An international scientific team says that management of fisheries at the community level can help curb overfishing and the 'tragedy of the commons' which is driving humans to decimate the planet's dwindling fish stocks.
The positive finding comes from the world's largest field investigation of 42 co-managed coral reef fisheries in five countries spread across the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The team of 17 scientists from eight nations concluded that partnerships between government, conservation groups, and local fishers – known as 'co-management' – were having considerable success in both meeting the livelihood needs of local communities and protecting fish stocks
"We found clear evidence of people's ability to overcome the 'tragedy of the commons' by making and enforcing their own rules for managing fisheries," explained team leader Dr Josh Cinner of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) and James Cook University.
"This is particularly encouraging because of the perceived failure of many open-access and top-down government-controlled attempts to manage fisheries around the world.
"More importantly, we have identified the conditions that allow people to make co-management successful, providing vital guidance for conservation groups, donors, and governments as to what arrangements are most likely to work." Dr Cinner said.
Dr Tim McClanahan of the Wildlife Conservation Society said that for a long time people have struggled to successfully manage fisheries, which are collapsing all around the world.
"Our research can help solve the overfishing crisis where it is needed most, by showing what does and does not work in the small-scale fisheries that are most difficult to manage," he said. "We found that both top-down and bottom up solutions are needed."
The team studied local fisheries arrangements on coral reefs in Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, using a combination of interviews with local fishers and community leaders, and underwater fish counts.
Its main finding, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) is that co-management has been largely successful in sustaining fisheries and improving people's livelihoods.
More than half the fishers surveyed felt co-management was positive for their livelihoods, whereas only 9% felt it was negative.
Team member Dr Nick Graham from CoECRS and JCU said that comparing co-managed reefs with other reefs showed that, co-managed reefs were half as likely to be heavily overfished, which can lead to damaged ecosystems.
"However we also found that where fisheries are closest to big, hungry markets, they tend to be in worse shape," Dr Graham said. "This strongly suggests globalised food chains can undermine local, democratic efforts to manage fisheries better.
"People often assume that local population size is the main driver of overfishing – but our research shows that access to global markets and seafood dependence are more important, and provide possible levers for action."
The research also turned up some unexpected results, one of which is that co-management benefits the wealthier people in the local community, although it is not detrimental to the poor.
"In other words, the main benefits tend to trickle up to the wealthy, rather than trickle down to the poor." Dr Cinner said. "Nevertheless, most people felt that they benefited."
The team found that the institutional design of the fishery management arrangement was vital in determining whether or not people felt they benefited from co-management and were willing to work together to protect fish stocks by complying with the rules.
"It is really important to get the structure of the co-management arrangements right, if you want people to co-operate to protect their marine resources," Dr Cinner says.
"Managers and donors can help build the legitimacy, social capital, and trust that foster cooperation by making targeted investments that lead toward transparent and deliberative co-management systems, where all participants feel their voice is being heard."
Round the world, there are many cases of governments and local communities trying to work together to protect local environments and food resources – but so far, few detailed studies showing what works, what doesn't and why. The new study fills an important gap, its authors say.
Their paper 'Co-management of coral reef social-ecological systems' by Joshua E. Cinner, Tim R. McClanahan, M. Aaron MacNeil, Nicholas A.J. Graham, Tim M. Daw, Ahmad Mukminin, David A. Feary, Ando L. Rabearisoa, Andrew Wamukota, Narriman Jiddawi, Stuart J. Campbell, Andrew H. Baird, Fraser A. Januchowski-Hartley, Salum Hamed, Rachael Lahari, Tau Morove, John Kuange appears in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).