Millions of people in the Asian region depend on fisheries for a living,
and the sector is a major source of food security, employment, income and foreign exchange.


For fishing communities, both marine and inland, safeguarding their rights to access fisheries resources and to the continuous possession or enjoyment of coastal residential habitats and other lands traditionally used by them, is of paramount importance. This is the case for communities dependent on marine fisheries who have limited access to other alternative resources, as well as for full-time inland fishers or those involved part-time with other agrarian pursuits. These rights are currently being threatened in various ways, due to developments both within and outside the fisheries sector.

At the same time, recognition of these rights, within the framework of sustainable utilization of living natural resources, is considered necessary if fishing communities are to progressively share the responsibility of managing coastal and fisheries resources.

Rights to fisheries resources
Fisheries have a long tradition in the Asian region, both in the inland and coastal areas. The sector has been, and continues to be, an important source of income, food and livelihoods for millions in the region. Fishing communities along coasts, rivers, lakes and other water bodies have been living and fishing in the same area for generations. Migration of fishers, mainly in pursuit of migratory fish stocks, has also been a common and accepted feature. It is not surprising, therefore, that several communities have developed their own norms to regulate access to resources, resolve conflicts, and ensure equity. They often have clear perceptions of ?claims' to the resources (land and water/seabased) on which their lives and livelihoods depend. Their perceptions and claims have, in some cases, obtained wider social acceptance in the larger community and attained the status of unwritten 'rights'. These `rights?, and the norms and institutions associated with them, are yet to be formally recognized by the State, in most cases. These customary rights have also weakened over time, with the influx of capital and technology, adaptations of fishing methods and fishing vessels, and the growth in fish trade as well as the competing uses for inland and coastal spaces.

Today there is growing global concern about declining fishery resources, both in marine and inland water bodies, and recognition of the need to manage fisheries resources. Poor performances in fisheries, including inefficiencies in resource conservation, have often been attributed to deficiencies in the institutions that regulate access; and the importance of adjusting such institutions to the conditions of resource scarcity has been highlighted. There is increasing emphasis on rights-based approaches to fisheries management, advocating the introduction of some form of rights to resources?for individuals or groups. However, discussions on rights-based approaches have largely been restricted to fisheries in temperate ecosystems. The solutions offered are, in the main, not wholly conducive to the context of the techno-ecological or socioeconomic dimensions of small-scale fisheries in developing countries. This is particularly true in the context of Asia, which accounts for the largest share of small-scale fishing operations.

The assumptions underlying rights-based approaches are threefold: (i) There is excess fishing capacity in both small- and large-scale fisheries, and fisheries the world over are largely overfished, and face the threat of collapse. (ii) The core problem of resource overexploitation and stock depletion, as well as the building up of excess fishing capacity, lies in the open-access nature of most fisheries. (iii) Rights-based approaches are the only effective way, in the long run, of meeting the biological, social and economic objectives of fisheries management. The solutions offered include introducing a menu of property-rights regimes, such as individual transferable quotas (ITQs) for some fish stocks and territorial use rights in fisheries (TURFs) for some others.

A widespread adoption of rights-based approaches to fisheries could have major implications for the lives and livelihoods of small-scale fishworkers and their communities. It is thus essential to examine both the underlying assumptions and the solutions that follow from them. It is particularly important to analyze whether the fisheries management measures being put forward are coherent with the customary rights of coastal fisheries and their communities, within a framework of sustainable fisheries.


Further, it is important to explore this debate in conjunction with the long-articulated analysis, positions and demands of artisanal fishworkers vis-à-vis allocation and management of fisheries resources, and to identify areas of convergence and departure, so as to propose coastal and fisheries management regimes appropriate for both small- and large-scale fisheries in the Asian context.

Rights to coastal lands
Fishing communities have lived along the coasts of seas, rivers, lakes and other water bodies for generations, given their need for being close to fishing grounds. However, with the growing competing uses of coastal spaces, fishing communities in several parts of Asia find themselves displaced from their traditional lands, or facing the threat of displacement. In many areas, communities lack formal titles to the lands they have customarily lived on and used for berthing boats, drying fish, gathering crabs, shellfish and seaweeds, doing subsistence farming, and so on. Several of these activities are often the responsibility of the women of fishing communities. The dimensions of this problem need to be better understood, and ways sought to secure the rights of communities to the coastal lands they customarily use. In this context, the coastal management frameworks being put in place by countries in the Asian region must be examined.