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Protecting fishermen, not just fish

by Rebecca Nesbit

I recently blogged about the problems facing our fish stocks, so was interested to read about ways to overcome challenges in preventing fish declines. The number of communities dependent on seafood means that overfishing is a major barrier to obtaining food security, and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are one way this is being addressed.

MPAs come with problems though, a major one being illegal fishing. A recent study by Angelie Peterson and Selina Stead from Newcastle University discussed rule breaking in MPAs. Understanding why illegal fishing continues is the first step to stopping it; there are alternative options to increasing enforcement.

Fish stock depletion in Rodrigues Marine Protected Area

An important factor determining how many people continue to fish illegally in MPAs is how big the gains are relative to the likelihood of being caught. But social factors are also at play – how accepted is illegal fishing? Are alternatives attractive or even possible? In these cases outreach and education can improve compliance with regulations and improve the quality of life of the communities.

The study took as an example Rodrigues – the ‘smaller sister’ of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

When they interviewed local people it became clear that illegal fishing was normal and expected. Part of the reason for this could be that until very recently there had been little attempt even to explain the restrictions to local fisherman.

The interviews also revealed that fishermen continued to fish illegally because they had no alternatives. Even fishing nearby isn’t an easy solution – they don’t all own boats (lots of fishing is done by wading) and the geography of the lagoon makes it hard to reach other reefs.

Alternative jobs weren’t easy to find – many fishermen lack skills and education, there isn’t the tourism industry Mauritius has, and shortages of freshwater limit the possibilities for farming. Fishing also delivers job satisfaction, and most fishermen on Rodrigues see it as a way of life rather than a job. This suggests that supplementing fishing with other livelihoods is better than encouraging complete alternatives.

This all highlights that, if there are no alternative incomes available, creation of MPAs around the world will cause stress on the income potential and food security of local fishermen. So creating an MPA is about far more than deciding which areas to protect and keeping people out, it’s about understanding social implications and supporting fishermen not just fish.

Read more about MPAs on Rodrigues.

Peterson A, & Stead S (2011). Rule breaking and livelihood options in marine protected areas Environmental Conservation : 10.1017/S0376892911000178

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