Small-Scale Fisheries Innovation Summit

To save our fisheries, we need a new approach

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Thought piece
Susana Montes
June 17, 2015

This article was originally published by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Nearly a billion people depend on fisheries for food and their livelihoods, the demand for fish is becoming increasingly hard to meet, and marine ecosystems are in a state of impending collapse. By definition, we are dealing with a “super wicked challenge” that requires new types of approaches and processes that will yield truly novel and actionable strategies.

In February 2014, 19 participants from eight countries gathered for the Small-Scale Fisheries Innovation Summit, designed and facilitated by Stanford ChangeLabs and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Oceans & Fisheries Initiative.

“We’re tired of the same ideas. And, we keep recycling them. How do we see beyond current approaches?"

Larry Crowder, Science Director of the Center for Ocean Solutions and summit collaborator, explained the need to try something different: “We’re tired of the same ideas. And, we keep recycling them. How do we see beyond current approaches? How do we rapidly prototype and evolve them into actionable strategies?” The summit helped participants look beyond existing models and beliefs, ask new types of questions, and apply novel ideas.

One way to change the questions and ideas surfacing in a conversation is to change who is in the room.

Participants extended beyond marine scientists and fisheries experts to food security, mobile banking, community development, and impact investing—all fields that can influence the issue. One such participant was Alan Chiu, partner at XSeed Capital in Silicon Valley. Though Alan’s knowledge on fisheries was limited, he would apply his expertise in technology-based business systems to one of the planet’s most complex challenges. Over the three days, participants used a mixture of short, high-energy brainstorming sessions and longer reflective sessions, to test, recombine, and explore ideas in new ways, with the primary task of seeking disproportionately effective solutions to the fisheries crisis—all focused on how to create healthy small-scale fisheries and thriving coastal communities at scale.

Summit participant Alan Chiu, partner in XSeed Capital, brainstorming target outcomes for the small-scale fisheries challenge

Summit participant Alan Chiu, partner in XSeed Capital, brainstorming target outcomes for the small-scale fisheries challenge

The Summit produced five high-potential intervention strategies. One strategy, “Fish Flex” addresses the challenge that there is often not enough value in fisheries to sustain the communities that depend on them. By one estimate, there are more than 1.5-2.5x the number of people chasing fish than the oceans can support. This results in more people trying to capture their share of a smaller and smaller pie. Furthermore, fishing is often seasonal which translates to uneven cash flow throughout the year, leaving fishers unable to mitigate economic shocks, plan, or invest in the future.

Fish Flex proposes:

  • A platform that matches the skills and behavioral profiles of small-scale fishers with employment options in addition to the fisheries arena, including digital jobs and physical labor jobs in the community, such as goods transport or roof repair (like TaskRabbit for fishers) and,
  • Longer-term services, such as business incubation, that strengthen the economic ecosystem and resilience of a fishery community. Behavioral principles, such as loss aversion and status rewards, are built into the program in order to encourage people to move beyond fishing as a primary source of income. Fish Flex could help fishers build new skills and a credible portfolio of work over time, leading to increased household resilience in coastal communities, and reducing pressure on marine ecosystems to enable stock recovery.

Other strategies include:

  • Balancing information flows so that fishers can demand better prices,
  • Creating a new platform for financial services that promotes sustainable practices on the water,
  • Creating an ecosystem that supports adaptive governance and the skills development and professionalization of local partners, and
  • Developing a large-scale data platform tailored to local contexts. ChangeLabs choreographed an exploration between the strategies, resulting in many linkages, like using the extension of mobile banking services as a way to register fishers and understand who exactly is fishing.

The summit produced not only new ideas that might be ripe for further exploration and investment, but new relationships among participants in a variety of sectors. Bringing together a group of carefully selected experts for a few days of intense and mindfully coordinated co-creation has the profound effect of generating disproportionately effective strategies aimed at our scaled challenges. Workshops like the Innovation Summit advance our thinking around the world’s super wicked problems.

By the end of the Summit, Alan still wasn’t a fisheries expert but he contributed in a highly leveraged way. He also brought back new insights on strategies for changing large-scale, complex systems, and is now applying them to help XSeed portfolio companies scale their growth and impact.

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