Collaborative Sustainable Innovation

co-designing small-scale fisheries governance approaches

Introducing CO-SUSTAIN – Collaborative Sustainable Innovation: co-designing small-scale fisheries governance approaches for the Irish islands.

CO-SUSTAIN is a two year research project (October 2018-October 2020) funded by the EU H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and hosted by the Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities in the School of Histories and Humanities, Trinity College Dublin.

This new research project is about human-environment relationships. I’m exploring this broad theme within the context of small-scale fisheries in the Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Cork island groups off the west coast of Ireland. I’ll be working closely with IIMRO, the Irish Islands Marine Resources Organisation, which represents many of the small-scale fishers on these islands. I’m a marine social scientist. In the broadest terms, I study the relationships between people and the sea. I have been working with island fishing communities (mainly in Scotland) since 2010. I’m a qualitative social scientist which means I look for rich detail rather than trying to quantify issues. If there’s a conflict, I probably won’t be able to tell you how many people are for and how many are against something, but I’ll be able to tell you about the stories underlying the conflict, where they may have come from and how they might be helping or hindering ways forward.

An important part of my research involves engaging with the policy environment which generally operates at a very different rhythm to small coastal communities. International, European and national policy contexts are all relevant to Irish fisheries.* I sit between these many different worlds (no two communities or policy environments are the same), listen to the stories being told, and think about whose voices are being heard, whose voices are not being heard and why. Who has the power to shape the stories that we hear – in communities and in policy environments. Are these stories helping or hindering people imagine and design their own futures?

At the start of a qualitative research project, I spend a lot of time listening rather than arriving somewhere armed with pre-designed questions. This open-ended listening at the start of a project helps me to co-design the research with the people I listen to, which hopefully means that the research focuses on questions that people (including policy makers) are interested in exploring. So, my projects generally begin with a field trip to one of the communities I want to engage with. For the CO-SUSTAIN project, I’ll be writing a blog about each research trip. The aim of this is two-fold. It will help me to record and reflect on what I am observing and (I hope) it will also make this research project more accessible to the communities I am working with, policy makers and the general public.

Although the project officially started in 2018, I have already been involved in the Detailed Scrutiny of the Island Fisheries (Heritage Licence) Bill 2017 at the Joint Committee for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on 12 June this year.CO-SUSTAIN will work with the Irish Islands Marine Resources Organisation (IIMRO) to co-design and test innovative governance approaches that promote good governance, foster marine stewardship and contribute to sustainability goals while meeting the needs of fisheries-dependent coastal communities to flourish. It will draw together marine science (natural and social), political ecology, law, environmental governance, environmental history and gender studies to:

  • Assess the cultural basis and social importance of the islands’ small-scale fishing industry by carrying out a review of the environmental history and heritage of marine resource use in the four island groups;
  • Identify the most effective governance approaches for small-scale fishing communities for each of the island groups by critically assessing the values, norms, worldviews and power relations within different stakeholder groups (in the relevant communities and in the policy environment), and by scoping out legislative, regulatory and institutional barriers;
  • Carry out a gender analysis of the different roles of men and women in fisheries governance in Irish island small-scale fisheries in order to understand what they do, what resources they have, and what their needs and priorities are.

The findings will provide a better understanding of the stories or narratives being developed by island fishing communities to design their own futures, how these are (re)shaping fishing identities and the kinds of governance approaches that could most effectively meet the needs of fishing communities and policy-makers. Research findings will be presented and published in academic journals, a policy report, at international conferences, seminars and webinars, on social media and through a variety of outreach activities.

*At a national level, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is responsible for Irish fisheries policy. However, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is also relevant to fisheries as they are responsible for planning the marine environment – they recently published a draft National Marine Planning Framework Baseline Report (my response to the report can be found here). They must also comply with the relevant EU Directives such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (which aims to protect the marine environment through the application of an ecosystem-based approach) and the more recent Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (for effective and sustainable planning and management of marine-related activities).

Image: Arranmore Island, Donegal. By Seamus Bonner

For queries or comments, please contact Dr Ruth Brennan at