When Competing Fishers Communicate, Coral Reef Fish Stocks Can Increase, Study Finds

May 3, 2019

Cooperative Management of Coral Reef Fish Stocks is Critical for Their Sustainable Use

Dr. Jack Kittinger, Senior Director, Global Fisheries and Aquaculture at Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, and a team of authors interviewed 648 fishers and gathered underwater visual data of reef conditions across five reef fishing communities in Kenya.

They found that in the places where fishers communicated frequently with their competitors about fishing gear, locations, and rules that fish flourished in greater numbers and higher quality.

“This is likely because cooperative relationships among those who compete for a shared resource — such as fish — can create opportunities for rivals to seek mutually beneficial activities,” said Kittinger. “These relationships also help to build trust and can enable people to develop commitments to managing resources sustainably.”

“This is why communication is so critical. Developing sustained commitments, such as agreements on rules and setting up conflict resolution mechanisms, are key to local management of reefs,” added Kittinger.

“The relationships between people can have important consequences for the natural environments we depend on,” said Dr. Michele Barnes, lead author from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University (JCU). “Our results suggest that when reef fishers — specifically those in competition with one another — communicate and cooperate over local environmental problems, they can improve the condition of coral reefs. This can lead to a better quality and quantity of reef fish.”

Professor Nick Graham, of Lancaster University, added, “Coral reefs globally have been severely degraded by climate change, and the pervasive impacts of poor water quality and heavy fishing pressure. The findings of our study provide important insights on how the condition of reef fish communities can be improved even on the reefs where they are fished.”

“The study demonstrates that the positive effect of communication does not necessarily appear when just anyone in a fishing community communicates — only when fishers competing over the same fish species communicate,” said co-author Dr. Örjan Bodin.

Many millions of people depend on coral reefs around the world. While coral reefs are one of the most productive and biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, they are also rapidly degrading. This study highlights how cooperative local management is crucial to their sustainable use.

The study also has implications for other environmental problems. It advances a framework that can be applied to other complex environmental problems, where environmental conditions depend on the relationships between people and nature.

“Environmental problems are messy. They often involve multiple, interconnected resources and a lot of different people can be involved — each with their own unique relationship with nature,” said Dr. Barnes.

“Understanding who should cooperate with whom in different contexts and to address different types of environmental problems is becoming increasingly important,” said Dr. Bodin.

Graham said taking an interdisciplinary social—ecological approach to these situations allows for us to “better understand these complex interactions, and how they potentially contribute to important environmental outcomes, such as the amount of fish on a reef.”

About Conservation International

Conservation International uses science, policy and partnerships to protect the nature that people rely on for food, fresh water and livelihoods. Founded in 1987, Conservation International works in more than 30 countries on six continents to ensure a healthy, prosperous planet that supports us all. Learn more about Conservation International, the groundbreaking “Nature Is Speaking” campaign and its series of virtual reality projects: “My Africa”, “Under the Canopy” and “Valen’s Reef.” Follow Conservation International’s work on our Human Nature blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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