In Timorese Communities, Importance of Fishing May Be Underestimated

This is the second half of a two-part blog post. Read part one.
I recently visited seven of the 13 districts in Timor-Leste, my island nation home nestled in the heart of the Coral Triangle. Working with a team of NOAA researchers, I was there to undertake ecological research and meet with coastal communities.
After centuries of occupation by countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands and Indonesia, Timor-Leste only gained its independence in 2002. One of the first districts we visited was Oecussi. Historically, this is where the Portuguese first set foot on the island of Timor. Today, it’s one of the smaller, less developed districts of Timor-Leste.
Although the government census says that there are 160 fishermen in Oecussi, one thing we have learnt from working with the communities here is that this number is probably much higher. Many people do not primarily identify themselves as fishermen, even though fishing plays a vital part in generating food and income. This suggests that the fisheries sector is more important in Timor-Leste than the data indicates.
What I hear again and again when talking to coastal communities in Timor-Leste are references to how things used to be — that fishing was easier in the past. Oecussi is no different. Local fishermen remember a time when fish were plentiful, and elders restricted fishing around mangrove and wetland areas. In recent years, the community has moved away from these traditional restrictions, and stocks have become depleted.
The research undertaken by NOAA will provide scientific data on biomass, or put simply the amount and volume of Timor-Leste’s fish stock. The use of Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) will also help assess the health of the reefs. In addition, we are collecting water samples in every location we visit to measure alkalinity, carbonate and salinity levels — a first step in establishing data to assess future climate and other ocean changes.
In 15 years of working with communities — the last 10 of which have been in Timor-Leste — my experience has shown me that community consultation and participation need to go hand in hand with scientific research to evoke change. This is why we simultaneously ran workshops with the communities about the research we conducted, and how the data collected can be useful in years to come. Linking scientific understanding with local knowledge will equip the community with powerful tools to make the best decisions about how to manage marine resources.
CI-Timor-Leste has already had great success working with the local community and government with the formation of co-managed marine areas within the Nino Konis Santana National Park in 2011. By creating no-take zones — places that restrict access and ban fishing activities — in areas of high biodiversity within the country’s first national park, we hope that fish populations will increase and spill over into other areas of the park where fishing is allowed.
On this visit I returned to Com, a coastal village within the national park, and spoke with the community members with whom I had previously worked to help establish the no-take zones. With great excitement, the fishermen told me that they are already witnessing fish aggregating in large numbers within the protected areas — a noticeable change.
We do not yet know the extent of the population surge, the species of fish or the reason why these fish are exhibiting these behavioural changes. However, I’m very excited to hear this news from the community, and see it as a small step forward on the road to a truly sustainable fishery.
Rui Pinto is the policy manager for CI-Timor-Leste. The Coral Triangle Support Partnership is a collaboration between CI, WWF and The Nature Conservancy and the six national governments of the Coral Triangle.