Editor’s note: Douglas Fenner is a coral reef monitoring ecologist with the Department of Marine & Wildlife Resources, American Samoa. His essay here is adapted from an article he published this year in Diversity journal, “Challenges for Managing Fisheries on Diverse Coral Reefs” (www.mdpi.com/1424-2818/4/1/105/pdf ).

By Douglas Fenner

Coral reef fisheries are among the most diverse fisheries in the world. In the Indo-Pacific region alone, as many as 300 species are taken.

These fisheries are also among the most difficult of all fisheries to manage, and most are undermanaged or not managed at all. Most coral reefs are located in poor countries (where many millions of people depend on reef fish to feed their families), and there is little to no money available to manage the large number of species. Conventional fisheries stock assessment is far too expensive in these cases and requires too much expertise. Most conventional fisheries management approaches are not feasible.

It is said that no-take MPAs are promoted in the tropics as fisheries management tools not because they are such great fisheries tools but because there are few if any viable alternatives for managing coral reef fisheries. There has been a great rush to implement no-take areas, even though the scientific evidence that they provide significant net benefits to fishers remains thin. The primary purpose of these no-take areas is, rather, conservation. And for that they are probably the best available tool for protecting coral reef ecosystems from fishing.

The catch is that in order to implement no-take MPAs effectively, the sites require stakeholder support – to ensure community compliance with site regulations. For that support to exist, there must be some benefits from the MPAs for local populations, and not just in terms of conservation.

For fishermen in poor countries like Indonesia and the Philippines (which have the second- and third-largest coral reef areas), anything that increases their fish catch will win their strong support. So even modest increases in fish catch from waters surrounding the no-take area can be sufficient to garner strong support, compliance, and enforcement of the MPA from villagers – at least in the short term. Bear in mind, however, that these same countries have high population growth rates, particularly among poor rural villages. The increasing populations, and resulting increases in food demand, may offset over time any short-term growth in fish catches from MPAs.

Dive tourism holds the potential to produce much greater total economic benefits for villagers. And, in its own way, dive tourism is a renewable resource. No-take MPAs can increase the abundance of large fish, which are just the fish that divers most like to see. Systems need to be devised so that benefits from the dive industry flow not only to the local villages in general but also to fishermen, who can be employed in the dive industry. Again this helps to ensure community support for the no-take MPAs.

To sum up: in poor nations with high population growth, MPAs are good conservation tools, modest fisheries management tools, and probably only temporary aids for increasing food supply. The best bet for ensuring long-term community support for no-take MPAs is to manage them as a tourism development tool.

For more information:

Douglas Fenner, Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources, American Samoa. E-mail: douglasfennertassi@gmail.com