Beating poverty could save fish
Developing societies tend to over fish,
leading to a cycle of poverty and reef
Image: iStockphoto

An international team of researchers has proposed a revolutionary strategy for ending the plunder of the world’s coral reefs and destruction of their fish stocks – beating poverty.

In a major study released today of the western Indian Ocean the team shows that reef fisheries are in far better condition where the society is more highly developed or where there is little or no development – than in places where the society is developing.

Most studies about the human impacts on reefs focus on the negative role of human populations. This novel study went a step further, exploring how socioeconomic development can actually play a positive role in sustaining coral reefs.

“We found that fisheries were in good shape where traditional village fishing rules still prevailed or where the society was developed enough for national governments to properly regulate reef fisheries” says lead author Dr Josh Cinner of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University. “But reef fisheries tend to be in the worst condition in places that are part-way up the development ladder, where they have the technology to plunder them but not the institutions to protect them”

“Many fishermen in these places are caught in a ‘poverty trap’ where, despite declining catches, they are too poor to be able to get out of the fishery and sometimes resort to using highly destructive gear to make ends meet. This, of course, further damages the fishery and leads to a cycle of poverty and reef destruction.”

“When we only looked at human population, we found the same depressing results as most other studies - that reef fisheries tended to be in the worst shape where populations were highest. But when we included socioeconomic development, we found something novel - that development was much more influential than population in the condition of reef fisheries.

Dr Cinner says the news is encouraging because it suggests that, with a combination of approaches, a society can make it through the development phase without ruining its coral reef fisheries.

Part of that combination will include closing certain areas to fishing, which worked quite well at all levels of community development. These had, on average, about three times the amount of fish compared to areas outside the protected zones, and up to sixteen times the fish of the most degraded places.

“This clearly suggests that closing some areas may help get a community through the development and overfishing phase and still have a resilient coral fish population left at the end,” Dr Cinner says. “However closures alone will not guarantee its survival. You need to do other things.”

Closed areas were usually too small to cover the whole range of ecology on a reef system and there was still a risk that critical parts could be completely lost and their fish with them, the scientists warned. But expanding them greatly would probably incur strong resistance from local fishers.

“This means we need to look to a combination of measures to get the coral reefs and their fish through the danger period when the human community is undergoing development. To do this we need to promote strategies such as fisheries closures while at the same time tackling poverty as a root cause of the degradation of reefs and their fish stocks” Dr Cinner adds.

This will require governments, NGOs and others involved in the development of tropical coastal communities to invest more in programs that build marine governance, social and physical infrastructure and provide alternative livelihoods to those which are heavily reliant on reefs and their resources.

“The bottom line here is that human welfare is tied up with the welfare of the fish and vice versa,” Dr Cinner. “If we want to eat fish tomorrow, then we have to look after the humans today.”