Stepping out of the water: how far do we need to go to manage the Pacific’s coastal fisheries?

We’ve come a long way in managing coastal fisheries. The diversity of fishes in coastal waters means that the traditional single species approach (using rigorously quantified species-specific population models and management arrangements) may not be feasible – there are simply too many species to deal with. Single species fishery management may be especially ill-suited in developing countries where there may not be enough resources to monitor coastal fisheries, let alone conduct detailed scientific studies on each species, identify appropriate management strategies and implement species-specific management. Given these constraints (which incidentally, also affect fisheries in many developed nations), other fisheries management approaches are often used.

From single species fisheries, we’ve seen the emergence of ecosystem based management (EBM) where the effects of a fishery on habitat, bycatch and the wider ecosystem are considered in great detail and factored into management objectives. This has led to a rich field in fisheries ecological risk assessments and has helped to draw attention to many at risk bycatch species and habitats. Moving on from EBM, we’ve seen the emergence of ecosystem approaches to fishery management (EAFM) where fishery management considers these ecosystem impacts as well as a much wider suite of drivers and impacts such as the impacts of pollution and degradation of coastal habitats on fisheries resources, and placing fisheries management into a wider context (for a good overview, see Morishita 2008 “What is the ecosystem approach for fisheries management?” Marine Policy). One of the most promising aspects of EAFM approaches is that they place a high priority on engaging with communities. The FAO guidelines for implementing EAFM prescribe extensive engagement with communities to develop agreed management objectives, to understand community needs and develop management linkages from grass roots levels to government agencies and national policy. These recommendations recognise that in almost every case, fisheries management won’t work unless the people involved ‘buy into’ the process and have support from managing agencies. This is a pretty basic concept and it’s encouraging to see this explicitly highlighted in the EAFM management approach. Some types of marine managed areas (MMAs), particularly community driven efforts built on community needs and cultural authority and include linkages between land and sea areas, could be classed as EAFM approaches. There is a lot of interest in the role of community based MMAs in the Pacific and there are hundreds of papers on this topic. But the world is a complicated place, and as a fisheries biologist, I sometimes I wonder if there is yet another realm of complexity beyond EAFM.

In short, are we paying enough attention to the real issues that drive fisheries, or do we get too distracted by counting fish and talking to fishers?

Where are all the fish?

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to visit Vanuatu which must be one of the most beautiful places on earth. The underwater visibility was spectacular right off the beach with coral, coral and more coral. It was fantastic! But just minutes into my first dive, realisation dawned . . . where were all the fish?

Coastal fringing reef in Vanuatu, Very high coral cover and diversity, but empty of fishes, especially larger predators such as snappers, emperors and groupers

Coastal fringing reef in Vanuatu, Very high coral cover and diversity, but empty of fishes, especially larger predators such as snappers, emperors and groupers

The story was repeated on subsequent dives and snorkels, and at the end of the trip I realised that after several days in the water at five different spots, I could count the number of individuals of each of the major predator groups – snappers, emperors, cod and coral trout I’d seen on one hand. I’ve read lots of papers and heard lots of stories about declines in coastal fisheries in the Pacific (see The Status of Coral Reefs of the Pacific and Outlook 2011), but I’d never seen depletion of coral reef fishes so starkly evident. Maybe it was just me, so when I was in the airport departure lounge, I struck up a conversation with a group of divers about their perceptions. Combined number of coral trout the group saw during three days diving of intensive diving – three. One white haired, grizzled old diver (picture Hemmingway’s “Old man and the sea”) packing a camera that was worth more than my car into a Pelican case, solemnly added that “it’s like this all over the Pacific now”. While there are certainly areas in Vanuatu with healthy fish communities (I found bigger fishes in a marine reserve in front of a tourist resort), the depletion of reef predators I witnessed certainly isn’t an isolated case.  Coastal fisheries throughout the Pacific Islands are under serious pressure and documented declines in fished species are easy to find.

Is EAFM enough?

For many Pacific communities fishing is not a luxury past time, it is a daily necessity that puts valuable protein on the table. Coastal fisheries are vital for food security, and Pacific nations have amongst the highest levels of seafood consumption in the world. This isn’t surprising considering the limited land mass and terrestrial resources available for many of these island nations.

For many Pacific Island communities, fishing is an essential activity that puts valuable protein on the dinner plate. Coastal fisheries are vital for food security, but are under increasing pressure.

For many Pacific Island communities, fishing is an essential activity that puts valuable protein on the dinner plate. Coastal fisheries are vital for food security, but are under increasing pressure.

What particularly concerns me is the prospect of massive population growth in Pacific nations.  The SPC estimates that by 2035, the population of the Pacific nations and territories will reach 15 million, almost double the 2000 population. Many of these are tiny island nations with limited land, freshwater and resources, which are highly dependent on fisheries for food security. What happens when these people, communities, families, need to feed their kids, and find money for school fees? Vanuatu has a population growth rate of 2.6% and like other Melanesian countries, is experiencing a youth “explosion” driven by high birth rates. If I’m trying to work with communities to secure the future of coastal fisheries, what happens in 20 years when the population is double what it was 15 years ago? Will EAFM plans and MMAs be able to cope with this pressure? I don’t know.

The Pacific's population will double between 2000 and 2035 and will place enormous strain on the limited resources of Pacific islands. Many coastal fisheries are already struggling to keep up.

The Pacific’s population will double between 2000 and 2035 and will place enormous strain on the limited resources of Pacific islands. Many coastal fisheries are already struggling to keep up.

Now, very clever, hard working and passionate people have been working to improve fisheries management in the Pacific for many years, but the challenges are huge, and the communities and cultures are incredibly complex. Years of hard won progress can be undone in a relatively short time. A good example illustrating this complexity is from Kia Island in Fiji where social pressures resulted in a short term opening of an area that had previously been closed for several years with strong community support and compliance. Even though the area was only opened for a few weeks, heavy fishing pressure during the opening and poaching after the area was re-closed resulted in dramatic declines in fish biomass and an increase in algal cover (see Jupiter et al 2012, “Effects of a single intensive harvest event on fish populations inside a customary marine closure” Coral Reefs). At Kia Island, immediate community needs overcame previously accepted community management practises and led to long term changes in fishing activities and declines in fish populations. In Vanuatu, fishing activity in coastal fisheries can change with social demands. Fishing may increase when school fees are due or when the kids need school uniforms, or books. The state of the resource is intricately linked with the ebb and flow of community needs. In the Solomon Islands, social pressure following a tsunami led to the reopening of the sea cucumber fishery which had been closed for many years due to over harvesting.

Where to from here?

So, what does this mean for EAFM? I think EAFM is a big jump in the right direction, specifically in that it requires fisheries management to be jointly developed with local communities using community knowledge, and linked to formal management agencies and policies. However, all of this activity still takes place in the fisheries ‘space’. For example, while an EAFM approach may determine that school fees drive a peak in fishing pressure twice a year, it doesn’t address the underlying social drivers that translate to the choices communities make in managing their fisheries – parents need extra cash so dad and uncle step up their fishing. And maybe this is where we can take the next step – multidisciplinary approaches that bring together expertise in community development, economics and social science so that fisheries management can be integrated into the long-term functioning of a community. I’m not aware of any such project and I certainly don’t see anyone from the education, population health or development circles at fisheries or coral reef conferences. I haven’t been to any development/population health conferences either. Last year’s International Coral Reef Symposium didn’t have a session on the impacts of population growth and social drivers on resource use patterns, yet population growth is a key driving factor for increasing strain coral reefs. Papers that include authors from across these disciplines also seem to be pretty rare.

So maybe us fisheries specialists need to broaden our horizons. Let’s say we want to work with a community in Vanuatu to help rebuild their coastal fishery and secure its future as a source of food security and income. Maybe during the initial consultation stages with the community, us fisheries biologists should make connections with NGOs working in health and education so that we’re talking to each other. Perhaps when we hold a meeting with the village chiefs, we should collaborate with the people working in development, population health and education so that fisheries management can be discussed in the context of the way the whole community works and placed within a long-term vision for the community. Perhaps we could agree that fisheries and conservation concepts can be taught in the local school so that next generation of fishers can learn from the mistakes of the past? Maybe we can work with NGOs and donors to create a book and school uniform fund in local schools, so that parents won’t be under such pressure to exploit already stretched fisheries resources to pay for the kids school fees? Maybe the key to long term sustainability is education about family planning, developing diverse income and agriculture streams (including tourism and aquaculture) to increase social resilience, or developing community infrastructure like solar powered fridges to maximise the value of the fish taken by local fishers and stabilise supply and demand cycles? Maybe we work to develop opportunities for using FADs to target more abundant tuna fisheries offshore, while working with community development projects to develop infrastructure that maximises the local benefits derived from tuna while at the same time, getting community agreement to give coastal fisheries a break?

Education is highly valued, and environmental education that incorporates traditional knowledge may be essential to helping the next generation understand the pressures their communities face and what can be done to respond to these changes.

Education is highly valued, and environmental education that incorporates traditional knowledge may be essential to helping the next generation understand the pressures their communities face and what can be done to respond to these changes.

I realise that adding more pieces to an already complicated picture is difficult. Maybe the potential benefits of a holistic multidisciplinary approach will be grossly outweighed by the increased complexity, and projects fail because there are too many factors and people involved. I don’t know. But to try this approach, I think we can start small. The next time I’m in Vanuatu, I’m going to try to make contact with people working in the development and population health arenas just to see if there is the possibility of working synergistically. I’d like to establish links with Wan Smol Bag who run excellent environmental education programs in Vanuatu ranging from fisheries and logging to sexual health. I’d like to see if we can work together so that a coastal fisheries and MMA project could bring together elements of biological research, social science, traditional knowledge and education. At the very least, it might mean one combined meeting with the community instead of repeated visits that driving communities to frustration through ‘consultation fatigue’.

This is just a blog, an on-line lounge to discuss ideas. I don’t know if any of this would work, or is realistic, maybe it’s all been tried before? Regardless, I’m putting the idea out there and would be really interested in reader’s thoughts and inputs. Whether you think this is great, crazy, or just repeating what’s already been tried, I’d love to hear from you. The comments field is open . . .

About spinnershark97

Marine biologist specializing in fisheries science, sharks and rays, marine protected area management, and communication and education. I am especially interested on coral reef ecosystems and the Pacific islands.

One thought on “Stepping out of the water: how far do we need to go to manage the Pacific’s coastal fisheries?

  1. Alison Green says:

    Hi Andrew
    Nice opinion piece and welcome to my world! You have highlighted many of the key issues, and some promising approaches. I completely agree that the most urgent need is to address population increase. Ecosystem based approaches also hold some promise given the interest in these approaches on the ground in some places. From my perspective I still believe that no-take marine reserves are a critical piece of the puzzle, which is why we’ve spent the last few years synthesizing advice regarding how to design marine reserve networks to provide fisheries benefits to local communities. But we still face a major hurdle since communities still see these as a bad things, rather than focusing more on the major benefits that they can offer for fisheries management and food security. Some other new initiatives are also gaining traction in the region, including data poor fisheries management and traditional use right fisheries management (TURFs). Looking forward to working with you on these issues in the region.
    Ali

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