Balancing community and environmental needs in the Pacific Islands

Jacqueline Lau -

The CGIAR Program on Fish Agri-food Systems (FISH), led by WorldFish in partnership with some of the World’s best research agencies, aims to provide research insights and solutions for more equitable and sustainable futures. WorldFish and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies have a long-standing partnership. Through the FISH program, the partnership focuses on research in developing states and coastal nations where small-scale fisheries are a way of life and a foundation of human wellbeing.

In these contexts, customary ownership, tenure rights, and collaborative management are not just ‘nice ideas’. They are fundamental principles and processes for equitable and sustainable small-scale fisheries. Bolstered and upheld by international commitments such as the United Nations/FAO-facilitated Tenure Rights Voluntary Agreement and the Small Scale Fisheries guidelines. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of learning to be done to determine in which contexts customary management, collaborative management or community-based management is effective, and to examine how research might complement local experiences and expertise. These research gaps represent the central focus of the FISH Program’s Sustainable Small Scale Fisheries flagship.

Coral reefs are an essential source of food and income for millions of people. As reef health declines, investigating and learning from ‘success stories’ will be crucial. Scientists at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies and Worldfish spent 16 years studying one such case of adaptive coral reef management in Papua New Guinea.

Since 2001, researchers worked with two communities in Papua New Guinea who employ a long-enduring customary rotational fisheries closure system, which is akin to fallow agriculture; much like allowing a crop of blackberries to run wild, and then enjoying the bountiful feast. By studying the effects of the rotational closure system, the study found a rare pattern – the coral cover was increasing substantially: from ~40% in 2001 to ~60% now (for comparison, average coral cover on the central and southern Great Barrier Reef is between 14% and 25%, respectively).

What’s more – researchers found that besides the system more than doubled the amount of fish (i.e., biomass) on the reef, also made fish easier to catch. Fish appeared to become naïve to fishing after the closure had been in place for a while: they let fishers get much closer to them before swimming away, making these now abundant fish easier to catch!

When reefs reopened to fishing, communities held a feast of freshly caught lobsters and smoked fish combined with a ceremony where leaders expounded the success of the reef closure. In fact, our research found that almost everybody in the community felt this system was beneficial for their livelihoods. Coupled with its positive ecological impacts on local reefs, this seems to be a fairy-tale success story, except we also found that over a more extended time, the overall number of fish is dropping. So, while the management system ‘boosts’ fish numbers in the short term, it doesn’t seem to be able to stem the overall impacts of fishing in the long term. The good news is that this might be able to be amended if the intervals between closures are shortened

Answering the big question “What made the system work?” researchers found that the communities were leveraging insights about human behaviour that mainstream conservation is only just starting to explore. For example, leaders had a ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach to compliance that leveraged social norms around shame and respect. People that followed the rules got rewarded, while the community publicly shamed the transgressors. There was also a strong sense of community, respect for leaders, participation by community members in the decision-making process, and local ownership of the reef that excluded “outsiders” from fishing the community’s fishing grounds.

This research has broader implications for conservation. While the specific practice studied – a rotational closure system – may not be applicable everywhere, there are some transferrable lessons, including the benefits of having a system of property rights, encouraging participation, and leveraging insights about human behaviour to encourage more pro-environmental practices.

Some local tropical communities have practices in place to look after their reefs that are good for the environment and good for people: conservation should seek to learn from them, and the global community should all try to curtail broad-scale pressures like climate change that would disrupt them.

Note, this blog was originally published by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at




Jacqueline Lau

Jacqueline Lau

Jacqueline (Jacqui) Lau, is a post-doctoral research fellow with the Australia Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and WorldFish. Her research examines issues of justice and climate change resilience in small-scale fisheries and coastal communities in the Pacific. She is the recent recipient of a Crawford Fund Award (2019) and the Glenn Almany Memorial Prize for research beyond traditional academic boundaries (2020).

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