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Tropical Communities Embrace Conservation to ‘Fish Forever’

Fish stocks are bouncing back thanks to an innovative program that establishes coastal marine reserves, managed by local residents, in the Philippines, Belize and elsewhere.

Written by David Kirby Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Artisanal fisherman casting net
Fishers, working from canoes, cast their net over the side of their boat in Taganak Island, Philippines.Keith A. Ellenbogen/AP

If you want to catch a fish, you have to save a fish.

That simple concept, followed for thousands of years by fishers around the world, has mostly been abandoned today. But it is making a comeback thanks to a three-year-old program designed to keep small-scale coastal fisheries sustainable in five tropical countries – the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil, Belize and Mozambique

The effort, called Fish Forever, was created by the conservation group Rare, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sustainable Fisheries Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Funding comes from philanthropic programs, the United States Agency for International Development and other sources.

At its core, Fish Forever helps local communities carve out two separate and specialized maritime zones. One provides exclusive fishing rights for local fishers, barring competition from poachers and industrial-scale fishing. The second reserve is strictly off limits to fishing of any kind, giving crucial habitats a badly needed respite from exploitation. That allows fish, coral and other marine life to rebound.

“It’s an explicit strategy to bring managed access to local communities as a pathway to sustainable fisheries and also balance conservation efforts around biodiversity, with reserves that can replenish overfished operations,” said Steve Box, Rare’s vice president of global fisheries solutions.

These fisheries may be small scale but they have a big impact. In the Philippines, for instance, nearly half the country’s catch is from coastal fishers. Small-scale fisheries account for 85 percent of the industry, which supplies Filipinos with 56 percent of their protein, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. And 91 percent of the fish caught in the Philippines is consumed domestically. Yet reports from fisheries advocates show that 75 percent of the country’s fishing grounds are overfished.

“‘Small’ is completely the wrong word,” Box said. “That’s why this should be a national priority, especially in developing countries around the tropics, where fish is the key protein staple source.”

The idea behind Fish Forever is to avoid the well-documented “tragedy of the commons,” in which each individual tries to exploit a given resource to their greatest personal benefit until it is depleted and everyone suffers.

Here is how Fish Forever works: The designated reserve is located within or adjacent to the exclusive access area, allowing for a spillover of fish from the protected area as harvesting pressure is reduced and target fish populations begin to recover. The program also caps the number of fish that can be taken from the access area.

The zones’ boundaries are “determined collectively by local leaders and fishers within each community, promoting a sense of community ownership and responsibility for managing and enforcing the managed access and reserve,” Box said. “The fishers and fishing communities then have access to that area and are incentivized to respect and enforce the rules of the reserve.”

The access areas are determined based on legal or traditional tenure systems, known as territorial user rights in fisheries, or TURFs.

All of this is achieved through community surveillance and enforcement of the access areas and recovery zones. Increased enforcement helps build a sense of local ownership and pride, Box said, which increases social pressure to comply with the rules. Constant monitoring and documentation of fish stock growth further enhance the confidence and pride of local fishers, and increases interest in neighboring villages and towns to adopt the program.

Published studies have proven the validity of the approach, according to Fish Forever. Fish recovery zones boost fish stocks by an average of 446 percent inside the protected area, and 207 percent in adjoining areas.

“A lot of our work now is to explain just how important small-scale fisheries are to [developing] economies,” Box said. Small-scale marine fisheries support 90 percent of all commercial anglers in the world, with 36 million people directly employed catching ocean fish and four times that number in related jobs, including cleaning and processing, packaging, transportation and marketing, he said.

There have been some minor speed bumps along the way, including resistance from some local leaders. But so far the pilot program is on target to achieving its 10-year goals: that 20 percent of relevant sites adopt TURFs and that 20 percent of that area is protected as no-fishing zones.

In the Philippines, the first 12 projects saw fish stocks in recovery zones leap by 47 percent in just two years and all 12 sites increased community enforcement, most of them with around-the-clock-monitoring.

Valente Yap, mayor of the municipality of Bindoy is pleased with what he has seen.

“Fish stocks have definitely increased,” Yap said in an email. “According to our fish catch monitoring, before we started our program we only have one to two kilos (2 to 4.5 pounds) of fish catch per fisher per day. After two years, we already have four to five kilos (9 to 11 pounds) per fisher per day.”

Yap added that Bindoy’s zones are thoroughly protected through “people’s organizations that are very aggressive. We have conducted so many seminar-workshops, and we don’t have a problem with enforcement because it is from their point of view that we have to implement the fisheries ordinance, so they are really the ones who want to do this.”

A Rare conservation fellow from Tinambac municipality, Catherine Demesa-Aguillar, said there were some initial problems when fishers from other villages began fishing within the exclusive access zone or in areas adjacent to it.

“The fishers’ and leaders’ exact words were, ‘We changed our ways of fishing, we made some sacrifices, and we spent sleepless nights guarding our sanctuary and here come those fishers who don’t care, except getting our fish. This is unfair!’” she said, noting that the dispute was resolved at the community level.

Christopher Costello, professor at U.C. Santa Barbara and co-director of its sustainable fisheries group, said the program is highly innovative and could yield long-term sustainability for many small-scale fisheries.

At the same time, he acknowledged that potential pitfalls lie ahead. “When you create these exclusive fishing zones where one community might get access to, but without proper enforcement, you get back to what caused the problem in the first place,” Costello said. “Because fish populations tend to rebound, there is also a constant threat of poaching by outsiders.”

That, he added, is why it is so important to establish clear membership criteria and rules within each TURF, “to ensure equitable sharing in a limited access setting.”

For Fish Forever proponents, time is of the essence.

“The longer we wait to solve the problem, the harder it gets because there are less fish,” Box said. “That is the universal norm.”

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