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Understanding of the links between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people, and the wellbeing of human societies.


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Examining the multi-scale dynamics of reefs, from population dynamics to macroevolution


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Coral Bleaching

Coral Bleaching

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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The livelihoods of tens of millions of fishers in the world’s richest coral reef region, the Coral Triangle, are at risk from the combined impact of collapsing fish stocks, environmental decline and coastal development.

A new study focusing on a group of islands in the Philippines by Dr Michael Fabinyi of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University has highlighted the pressures being experienced by tens of millions of subsistence fishers in the region bounded by Australia, the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

“The Calamianes islands in the Philippines are fairly typical of what is happening throughout the region,” Michael explains.

“Until recently they had relatively pristine coral reefs and healthy levels of fish stocks – but the impact of overfishing, including dynamite fishing and cyanide fishing, to feed the hungry markets of China and Asia have caused extensive degradation to the reefs and declines in the fish that depend on them.

“In Southeast Asia it is commonly assumed that tourism development will provide some of the answers by employing people who can no longer fish for a living – but in my study I did not find that.

“Instead it became clear that what was spoken of as eco-tourism was, in reality, often coastal resort development – and it was pushing many coastal families off their land as well as squeezing them out of their fishing areas.

“It has certainly created jobs for some former fishers – but by no means for all, and this wider social impact needs to be taken into account when thinking about the future livelihoods of the tens of millions who have, until now, drawn their living from the sea.”

Dr Fabinyi says that the creation of Marine Protected Areas in some parts of the Philippines and Coral Triangle has proved beneficial both for fishers and genuine ecotourism, although it has also restricted the area that fishers rely on for their livelihood.

“In the Calamianes, for example, I found that most fishers were working longer hours, over greater distances, for fewer fish caught – which is a clear sign that the fishery is continuing to decline.

“At the same time resort developers were pressuring them to give up their land on the coast, without creating sufficient livelihoods to compensate for the loss on land and at sea.”

Tourism development is often seen as a ‘silver bullet’ solution to poverty in underdeveloped regions, he says, but studies on the ground indicate the picture is more mixed – while some livelihoods are created, others are being destroyed. Also tourism is less reliable than fishing, being subject to booms and busts and the cost of world air travel.

“The people who are affected by these forces of environmental degradation, fish stock decline and coastal development are so numerous throughout the region that this is emerging as a very serious social issue for all the countries in the Coral Triangle as well as those which border it – like Australia,” Dr Fabinyi says.

His paper “The Intensification of Fishing and the Rise of Tourism: Competing Coastal Livelihoods in the Calamianes Islands, Philippines” is published in the journal Human Ecology (2010) 38, pages 415–427.

More information:
Michael Fabinyi, CoECRS and JCU, ph +61 7 47816358 or +61 0423 389 660
Jenny Lappin, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4222
Jim O’Brien, James Cook University Media Office, +61 7 4781 4822 or +61 0418 892449

Evidence is emerging from around the world that ‘no fishing’ zones can lead to better catches and more income for coastal communities.

A triumphant 30-year experiment in no-fishing zones in the Philippines has led to recovery in depleted fish stocks, improved fish catches outside the zone and higher tourist income for coastal communities.

A large group of tropical snappers (F. Lutjanidae) in a Philippine no-take marine reserve. Photo by Brian Stockwell.

The findings of the research have major implications for Australia’s coastal towns and cities, says Professor Garry Russ, a chief investigator at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

In the 1970s and 1980s Philippines coral reefs and fisheries were devastated by reef bombing and by ‘muro ami’ harvesters. “These are the marine equivalent of forestry clear-felling, in which industrial-scale vessels plunder all of the living resources off reefs using armies of fishers and gleaners,” Prof. Russ explains.

The southern Philippines has now become the cradle of an international revolution in the way marine resources are managed. This began in the early to mid 1970’s when areas were closed to fishing at two small islands in the southern Philippines, Sumilon and Apo.

“These were the sites of the first, and still the best known, no-take marine reserves in the country, established by my colleague Dr. Angel Alcala,” Prof. Russ says. “These islands have produced some of the best evidence available that no-take marine reserves, protected and managed by local communities, can play a key role in biodiversity conservation and fisheries management.

“The success of these two small no-take reserves and their associated marine resource management has helped establish a network of no-take reserves across the entire Philippines. There are 64 no-take reserves in the southern Philippines, with 600 now established across the whole island chain, as communities fight to bring back their threatened way of life.”

Prof. Russ says the expansion of no-take reserves has contributed substantially to a major shift in national policy of management of marine resources. Management responsibility has been partly devolved to local governments and communities which now co-manage, with the national government, marine resources out to 15 km from the coast.

“I think it is the thing I am most proud of in my scientific career,” Prof. Russ reflects. “The no-take zones have returned power over their resources to local communities. These coastal communities have largely excluded the plunderers, and now have the legal right to do so.”

Importantly too, the work of Prof. Russ and his colleagues has demonstrated that no-take zones can, in the long-term, improve  the socio-economic conditions of coastal communities, especially in developing nations.

Professor Russ says there are important take-home lessons for the management of Australia’s coral reefs from this story. The recent rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), which established a network of no-fishing zones covering 33 per cent of the Marine Park, had as its objective protection of biodiversity and bioregions.

“This will likely help sustain substantial national income from tourism.  What is less appreciated is that the rezoning may also help to sustain coral reef fisheries in the long-term.

“The Philippine experience also suggests that when implementing major change in marine resource management, coastal communities should be involved in the decision-making process from the outset.“


More information:
Professor Garry Russ, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4432 or mobile +61 0429 439 782
Professor Terry Hughes, Director, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4000
Jenny Lappin, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4222
Jim O’Brien, James Cook University Media Office, +61 7 4781 4822


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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