Community-based conservation to rebuild fish stocks

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind being there right now. This is one of the Fijian islands in the Pacific, and the second largest in the group.  As serene as the picture is, not all is serene for the Islanders.  Fishers in Nagigi, a small community based on the south coast of Vanua Levu Island have been noticing that the number of fish and the size of fish have been decreasing, and habitat degrading – a big problem for a community heavily dependent on its marine resources.  This decline isn’t necessarily down to big foreign boats coming in and taking the critters on which they depend. Instead, overexploitation and habitat destruction seems to arise from the ever-increasing number of locally based fishers.  The source of this claim?  The villagers of Nagigi. In this paper,  Abigail Golden from Columbia University and fellow researchers explore the idea of setting up an aqoliqoli  - a short-term no take marine protected area - within Nagigi’s coastal area.  

This idea hasn’t come from the researchers nor from any top-down government as tends to happen in western countries.  Instead the idea has come from the village leaders themselves.  This sort of bottom-up governance is far from unheard of.  The Pacific Islands are small and numerous, and have a long history of small areas of land and coastal waters managed by local communities.  Some have worked well, some have not, and many have come under strain or been lost through both technological developments, increasing population, increasing demands for resources, and cultural change.  Still, a well-managed community based MPA can work well, particularly in these remoter locations, and especially were more rigorous research and recording is absent.  

Regardless of where you are in the world, there are a number of vital steps needed for good management.  One involves getting as much information as possible – about the species that are there now, the fishing methods used, an idea of how conditions have changed, and perceptions towards different management methods.  The other involves bringing the local community into the conservation planning in a meaningful way.  So the team went out and conducted two types of surveys – one looking at the species living on the reef at the time, and one talking to some of the villagers themselves.

These surveys produced some fantastic results – including as I noted earlier, indications as to why the reef conditions had degraded.  Most of the fishers interviewed didn’t just fish for commercial purposes.  Many ate some of the fish they caught themselves, selling some on for cash in the nearest market at Savusavu.  Some of these species – particularly holothurians which make up the bêche-de-mer market, did go on to foreign ports, but interestingly no local interviewed reported eating holothurians.  Holothurians are all about cash income.  But the species that have been most noted to have suffered declines are those eaten by Fijian’s themselves.  Some of these species, like varivoce – the humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) are listed under the International Union for Conservation of NatureRed List.  But it’s not just taking the fish that’s an issue.  In the course of fishing, whether deliberate or accidental, coral reef heads – vital reef habitat - are being destroyed.    The village leader (the Turaga ni Koro ) also noted that there were now several additional external pressures on the reef – sediment and pesticide runoff from inland developments, thermal stress, and demands for prawns from holiday resorts that promoted their overexploitation.

So what did the villagers think to a marine protected area?  Well, they were pretty receptive to the idea.  There were some differences in opinion on how long the protected area should be placed for, ranging from one year to ten years.  Perhaps most surprisingly is that despite fishing being so important to the villagers for both food and money, none were overly concerned about losing income of catch from a protected area.  What concerned them more was that the future may be pretty bleak if they didn’t take conservation steps now…

“For the sake of future generations, if we want to have an abundance of resources again, we should encourage an MPA on the fishing grounds. Our main concern is that if we're not aware of what's done, future generations won't know what those species are or recognize the need to gain back what they've lost”

It isn’t clear from the paper why the villagers weren’t concerned about loss of income, but one interviewee noted that a closed are on a neighbouring village’s reef resulted in their fishers coming to Nagigi.  She suspects that Nagigi’s fishers will simply do the same to another neighbouring reef.

The researchers also took a look at the proposed protected area to see if it was heading in the right direction for rebuilding the species targeted by fishers.  Remember that there are no long term studies done in the area, but they were able to draw some general conclusions based on both the villager’s knowledge, and studies done elsewhere.  The protected area proposed looks to be too small and probably needs to be 2 or even 3 times as big if they are to have any real chance of increasing the size and abundance of fish in the area.  As for how long the protected area should be in place…well that depends on which species you’re looking at rebuilding, but they did note that several of the species targeted by fishers didn’t reach maturing until at least 3-4 years old, meaning that any protected area would need to be in place longer than that to give them a chance to build up the populations again.

Ultimately it will be up to the village if they want to implement a protected area or not, and if so how large it will be and how long it would last.  But by combining local knowledge with more scientifically derived knowledge into conservation planning, perhaps an amicable solution to Nagigi’s declining reef resources can be met.

This open access paper was published in the open access journal PLoS.  To have a read of the original paper, just head here


Image: One of the Fijian Islands.  Credit Paul D'Ambra/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)