Slow Fish was again at Porto Antico in Genoa, this year from 9 to 12 May. Good seafood and regional specialities from around the country and even from further afield appealed to the senses. Good books, some educational games and a stream of conferences nutured curiosity and a playful way of learning. The strongest part, feeding us into the future, was the stream of engaged conversations among people from small-scale fisheries and their support structures from different parts of the world debating about how to ensure sustainable futures for the Blue Commons. Already the Slow Fish title "The Sea: A Common Good" set the tone.

Blue Commons is the concept that places the emphasis on public resources not owned by anybody in particular, but for which we all have to take responsibility, such as the ocean, clean air, the climate. These are overridingly important types of commons. But you can expand the concept also to public health, to knowledge and the cultural commons, such as the internet, free libraries and scientific research (think of the current initiative to make all scientific publications open access).

You will also immediately think of FishBase (all fish species known to science) and SeaLifeBase (all non-fish organisms in the ocean), which are public domain repositories of potentially everything we know about these organisms. They are already being used by hundreds of thousands of people from all around world every month. Although not everyone may use common resources to the same extent right now, they are part of our common wealth as freely available and shared resources.

They have already helped countless people with learning, business, administration, economic and other decision making and fun. Also, with the help of volunteering students, Mundus maris animated the Fish Sound Quiz of FishBase by Q-quatics and kindled the curiosity about fish and the ocean of many visitors.

Of course, such commons need to be nurtured and managed responsibly. For example, the current levels of subsidy-driven overfishing has seriously degraded at least a third of global fisheries resources. We also observe how the plastic deluge is polluting rivers and seas and contaminates the entire food web. The demonstration of plastic fibres in fish food rings the alarm bells that healthy and productive commons require change in the ways with produce and consume so that unsustainable practices stop affecting the very tissue of life in the ocean and on earth.

If it required more warnings, the just published UN report on the state of biodiversity brought this message home very forcefully: one million out of an estimated 8 million species on earth are threatened by extinction with the greatest risks in tropical lands and seas where species live already close to the limits of their temperature tolerance.

Blue Commons is a concept distinct from Blue Growth and the Blue Economy. The latter terms are now frequently used to promote and justify an investment frenzy into deep sea mining, oil and gas exploration, heavy infrastructure and private appropriation of coastal zones for mass and elite tourism.

This is, of course, not to oppose investments per se, however, only too frequently these investment schemes displace women and men in small-scale fisheries and other coastal communities with no regards whatsoever for their human rights, their livelihoods and the wider consequences on other commons. This came out clearly as a concern of the fishers and fish processors from Canada, the EU and particularly strongly those from countries in the global South.

Instead of marginalising small-scale operators, whether in the fisheries, aquaculture, agriculture or livestock activities, discussants showed in many presentations and conversations how successful such operators can be when the framework is supportive and when they can collaborate for greater strength. In brief, when there is even a beginning of implementation of the Guidelines for sustainable small-scale fisheries (SSF Guidelines) and other sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Several examples arising from work of the Slow Food movement and others illustrated the opportunities of collective action that reconnects, among others, responsible practices of small-scale operators to consumers intent on buying sustainable fish.

The small-scale fisheries academy starting up its field work in Senegal in earnest at World Oceans Day after careful preparation was among the examples triggering interest for collaboration. A long list of activities of Mundus maris with and in coastal fishing communities in Senegal has led up to addressing a range of needs on such a support platform starting with teaching aids on the ecosystem approach to fisheries developed with local teachers for the FAO since 2011. The academy was from the beginning conceptualised as a safe space for exchange for co-production of knowledge and joint learning among a wide range of stakeholders to seek better mutual understanding and more robust solutions to the sharpening crisis.

The academy's organising committee of mostly Senegalese professional organisations supported by Mundus maris focuses on the implementation of the SSF Guidelines. The academy is being built on several pillars beyond "simply" giving easier access to technical information, through:

  • an empowerment programme of joint learning for women and men to upgrade their capacity for keeping up their businesses and their maritime cultures in a rapidly changing social, economic and environmental context. Here the emphasis is on training of trainers within the communities.
  • open debates on governance and policies that matter for the future of small-scale fisheries, such as licensing industrial vessels in the face of already overexploited resources, curbing IUU fishing and promoting social support policies (education, health, social services, access to coastal zones, credit and markets).
  • seeking collaboration within and outside the country with all those in research, administrations and practice interested in sustainable and prosperous small-scale fisheries and other small-scale producers facing similar challenges.

It's very much work in progress that needs to be in support of government efforts to implement the SSF Guidelines and all other opportunities to connecting agreed global objectives with ground experiences, where different types of expertise and experience are valuable. One may also add that better data on key aspects of small-scale fisheries would be very helpful for better tailored policies and activities. Given the large social, cultural and economic importance of these fisheries, it would be worth the effort to collect data on key parameters, such as on catches by species, quantity, area and gears; employment of men and women in different segments of the value chain; economic parameters about catches, local consumption vs. export, product types, evolving relationships between commercial small-scale fisheries, industrial fisheries, recreational fisheries, tourism and processing and marketing channels.

Most fittingly, this year's UN motto for World Oceans Day, 8 June, less than a month after Slow Fish, is focused on gender and ocean. Though no proper statistics are being collected, based on some case studies FAO experts estimate that half of all people active in different phases of the fisheries value chain are women - and 90% of all these people, an estimated 120 million worldwide, are operating in the small-scale sector. So ensuring the long-denied recognition to these women and reconnecting the broken pieces of the value chains all the way from preparations, fishing, and postharvest activities to the final consumer is a challenging, but also worthwhile task. We continue contributing to this task. Click here for a briefing underscoring some key points of blue justice to all across the industry.

Congratulations to the dynamic Slow Fish team headed by Paula Barbeito for having created the conditions for four days of fruitful discussions, refreshing old friendships and enabling new ones. Michelle Mesmain was indefatigable as a moderator and translator. Thanks to the entire Slow Food organisation and our helpers to have together enabled a most memorable event. So, we all go back with fresh energy to work - together across geographical distances - in our respective places. See you at the latest in two year's time in Genoa again. More info on the Slow Fish website.

Text and photos Cornelia E Nauen, Simona T. Boschetti, Paolo Bottoni.