Over the last year, our research team negotiated the challenges of communicating online and doing fieldwork on fisheries and the Blue Economy during a pandemic. Initiated by a few of us thinking about further research on small-scale fisheries, we grew into a multidisciplinary team with diverse areas of expertise, interests, histories, and geographies. While conducting our research, we grappled with ethical questions about undertaking research in such troubled times and the risks involved for us and for those we study. This essay narrates our collective journey.“Old colleagues reunited and tapped into their networks to build new links across the Indian Ocean and the Global North and South.”
The collaboration began by assembling a team of researchers working on Indian Ocean fisheries. Old colleagues reunited and tapped into their networks to build new links across the Indian Ocean and the Global North and South. Our meeting space was virtual, which proved to be a remarkably conducive “flat” arena for academic deliberations and building fellowship. Through our regular (once every three weeks) online meetings, a research topic was gradually refined. The Indian Ocean Region and its small-scale fisheries in Kenya, India, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka was the starting point, and we covered a lot of ground. Discussions considered the region’s ancient history of interconnection, its conflict-ridden present, and uncertain future.
We decided to focus on the Blue Economy and how the Blue Economy discourse has shaped developments in the Indian Ocean Region.1→Isabel Hofmeyr and Charne Lavery, “Exploring the Indian Ocean as a Rich Archive of History – Above and below the Waterline,” The Conversation, December 6, 2020.
→Timothy Doyle, “Blue Economy and the Indian Ocean Rim,” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 14, no. 1 (2018): 1–6. Blue Economy proponents see it as a sustainable way to tap the ocean’s potential to foster economic growth and generate livelihoods and jobs. In our deliberations, we have been less generous about its virtues, suggesting that the Blue Economy embodies a process through which the state primarily promotes policies that encourage public-private partnerships aimed at marine resource exploitation and the building of large facilitating infrastructures (ports and harbors). Equally, we believe the Blue Economy vision across the Indian Ocean Region is a strategy of capital accumulation that will have adverse impacts on marginalized groups dependent on these resources and spaces, in particular small-scale fishing communities.
The team conceptualized the Blue Economy as a rupture and noted that the history of Indian Ocean fisheries could be characterized as one of “ruptures.” We view ruptures as moments of shock that accentuate pre-existing stresses and may result in dramatic erosion of the conditions of life for a group or subsets of a group.2B. L. Turner II et al., “A Framework for Vulnerability Analysis in Sustainability Science,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100, no. 14 (2003): 8074–8079. Ruptures are historical moments of change, or thresholds, that, once crossed, threaten to permanently shift the conditions of life for particular groups.3Jessica L. Blythe, Grant Murray, and Mark Flaherty, “Strengthening Threatened Communities through Adaptation: Insights from Coastal Mozambique,” Ecology and Society 19, no. 2 (2014): 6. Indian Ocean states and small-scale fishery actors and communities in particular continue to experience and live with a series of disruptions, dislocations, and dispossessions that rupture aptly captures. From the onset, our collaborative approach took on a feminist lens, allowing us to focus on the gendered nature of fisheries and ruptures and on the ethics of equity and care.“The pandemic fractured fisheries’ supply chains at various nodes, including production, processing, and trade.”
The relevance of rupture was reinforced by the Covid-19 pandemic, which had just set in and had a deep impact on the region. Curfews, lockdowns, and reverse migration of labor disrupted many sectors, including fisheries, across the region.4FAO, The Impact of COVID-19 on Fisheries and Aquaculture Food Systems, Possible Responses: Information Paper, November 2020 (Rome: FAO, 2021). The pandemic fractured fisheries’ supply chains at various nodes, including production, processing, and trade. Any gains in price were upset by losses in volume. Fishers were not allowed to venture out to sea during lockdown. Processors and traders were not able to sell fish because of the closure of restaurants and the near halt in tourism activities, and the general decrease in consumption damaged all economies. Small-scale fishery actors and communities had little choice but to work for survival despite the risk of Covid infection.5Basanta Kumar Das et al., “Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown on Small-Scale Fishers (SSF) Engaged in Floodplain Wetland Fisheries: Evidences from Three States in India,” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 29 (2022): 8452–8463.
We wondered if the effects of the pandemic gave a preview of how the Blue Economy, with its emphasis on port-based development and large capital investments, would impact small-scale fishing communities and actors. While India sees the Blue Economy as a way to build upon its self-sufficiency agenda, called AatmaNibhar Bharat, Cambodia, with its dubious human rights record, has embraced Chinese investment with little concern for how it might impact poor villagers. In Sri Lanka, Chinese capital has also shaped investment decisions in coastal and marine infrastructure and is no doubt responsible in part for the present economic crisis. The multisectoral emphasis of the Blue Economy in Kenya, while making the right noises in support of small-scale fisheries, prioritizes coastal mariculture and port development activities. Ultimately, small-scale fishers, processors, and traders—men and women—seem to be among the most vulnerable across the countries.
Accessing the field
While the ruptures inflicted by the pandemic and Blue Economy projects were the focus of our intellectual attention, as field-based researchers we wondered about the practicalities of meeting in person and doing fieldwork in our respective regions. Our hopes of a project meeting in Sri Lanka to network and prepare an extended proposal for further research, as initially planned, evaporated as the pandemic continued to rage on. Whenever we thought we might have an opportunity, the epicenter of the pandemic shifted geographically, lessening the possibility of meeting. Virtual meetings were thus here to stay, and we realized that they did not dampen the intellectual stimulation of engaging with each other despite the challenges of crossing over 16 time zones.“It is important to point out that fieldwork had to be conducted by those of us in the Global South.”
As meeting in Sri Lanka was not possible, we decided to use the workshop funds for preliminary fieldwork in each of our regions. Our efforts shifted to finding windows of opportunity to visit the field—Negombo in Sri Lanka, Ramanathapuram on the east coast and Honnavara on the west coast of India, Koh Kong province of Cambodia, and the Shimoni-Vanga seascape in Kenya. While one could argue the virtual platform was the same for all of us, fieldwork during a pandemic was not. In India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, we did some fieldwork during the first and second waves, but it was not possible in Cambodia. It is important to point out that fieldwork had to be conducted by those of us in the Global South. And even within the Global South, some of us were unable to go because of tight schedules, sending our research assistants for scoping trips in our place. These are concerns of collaboration we as a research community need to discuss further—whose bodies are put on the line, and what does it mean for collaborative research? Despite these challenges and ethical concerns, we carried out our fieldwork and interacted with small-scale fishers. Fieldwork alerted us to what we termed as “shrinking space” for small-scale fishers.
We embarked on fieldwork guided by the proposed title of our research project, “Ruptures, Gendered Adaptation and the Social Economy of Small-scale Fisheries in the Indian Ocean Region.” But in the field, we soon observed the phenomenon of shrinking space for small-scale fishery actors and communities, both physically and in terms of livelihood opportunities. The coast is increasingly undergoing enclosure in all our study areas for new ports, fishing harbors, industrialization, aquaculture, and tourism. New harbors seem promising but not if platforms are high and inaccessible for small boats. Tourism seems an appealing means to stimulate service sector growth, but not if it blocks access to beaches used to land small-scale fishers’ craft or by women to dry their fish. Aquaculture threatens small-scale actors in fishery value chains by competing for the same “limited” fish that aquaculture farmers require for fishmeal, also encouraging indiscriminate fishing by large-scale boats that supply this fishmeal to factories. Women-led fish-food supply chains are consequently affected adversely.
Infrastructural developments, key to the Blue Economy vision, also result in accretion and erosion, further threatening small-scale fishery actors and communities. Ecological ruptures caused by climate change are adversely felt, for example, by seaweed farmers in Kenya, and by a wide range of other fishery actors too. Similarly, ruptures, like that caused by the X-Press Pearl container ship off the coast of Sri Lanka, are a side-effect of the Blue Economy. That disaster resulted in the release of a range of pollutants—oil, microplastics, and toxic chemicals—that affected the local fishery sector through fishing restrictions and a fear of consuming polluted seafood. While compensation to fishers has started, uncertainties and long-term impacts to the oceanscape remain unknown.“Although limited because of Covid restrictions, our fieldwork alerted us to the agency of small-scale fishery actors.”
Although limited because of Covid restrictions, our fieldwork alerted us to the agency of small-scale fishery actors. It highlighted how these actors were contesting coastal development that threatened their livelihoods, at times even finding opportunities for new livelihoods. Seaweed farmers and artisanal fishers in Kenya, for example, actively protested during the initial dredging phase against an upcoming steel processing plant with the support of civil society who filed formal complaints against the plant with relevant government ministries. In Sri Lanka, women and men in the dried fish industry have formed societies and use intermediaries, such as the church, local officials, and traders, to negotiate the use of space and access to fish. On the east coast of India, small-scale fishers in Tamil Nadu have fought against the expansion of aquaculture, trying to ensure they can still berth their boats, access the sea, and protect potable water. On the west coast, in Karnataka, fishers are opposing new ports, harbor expansions, and coastal enclosures for tourism that are shrinking beach-landing space for small-scale fishers and fish drying areas for processors. In coastal Cambodia, faced with declining catch and no visible “enemy” to fight against, fishers are supplementing their income with non-fisheries activities to keep their livelihoods afloat.
Lessons and reflections
We have learned a lot over the past year about how ruptures in the form of the Blue Economy and Covid-19 have impacted small-scale fishery actors. The Blue Economy, despite its promises of improving the lives of small-scale fishery actors, has for the most part resulted in shrinking physical and livelihood spaces for them. In many cases, women have been most affected. Covid-19 amplified the difficulties of small-scale fishery actors as it disrupted fishing and other fishery livelihoods further up the value chain.
However, small-scale fishery actors have not been passive spectators to change. They have responded in multiple ways to Blue Economy initiatives, often resisting these but at times also seeking livelihood benefits from them, if their fisheries are under threat or if a lack of opportunities exist outside fisheries in non-Blue economy employment. To what extent small-scale fishery actors’ responses to the rupture caused by the Blue Economy results in a course correction of the Blue Economy vision itself remains to be seen and warrants further detailed research.
Similarly, Covid-19 and its disruptions need further enquiry in the context of small-scale fisheries. Will the pandemic leave a lasting impact on the way small-scale fishers ply their trade and organize themselves? In many countries, fishers were blamed for the spread of the pandemic. How will small-scale fishery actors and policymakers respond to the dangers fishers are exposed to in pandemic-like conditions?
Answers to these questions about the Blue Economy and Covid-19 are likely to be different across our case studies and countries. Ruptures need to be situated and understood across different geographies as we have tried to do. Comparative research of the type we are involved in is, therefore, essential so that we do not simplify ideas such as the Blue Economy or phenomenon such as Covid-19.
Our transregional collaboration provides an excellent basis for taking such research forward. Preliminary findings have helped us shape a common framework through which to try and understand the idea of ruptures and shrinking space. Our hope is to keep our collaboration going and do more in-depth research in the future.“Should we obsessively worry about staying safe, while those we interview and engage with rarely have this same choice because of how they must earn a living?”
What we have also had to confront head on are the ethical concerns that are likely to guide research in the future, especially in a world where the Covid-19 pandemic might have a lasting impact. A first set of concerns pertains to how we do research now that we are living through a pandemic. Should we not go to the field? Should we obsessively worry about staying safe, while those we interview and engage with rarely have this same choice because of how they must earn a living? What protocols do we follow in the field that ensure we do not distance ourselves from those we interact with? How do we record our experiences and for whom? And do we make conscientious choices to reduce our ecological footprint as researchers given that the pandemic itself is likely the product of our unsustainable practices?
Finally, we must continue to confront ethical questions that pertain more broadly to our role as researchers. Who are we trying to “help” as we continue our research activities? How do we engage “them” in setting the research agenda? While we cannot yet offer definitive answers, we recognize these issues as ethical and coordination challenges that require ongoing, transparent attention. We acknowledge that different locations and experiences of participants make different kinds of contributions reasonable, but none are considered more or less important. We see our efforts to critically and comparatively assess the Blue Economy in the face of the diverse and nuanced ways that small-scale fishers engage with it as one effort to address respectfully the experience and concerns of our research participants.
→Timothy Doyle, “Blue Economy and the Indian Ocean Rim,” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 14, no. 1 (2018): 1–6.