The recorded catches of most of the larger commercial fish species in Africa, such as large breams (Cichlidae), carps (Cyprinidae) and perches (Perciformes), which have been the focus of fisheries management, have not changed greatly over the past three decades. In contrast, the landings of small species of herring (Clupeidae), carp, bream and characin species – mostly zooplankton feeders, predominantly living in open waters of African lakes and reservoirs – in short, “small pelagic fish”– have steadily increased. These fisheries have developed in addition to the fishing of, and sometimes as a reaction to, decreased catch rates of larger species, introductions and the creation of large water bodies such as reservoirs. They now represent nearly three quarters of the total inland fish catch of the African continent, although a large proportion of the inland fishery catch statistics are acknowledged to be incomplete and unreliable. Stock assessments and estimates of exploitation levels are also largely absent. The expansion, technical development and marketing of these fisheries have nearly all been achieved by a multitude of local stakeholders with very limited scientific monitoring or management. Even though small pelagic fish species, and small fish in general, have always been part of the catch of subsistence fisheries in the large water bodies of Africa, they have conventionally been regarded by fisheries managers as resources with “low economic value” and consequently have been afforded low priority with respect to research and monitoring. As a result, there are still major gaps in our biological knowledge and understanding of the full potential of many species. Common to all, however, is their small size and corresponding high turnover rate, with most species being able to reproduce their own biomass around five times or more per year, which is at least twice the rate of the larger commercial species. This unparalleled level of production, together with the relatively simple technologies used for their capture, the reduced availability of bigger species because of heavy exploitation and an increased demand for fish, are the main reasons for the considerable increase in fishing effort on smaller species that has been observed in African inland fisheries over the past three decades.
Nevertheless, due to the small size of these species and the corresponding necessity of using fishing gear with small mesh sizes, many of the fisheries are operating within the constraints of the current fisheries legislation, which is largely aimed at protecting juveniles of the larger species. Many of the capture techniques are therefore illegal and this can cause conflict between fishers and managers. The theoretical foundation for the conventional single species legislation is increasingly challenged and there is an urgent need to examine and evaluate the fishing patterns from an ecosystem perspective and revise the legislation where necessary. The fishing pressure on most of the small species is only a fraction of the pressure on large fish species, and there is huge potential for increased production and more balanced exploitation if the overall fishing pressure was directed away from the large fish towards the small. In fact, this is what is already happening in many African fisheries, as evidenced by the huge increase in their catches, but it is taking place without comprehensive scientific evaluation of pressures, ecosystem effects or governance.
Small fish are processed, sold and eaten whole. Most of the catch is simply sundried which is the most environmentally friendly and energy-efficient processing technology available, requiring limited investments to obtain potentially high quality products, although rainy seasons limit year-round preservation, and spoilage through overheating and rainfall remain serious issues. In addition, small whole fish are among the most vital suppliers of micronutrients, such as vitamins, iodine, iron, zinc and calcium, which all play a critical role in cerebral development, immune system support and general health. Thus, the unique combination of high-quality protein and important micronutrients in small fish plays a significant role in combating the triple burden of hunger, micronutrient deficiency and noncommunicable diseases. Malnutrition, or so-called “hidden hunger”, is responsible for about a third of premature deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, but national food policies virtually overlook the essential link between the production, distribution and consumption of small sun-dried fish and human health. In fact, the qualities of fish are hardly recognized in the global food security discourse, and fish is strikingly missing from current strategies to combat nutrient deficiency among disadvantaged groups.
The lack of recognition of the importance of small pelagic fish for nutrition, food security, livelihoods and public health has also prevented the necessary investments for improving the quality, shelf life and public awareness of this vitally important resource. Most of the processing and packaging is done under basic, open conditions on the landing beaches, with unhygienic facilities and little protection from contaminants, insect infestations and moisture. Quality control in the whole value chain is virtually absent: there are significant post-harvest losses in the processing and trade of what are essentially low-quality, contaminated products, some of which are even infested with human pathogens. These factors all contribute to a vicious cycle that maintains the image of a “low-value” commodity, prevents the dissemination of knowledge and awareness of the huge potential that small pelagic fish have, and which could be greatly improved with proper policy attention as well as public and private investments.
In summary, catching small pelagic fish, which are simply sun-dried, affordably purchased in local, often remote markets and consumed whole, is the most high yielding, eco-friendly, low carbon dioxide (CO2)-emission and nourishing way of utilizing the high productive potential of African inland waters. However, a range of social, technical, economic, legal and policy barriers inhibit the full potential of utilizing small fish to improve nutrition in low-income populations. These include lack of enabling fisheries management legislation and food safety challenges in processing and marketing. In addition, their local use as fishmeal in animal feeds, including for aquaculture, is increasingly competing for these resources.