with strong institutional capacity such as leadership and administrative structures. We ‘incubate’ them, professionalizing, and bringing in line with international standards, all aspects of their businesses across the three sustainability dimensions – environmental, social and economic. As a result, these co-ops produce higher-quality seafood that’s also more responsibly caught, more sustainable and also food-safety certified.


Porfirio Z. Zuñiga (above) and other partners of his co-op at Punta Abreojos, BCS Mexico dramatically improved the quality and price of their sandbass by improving their catching, handling, processing, packing, and transport techniques. Photo Credit: Carlos Aguilar, SmartFish.

SmartFish Inc., the business side, sells their catch into more profitable markets, rewarding fishers like Porfirio for their more responsible fishing and incentivizing them to further improve their performance. Core to SmartFish Inc’s model are shorter supply chains, rigorous sourcing policies, comprehensive traceability systems and full transparency, including open-book’ negotiations. Unfortunately, these basic approaches are lamentably unusual in the extremely opaque seafood sector.

To date, Smartfish NGO has assessed 50 co-ops and their associated fisheries and partnered with thirteen of them. Seven of these co-ops, including Porfirio’s, have fully integrated our recommendations, yielding important outcomes. Catch and bycatch have decreased thanks to the use of more selective – and labour-intensive – gear.

The prices received by fishers have risen by an average 71 per cent and the percentage of the final value that co-ops retain has increased an average of 54 per cent. We see stronger co-ops because of the retained value, more diversified revenue and financial resources, and increased work for unemployed and under employed coastal citizens, particularly female family members of fishers.

Lastly, these partnerships have implications for governance: improved data collected through the traceability systems can be used to inform management and improve co-management capacity and measures, including fishing reserves, voluntary quotas and size limits and time-area closures.

Tempting as it is to leverage markets to drive fisheries improvement, doing so is not a panacea for improving fisheries globally. Fisheries market interventions in general – and increases in fish value, specifically – can produce unintended social, economic, and environmental consequences. These may include increased fishing effort, lost access to fish for food for the poor and displacement of women and other marginalized people.

To ensure against these unintended impacts, we start by screening fisheries for several enabling conditions, including that access is limited to the fishery, and target species are biologically resilient. We also developed a suite of both intrinsic and conditional ‘safeguards’, including systematic assessment to identify risks; third-party environmental validation to improve trust and easily communicate improvement actions; and conservation covenants to protect against overfishing and habitat destruction. With these safeguards in place, SmartFish NGO is gearing up to replicate nationally, aiming to directly empower more than 6,000 Mexican fishers by 2025.

We’ve learned several lessons in the process of developing this market-based approach. First, systematically assess fisheries’ governance, social and financial as well as environmental performance prior to intervening in order to better tailor durable, equitable improvements.

Second, carefully research and if possible, test a suite of safeguards, to avoid fuelling the fire of overfishing and or deepening inequalities. Third, it’s crucial to avoid setting unrealistic expectations to engage partners – for example, better prices, market access and the like. Finally, because market leverage can be exceedingly powerful it must be wielded with precautionary care. Too often, market forces are unleashed in fisheries where fishers lack basic socioeconomic rights. Following a rights-based-approach to fisheries governance, we recommend sequencing investments in small-scale fisheries, first securing fishers’ basic socioeconomic rights, then ensuring fisheries governance is robust before eventually intervening in fisheries markets.

To address that first point, SmartFish NGO has partnered with Ocean Outcomes, Conservation International and Wilderness Markets to produce and pilot a Triple Impact Fisheries Evaluation Framework (Triple Impact Framework). In contrast to conventional, environmentally-focused fisheries improvement and certification processes, this approach reduces the risk of unintended consequences by tackling the ‘big three’ – social, financial and environmental – dimensions of fisheries.

As the Global Fishing Index governance ratings illustrate, many countries with small-scale fisheries have limited management capacity. With robust safeguards and enabling conditions in place, this triple impact approach can be used to cautiously harness markets, empower fishers to fish more responsibly – and encourage co-management that will strengthen governance.

Ocean Outcomes, Conservation International, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, along with local NGO and commercial partners, are using the Triple Impact Framework across a range of governance contexts. The Triple Impact Framework can be found on the Small Scale Fisheries Hub Resource library and at Ocean Outcomes.


  1. Hoyt Peckham and Cecilia Blasco

Cecilia Blasco
Executive Director SmartFish

Cecilia Blasco is Executive Director of Smartfish Rescate de Valor, AC where she oversees a multidisciplinary team that provides technical and entrepreneurial assistance to artisanal fishers and seafood buyers. Founded in 2013, SmartFish’s mission is to foster a market for sustainably caught seafood in Mexico by catalyzing both supply and demand. Before joining SmartFish Cecilia worked at the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature for over 10 years. Cecilia is originally from Argentina and lived in Kenya, Switzerland, and the USA before moving to Mexico. She has a Master’s in Environmental Science from the Yale Environmental School and a BA in geography from Dartmouth College.

Hoyt PeckhamHoyt Peckham

Dr Hoyt Peckham
Director Small-scale Fisheries Wildlife Conservation Society

Hoyt Peckham is leading the development of WCS’ new global Small-scale Fisheries program. Prior to this, Hoyt founded and led the The SmartFish Group to incentivize more responsible fishing across Mexico and beyond. He holds a BA in biology and English from Bowdoin College, a doctorate in evolutionary ecology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and was awarded a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship. Hoyt has experience as a captain, diver, fisher, ecologist, and serial entrepreneur working in and on fisheries in Latin America, Polynesia, the Caribbean, NW Atlantic, SE Asia and Japan, and his specialties include responsible seafood, social enterprise, and transparency and equity in value chains.

Jada TullosJada Tullos

Jada Tullos
Small-Scale Fisheries Program Manager Wildlife Conservation Society

Jada specializes in projects integrating market-based solutions and environmental sustainability. A graduate of Texas A&M and the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, she has worked with organizations like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, providing input on environmental risks of investments, and with Kiva, giving strategic recommendations to partners as well as performing field audits of microfinance groups in Kenya. For the past eight years she’s led research and provided recommendations for fishery value chain sustainable development in more than a dozen fisheries in seven countries. At WCS she’s helping develop a global small-scale fisheries strategy that integrates wildlife, ecosystems and people.