Tropical rivers provide food and a means of livelihood for millions of the world’s poor, but there is a lack of information on how to place a monetary and economic value on this resource.

This information gap means that the need to protect river ecosystems may not be fully appreciated, especially in the face of infrastructure projects such as dams and irrigation schemes that can seriously affect water flow and fish habitats.

WorldFish researchers and their partners undertook a major study to help developing countries examine their river systems and inland fisheries and to quantify the monetary and economic value of these natural assets.

Researchers calculated that tropical fisheries production currently totals about 5.46 million metric tons, with an estimated gross market value of $USD 5.58 billion. This amount is equivalent 20 percent of the $USD 29 billion worth of fish annually exported by developing countries.

This estimate is based upon fragmented and incomplete data, and researchers need to find better ways of analyzing the value of river resources so this can be given due weight in development planning and policies into the future. Beyond the unreliability of the data are other, more methodological challenges, such as how to quantify the contribution of inland small-scale fisheries to the food security of remote rural communities. In addition, how does one assign values to common resources that are exploited primarily by part-time subsistence fishers as a way to spread part of the risk inherent to rural livelihoods?

As the subsistence value of freshwater fisheries is mostly absent from national income statistics, it is rarely included in policy decisions on: economic development, poverty alleviation, food security, conservation or environmental sustainability. With little or no value placed on these resources by national governments, there is no impetus to manage them.

Weak governance, which limits stakeholder participation and cooperation, and limited institutional capacity, which restricts information flow, contribute to the widespread failure to manage freshwater fisheries effectively. These resources and the benefits that they provide are likely to become increasingly degraded, leading to ever more competition and conflict between resource users, and deepening rural poverty.

WorldFish has developed a global synthesis on the valuation of tropical river fisheries (Nieland and Béné 2008). The aim was to inform policy decision processes affecting inland fisheries, with better appraisals of their value, which would produce a good balance of trade-offs.

Additional research is needed before more reliable estimates of the total economic value of inland fisheries are available, but it is indisputable that these fisheries are invaluable to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world.

4 July 2011

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