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James Cook University Townsville
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Email: info@coralcoe.org.au

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Lessons from the Pacific about balancing community and environmental needs

22
Feb 2020

Posted By

Maria Nayfa

By Jacqueline Lau, Michele Barnes & Joshua Cinner 

Coral reefs provide food and income for millions of people, but reef health is declining worldwide. Success stories are rare, but we spent the last 16 years studying one.

Since 2001, we’ve worked with two communities in Papua New Guinea who employ a long-enduring customary rotational fisheries closure system, which is akin to fallow agriculture; much like allowing a crop of blackberries to run wild, and then enjoying the bountiful feast. Studying the effects of this rotational closure system, this study found a pattern that isn’t seen very often – coral cover was increasing substantially: from ~40% in 2001 to ~60% now (for comparison, average coral cover on the central and southern Great Barrier Reef is between 14% and 25%, respectively).

What’s more – we found that this system not only more than doubled the amount of fish (i.e., biomass) on the reef, but made fish easier to catch. Fish appeared to become naïve to fishing after the closure had been in place for a while: they let fishers get much closer to them before swimming away, making these now abundant fish easier to catch!

When reefs were reopened to fishing, communities held a feast of freshly caught lobsters and smoked fish combined with a ceremony where leaders expounded the success of the reef closure. In fact, our research found that almost everybody in the community felt this system was beneficial for their livelihoods. Coupled with its positive ecological impacts on local reefs, this seems to be a fairy-tale success story, except we also found that over the longer term the overall number of fish is dropping. So, while the management system ‘boosts’ fish numbers in the short term, it doesn’t seem to be able to stem the overall impacts of fishing in the long term. The good news is that this might be able to be amended if the intervals between closures are shortened.

When we looked at what made the system work, we found that the communities were leveraging insights about human behaviour that mainstream conservation is only just starting to tap into. For example, leaders had a ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach to compliance that leveraged social norms around shame and respect. People that followed the rules were rewarded, while transgressors were publicly shamed. There was also a strong sense of community, respect for leaders, participation by community members in the decision-making process, and local ownership of the reef that excluded “outsiders” from fishing the community’s fishing grounds.

This research has broader implications for conservation. While the specific practice we studied – a rotational closure system – may not be applicable everywhere, there are some transferrable lessons, including the benefits of having a system of property rights, encouraging participation, and leveraging insights about human behaviour to encourage more pro-environmental practices.

Some local tropical communities have practices in place to look after their reefs that are good for the environment and good for people: conservation should seek learn from them, and the global community should all seek to curtail broad-scale pressures like climate change, that would disrupt them.

 

Cinner, J. E., et al. (2019). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ‘Sixteen years of social and ecological dynamics reveal challenges and opportunities for adaptive management in sustaining the commons.’ DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1914812116

Fish and lobsters caught for the reef opening ceremony. Photo credit: Jacqueline Lau
Fish and lobsters caught for the reef opening ceremony. Photo credit: Jacqueline Lau

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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au