Call to Action—The “Rome Declaration”: Ten Steps to Responsible Inland Fisheries

Rome Declaration Ten Steps cover

By William W. Taylor and Devin M. Bartley

In January 2015, nearly 250 experts on freshwater fisheries from more than 40 countries gathered at the headquarters of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome for the Global Conference on Inland Fisheries, Freshwater, Fish and the Future, organized by FAO and Michigan State University (MSU). They came to share their experience, knowledge, and ideas for conserving the world’s vast and diffuse inland fisheries and freshwater aquatic systems—resources whose value to ecological function, food security, recreation, livelihoods, and societal prosperity has been underappreciated even as the threats to their sustainability have been growing.

When we started planning for this conference several years ago, many seemed to believe that there was little in common among global inland fisheries. Some are principally managed for recreational fishing where others are managed for subsistence fishing, commercial fishing, or aquaculture, and far too many are not managed at all. For many of the North Americans in attendance at the conference, the presentations provided an eye-opening glimpse at how differently inland fisheries operate around the world. Yet no matter the main purpose of an inland fishery, all of them contribute to a community’s intrinsic sense of place and foster both well-being and a connection to the natural world.

The challenges inland fisheries now face are all too common among nations—competition for water, degraded landscapes and water quality, migration barriers, and unsustainable development—most of which have been done in isolation from the impact that these alterations would have on inland fisheries habitats and fisheries production. For instance, development projects, such as hydroelectric dams and agricultural water diversions, are proposed to enhance the economy and quality of life of people in low income countries. But do decision-makers always understand the trade-offs of such projects in terms of the potential loss of value of inland fisheries productivity and aquatic ecosystem services? In the Mekong basin, inland fish account for up to 40% of the protein consumed. Children from these regions (and elsewhere) acquire beneficial micronutrients from the local, small, freshwater fish during the critical growing period known as the “first 1,000 days,” nutrients that are not easily replaceable or accessible to the diffuse human communities in many locations of the world. Additionally, changes in water and landscapes directly impact the productivity of inland fisheries which support the livelihoods of up to 60 million people globally—many of whom live in some of the world’s poorest countries and of which nearly half are women who are often the main support for the health and nutrition of their family.

One of the overriding challenges to protecting and enhancing global freshwater fisheries is our inability to accurately assess the status of inland fisheries resources so that policy-makers can understand the impact of the decisions they make on local communities’ food security, livelihoods, and well-being. Due to their vastness and geographic dispersion, many countries do not have the knowledge base, personnel or financial capabilities to accurately assess the magnitude and importance of freshwater fisheries in society. Thus, inland fish landings are generally poorly reported throughout the world. Fish are mostly caught in small-scale fisheries, or grown in small aquaculture farms, and sold through informal markets that exist in the local community. As such, FAO has only partial harvest data, if any, from several countries around the world. Additionally, essential biological data needed for proper management of many freshwater species are also lacking—for instance, can we say with certainty that reducing water flows by x% will reduce fish habitat by y% and hence affect fish production by z%? Hand in hand with that calculation is what effect that reduction in fish production would then have on food security, local incomes, and community health, not to mention the impact on the aquatic ecosystem and the services it provides.

Addressing these challenges requires unprecedented crosssectoral collaboration across international boundaries. With the help and input of the conference participants, the conference organizers have developed a road map to initiate this global effort. It is their hope that the so called “Rome Declaration,” described below, be seriously considered by all nations throughout the world and, in so doing, would assign a greater value to protecting and managing their valuable freshwater fisheries and implement the key findings from this conference, thereby leading to greater sustainability of the world’s inland fisheries resources. The 10 steps and implementation recommendations articulated by the “Rome Declaration” are just a starting point, and if the global community begins to start taking these factors into account when making decisions about the use of land and water resources that affect fisheries production, inland fisheries will continue to provide food, livelihoods, and well-being for the multitude of people around the world who depend on these fisheries. To read the full “Rome Declaration,” as well as to learn about the individuals who compiled it, see The conference proceedings are also being jointly published by the American Fisheries Society (AFS), FAO, and MSU and will be available later this summer on the AFS and FAO publication websites.

The “Rome Declaration”: Ten Steps to Responsible Inland Fisheries

1. Improve the assessment of biological production to
enable science-based management

Accurate and complete information about fishery production from inland waters is lacking at local, national and global levels. Governments often lack the resources or capacity to collect such information due to the diverse and dispersed nature of many inland fisheries. There is much scope for developing and refining biological assessment tools to facilitate science-based management.

2. Correctly value inland aquatic systems

The true economic and social values of healthy, productive inland aquatic ecosystems are often overlooked, underestimated and not taken into account in decision-making related to land and water use. Economic and social assessment is often difficult and valuation often limited. In most cases, especially in the developing world, inland fisheries are part of the informal or local economy, so their economic impact is not accurately measured in official government statistics.

3. Promote the nutritional value of inland fisheries

The relative contribution of inland fisheries to food security and nutrition is higher in poor food-insecure regions of the world than in many developed countries that have alternate sources of food. Good nutrition is especially critical in early childhood development (i.e., the first 1,000 days). Loss of inland fishery production will undermine food security, especially in children, in these areas and put further pressure on other food producing sectors.

4.Develop and improve science-based approaches to fishery management

Many inland waterbodies do not have fishery or resource management arrangements that can adequately address sustainable use of resources. Where management arrangements exist, compliance and enforcement are often minimal or non-existent. This may result in excessive fishing pressure, decreased catch per unit effort, and conflicts between fishers, as well as changes in the productivity of fishery resources. In some areas, reductions in fishing capacity will be required. To facilitate fishery management, it will be important to improve access to and promote better sharing of data and information about inland fisheries supporting the assessment–management cycle.

5. Improve communication among freshwater users

Information on the importance of the inland fishery and aquaculture sectors is often not shared with or accessed by policy-makers, stakeholders and the general public, thereby making it difficult to generate political will to protect inland fishery resources and the people that depend on them. Moreover, many misconceptions exist on the needs and desires of fishing communities.

6. Improve governance, especially for shared waterbodies

Many national, international and transboundary inland waterbodies do not have a governance structure that holistically addresses the use and development of the water and its fishery resources. This often results in decisions made in one area adversely affecting aquatic resources, food security, and livelihoods in another.

7. Develop collaborative approaches to cross-sectoral integration in development agendas

Water-resource development and management discussions very often marginalize or overlook inland fisheries. Therefore, trade-offs between economically and socially important water-resource sectors and ecosystem services from inland water systems often ignore inland fisheries and fishers. Development goals based on common needs, e.g., clean water and flood control, can yield mutually beneficial outcomes across water-resource sectors.

8. Respect equity and rights of stakeholders

Lack of recognition of the cultural values, beliefs, knowledge, social organization, and diverse livelihood practices of indigenous people, inland fishers, fishworkers, and their communities has often resulted in policies that exclude these groups and increase their vulnerability to changes affecting their fisheries. This exclusion deprives these groups of important sources of food as well as cultural and economic connections to inland aquatic ecosystems.

9. Make aquaculture an important ally

Aquaculture is the fastest-growing food production sector and an important component in many poverty alleviation and food security programs. It can complement capture fisheries, e.g., through stocking programs, by providing alternative livelihoods for fishers leaving the capture fisheries sector, and by providing alternative food resources. It can also negatively affect capture fisheries, e.g., introduction of invasive species and diseases, through competition for water resources, pollution, and access restrictions to traditional fishing grounds.

10. Develop an action plan for global inland fisheries

Without immediate action, the food security, livelihoods and societal well-being currently provided by healthy inland aquatic ecosystems will be jeopardized, risking social, economic, and political conflict and injustice.

Many members of AFS were active participants in the Global Conference on Inland Fisheries. It is our hope that the Society takes a leadership role with its partners throughout the world to promote these 10 steps and ensure the sustainability and value of freshwater fisheries for all people in the future! If we don’t lead, then who will?


We gratefully acknowledge the participants and committee members that contributed to the global conference and helped develop this declaration, especially Eddie Allison, Doug Austen, Claudio Baigun, Beth Beard, Doug Beard, Steve Cook, Ian Cowx, Carlos Fuentevilla, Simon Funge-Smith, Chris Goddard, Nancy Leonard, Kai Lorenzen, Abigail Lynch, So-Jung Youn, and Robin Welcomme.

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