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A New Way To Protect Fish And Fishers

January 27, 2011

Researchers at Australia’s leading coral reef research centre have developed a way to protect both coral reef fish – and the interests of fishers.

In pioneering research carried out in Fiji in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the CoECRS team has reported a new approach that enables communities to balance the need to protect the environment with the need to maintain local food supplies and incomes.

Concern over the worldwide decline of coral reefs has prompted many countries and local communities to impose marine reserves to protect dwindling fish stocks. However these can adversely affect the incomes and welfare of fishers and their communities, says lead author Ms Vanessa Adams of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University.

“For a marine protected area to work, the people living around it have to trust it to deliver both the conservation goals and the needs of the community. They have to be comfortable with it – otherwise they won’t comply with it,” she says.

While the research was carried out in Fiji, it could equally apply to the protection of coral reef resources across the six nations of the Coral Triangle, to Australia’s north, and to Australia’s own Great Barrier Reef and other coral regions, Ms Adams says.

“Designing a protected area so that it meets both conservation and community goals is a complicated affair.  It requires strong community involvement and a lot of dialogue,” she explains.

Working with community leaders and managers, WCS designed a protected area network for Fiji’s Kubulau District in 2005 to help conserve natural resources for the future. Following local conflict over the location of some of the closures, the CoECRS team agreed to help WCS to re-design the protected areas so as to better reflect local needs. To achieve this, the CoECRS team collected fish catch data from local fishermen and underwater fish census data from WCS staff.  This was used to create models to design alternative protected areas.

“Essentially we modeled the highest value fishing grounds, both now, and into the future assuming the introduction of new kinds of fishing gear,” explains Ms. Adams. “We then investigated how we could reposition the fishing closures to reduce conflict and ensure that fishermen would not lose too much income in the process.” 

In coming months, WCS will present a range of options to the Kubulau communities who will then have ultimate say over the preferred management scheme.

“This participatory approach gives local people more ownership over the management process, which results in a higher likelihood of compliance with fishing bans inside the closures,” says Dr. Stacy Jupiter, Director of WCS’ Fiji Country Program.

The success of the project was founded on two elements – the first being that many coral-dependent communities across the Pacific and Coral Triangle want to establish marine protected areas to protect their sea areas from incursions by large industrial fishing vessels.

In Fiji, they have long had areas which are tabu, where fishing is forbidden on traditional grounds, so the concept of a protected area is part of their culture.

“But we also noticed that fishermen are well aware that protected areas help to restock the surrounding waters with fish, and can see the benefits from practical experience.”

Ms Adams says that the principles underlying the research in Fiji can apply widely, including in places such as Indonesia, Australia, the Pacific and Indian Ocean and the Caribbean – wherever there are societies which depend on coral reefs for their living.

“The bottom line is that you need to engage with the community, and make sure they own the idea of having a protected area on their doorstep. That way you can protect the reefs, the fish and the fishers livelihoods at a time when they are all under rising pressure from both climate and human activity.”

Their paper “Improving social acceptability of marine protected area networks: A method for estimating opportunity costs to multiple gear types in both fished and currently unfished areas” by Vanessa M. Adams, Morena Mills, Stacy D. Jupiter and Robert L. Pressey appears in the journal Biological Conservation 144 (2011).

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