Study: Giving Local Fishermen Control Prevents Overfishing

Research also finds fisher-managed systems sometimes fail

A reef with high coral cover, but the lack of fish suggests it may be less healthy than it appears.
A reef with high coral cover, but the lack of fish suggests it may be less healthy than it appears.



Saving threatened coral reef ecosystems may be best handled by the people who make their living from them, according to a recent study.

In many tropical countries, overfishing by small-scale fishers threatens offshore reefs, which are some of the oceans’ most important ecosystems.

The new study confirmed what a growing body of research has shown: giving local fishers more control over how, when and where to fish usually results in better incomes, more cooperation with the rules, and more fish on the reef.

But not always. The new research also found out why these fisher-managed systems sometimes fail.

Exponential decay

Tropical coral reefs are fertile fishing grounds for some 200 million small-scale fishers around the world.

But many of these reefs are in decline. Tim McClanahan with the Wildlife Conservation Society has followed the catch from one coastal fishing community in Kenya for more than a decade.

“It was going down every year. It was just one of those beautiful exponential decay curves,” he says.

The question was, what could they do to stop that decline before it crashed the whole reef ecosystem?

Such a crash would not just be bad for the fish. The fishers who make their livelihoods from the reef would suffer as well.

Central control

Since no one owns the oceans, most countries put fisheries management in the hands of the central government. But it’s a complicated business, with a huge number of fishers, catching many different species, with a wide range of equipment, brought ashore in many different places.

“Trying to manage that from an under-resourced ministry of fisheries in the capital city is basically an impossible task,” says Tim Daw at the University of East Anglia. Faraway authorities setting the rules but lacking the funds to enforce them are a major reason why fisheries around the world are in decline, he says.

But Daw says that is changing. In the last decade or so, civil society groups and researchers have been helping fishing communities come together to set their own rules and enforcement mechanisms.

“Rather than a centralized state actor trying to manage fisheries, it’s a cooperation between the state and the local people, with much more emphasis on the local people,” he says.

Community rules

Communities may decide to close off certain areas to fishing, for example, or restrict what kinds of equipment can be used. The Kenyan community McClanahan worked with decided to ban the use of very-fine-mesh nets that catch almost any kind of fish, large or small.

“And sure enough, within months - six or seven months - the catch started to slowly rise, and it’s actually been rising since that happened,” McClanahan says.

And as the catch rose, so did incomes.

Getting everyone to follow the rules was not easy. But now the community elders tell him they will never go back.

However, McClanahan says, there is more to the story.

“Even though the fish catch has come back - the fish are getting bigger - the reef is not in good shape," he says. "Ecologically, it’s not a success story.”

Livelihoods and ecosystems?

That's the big question for supporters of community fishery management: can it improve both livelihoods and ecosystems?

In a recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, McClanahan, Daw and their colleagues studied 42 locations in five countries on two oceans. They interviewed more than 1,000 fishers and local leaders.

They found that people were generally better off with community management than without it. And there were generally more fish in community managed systems than without.

But not always.

Fish market

“When we actually got in the water and looked at how much fish was there, the strongest driver there was the distance to market,” Daw says.

Even with community management, when fishers could easily get their catch to a market, they had a strong incentive to overfish, according to Daw.

“The value of the fish that you can catch from there is going to be higher, there is going to be more pressure on those resources, they’re going to be attractive to more people," he says. "And we see that as there being actually less fish left on the reefs.”

Also, the more dependent fishers were on their catch for food or income, the less well the systems worked.

And community management did not work equally for everyone. Wealthier people tended to benefit more, perhaps because they had more influence over how the rules were made or enforced than poorer people did.

But Tim McClanahan says, “There was evidence the wealthy were doing well, but the poor were either doing a little bit better or not any worse.”

Not a panacea

The study backs up what Indiana University political science professor Elinor Ostrom has found with groundwater, pastures or other resources that communities share but no one owns.

“Our own research has been showing that small community-controlled resource governance can - CAN - work," she says. "But all of our studies have also shown that it isn’t a panacea. It doesn’t always work.”

Ostrom should know - she won a Nobel Prize for her research.

She says when people have a stake in making the rules and have effective ways of enforcing them, communities can do a better job than governments at managing a common resource.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Tim Daw
April 11, 2012 4:54 AM
Thanks Steve. This report is based on a paper by Josh Cinner and others which is available here...

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs