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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

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Taboos “help stop pirate fishing”

Jan 2008

Reinforcing traditional management of coral reefs and fisheries may help to tackle the root causes of ‘pirate’ fishing in Australian waters, a leading coral researcher says.

Dr Josh Cinner of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University says that research in small communities around the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean shows that ‘customary management’ or taboos by local people is often effective at preventing overexploitation and destruction of marine resources.

A bountiful annual harvest from a customary management area

But these traditional controls are facing intense pressure from the encroachment of the modern world, the high prices paid for increasingly scarce seafood and the spread of urban society – and need help to keep them in place.

“Our research in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and East Africa indicates that in many communities where customary management still applies, coral reefs and fish populations are in good condition,” Dr Cinner says.

In Aceh, for example, where individual bays often have a local ‘commander of the sea’ who sets the rules for local fishermen such as prohibiting destructive techniques such as poison and explosives, coral cover is three times higher than neighbouring areas where there is no longer any control over people’s activities, he says. “In the many sites we’ve studied throughout the Indo-Pacific, we’ve consistently found more fish inside customary management sites compared neighbouring areas.”

“However our recent work shows these customary rules break down the closer you get to markets and major population centres, the larger the local population or when traditional authority erodes.”

Australia should be concerned at the erosion of these traditional rules for looking after the sea, as their breakdown was usually followed by overexploitation, the use of destructive gears, and, when local resources are ‘mined out’, by an increase in pirate fishing as locals seek their livelihoods further afield, including in Australian waters.

“So Australia has a strong vested interest in really understanding how these customary management systems work – and in helping to come up with ways that enable them to continue, despite the pressures of the modern world,” he points out.

Customary management varies from village to village, but typically might limit fishing pressure by banning fishing on certain days, at certain times or year, in particular places or with particular gear. Poison, explosives, and other destructive fishing methods are almost always banned.

“We have to understand that these customary rules were not set up as scientific conservation measures.  They were almost all introduced to protect the resource so the community could continue to exploit it in future. Any new system we put in place must retain this element, and the involvement of local people – or they will simply ignore it.”

For this reason, Dr Cinner says, closed Marine Protected Areas like those adopted in Australia, seldom work in developing countries, because their boundaries can impose difficult burdens on individuals and families and they take away from locals the responsibility for looking after their own resource and their say over its future use.

“We need to find additional ways to help protect the worlds’ coral reefs – which support 500 million people – from overexploitation, which are locally and culturally appropriate. The most promising in a great many communities seems to be the one that has worked for centuries. However we also need to help these systems evolve so they can continue to work despite the pressures of the modern world.”

Dr Cinner and colleague Dr Aswani from the University of California at Santa Barbara say to work well new ‘hybrid’ systems, which combine customary management and modern science, need to:

  • Be in tune with the local culture and wishes of the community
  • Meet family and local needs but also serve larger environmental goals
  • Combine both scientific and local knowledge
  • Have fast, flexible legal powers that allow locals to address emerging issues quickly
  • Enable communities to exploit as well as conserve marine resources
  • Recognize that local solutions will not always serve the aim of protecting very large ecosystems over huge areas.

Dr Cinner’s most recent scientific publications look at the thresholds at which customary management starts to break down – the point where urgent action is needed to save it – and appear in Conservation Biology, Vol 21, No 6 and Biological Conservation, Vol. 140, No 3-4.

More information:
Joshua Cinner, Postdoctoral Fellow, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 6751, +61 04 3103 6393
Jenny Lappin, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4222
Jim O’Brien, James Cook University Media Office, +61 7 4781 4822

Cinner, JE and Aswani, S (2007). Integrating customary management into marine conservation. Biological Conservation 140(3-4): 201-216.
Link to Full Text or pdf

Cinner, JE, Sutton, SG and Bond, TG (2007). Socioeconomic Thresholds That Affect Use of Customary Fisheries Management Tools. Conservation Biology 21(6): 1603-1611.
Link to Full Text or pdf


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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