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From 2005 to 2022, the main node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies was headquartered at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland (Australia)

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Bounding the system – traditional use and management of marine resources on an isolated Pacific Island


3.00pm-5.00pm Friday 10th September 2010

Cairns A21.001, Townsville DA3-002 JCU
Dr Simon Foale, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies


Tikopia is a name familiar to all anthropologists and many archaeologists. It is 1000km from both Honiara and Suva, and can take up to 6 days to reach on an inter-island trading vessel. It is famous for its unique and highly intensified agricultural system, and for draconian cultural institutions for restricting the size of the human population.  Both of these features are believed to be adaptations to the limits of subsistence production on an island from which departure usually meant death in the pre-colonial era. As such it has been, and still is, a rather neatly bounded ‘social-ecological-system’. Engagement with the global market place is still very limited on Tikopia. Given the highly managed nature of subsistence farming, the high population density, and the relatively narrow fringing reef around this tiny, extinct volcano, one might expect a host of cultural institutions aimed at managing the subsistence fishery, such as customary marine tenure and periodic closures. Like Raymond Firth in the 1920s, we found no traditional fishery management institutions of significance, nor much evidence of a traditional conservation ethic. The reefs are healthy and have healthy populations of reef fish on them. Tikopians also appear to eat plenty of fish. I discuss these findings in the context of functionalist arguments, including those common to some contemporary social-ecological-systems thinking, about traditional fishery management in the Pacific.


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