[Coral-List] Questions from the coal face

David Fisk davefisk at gmail.com
Sat Dec 27 05:43:18 EST 2008

I have a few additional comments for MPA designs and local community
participation from some work I did in the Central Pacific which is relevant
to most subsistence level communities. John McManus's reply covered most
aspects of the issues related to village level participation and marine
reserve theory, but I believe Chris Bone raised a very relevant question
regarding the most beneficial approaches to subsistence village communities
with relatively small autonomous coastal areas under their control. This is
possibly the most common model of governance in many less developed
countries. It is a complex issue that as yet, I haven't seen clear answers
to, especially where the decision makers (independent village leaders) have
to balance their local 'political' influences against the pressing
near-survival position of many of their family and associated community

I tend to think that the first response to the realisation that some help is
needed, may not necessarily be to advise establishing no-take reserves, for
a number of good practical reasons. The truth is, many village communities
may not have control of resources or coastal areas at the appropriate
ecological scale to be really effective with any spatial-based management
decision they may make. Their village marine area may not include any of the
key habitats essential for the completion of the full life history
requirements of many of the target species used in the wider coastal
area. Its been my experience that most subsistence communities know and
understand the effect of short term taboos (ie, it may apply to a particular
species only or to area closures), but 'short term' usually means several
months at the most or in rare cases, for a year or more. Individual species
growth and recruitment rates then play a critical part in demonstrating the
'effectiveness' of a taboo or not. Often there will be no real biological
'effect' in response to a taboo or closure, as it is intended to be a form
of penance or denial to show respect for some event that has occurred in a
village. In reality, many small reserves can rapidly act as a refuge for
mobile fish species where there is constant hunting and therefore
harassment, so the immediate effect may be obvious, but do they really
provide the essential ecological needs for those species to grow larger and
produce more offspring, in the long term sustainable sense? The time needed
to result in long term and significant changes will be in terms of years, so
to convince a local community to establish a reserve with the promise of
seeing these sorts of changes in a short time period, may be risky in terms
of loosing their respect and therefore further interest in making the right
decisions for themselves. I am a firm believer in giving serious
consideration to the effect of a negative outcome when working with village
communities to improve their livelihoods and food sustainability.

Outside of establishing reserves, there are many ways for a community to
improve the sustainable level of their harvests, like adopting size,
seasonal, and quantity limits. Simply banning the use of some overly
efficient fishing techniques would be more effective than establishing a
reserve area, eg, removing permanent fish traps, and restricting or
preferably banning the use of gill nets, to restricting the feeding of
excess fish to feed their pigs (a very hard thing to instigate!). Seasonal
bans and habitat use bans (especially if targeting spawning or aggregation
sites) are more preferable to reserve establishment, in the context of the
small autonomous village situation. Of course, the question will come up
that asks why should one village impose these fishing restrictions on their
fishermen while adjacent villages do not. There is no real answer, unless
the villages are cooperating together to address the same over riding issues
(say on a district or higher spatial scale) where one brave village leader
effectively influences similar decisions by adjacent village leaders, in a
sort of one-upmanship deal. Also, cooperation amongst several villages to
manage their resources also carries with it the potential that one village
will not want to do any more or less than any other village, so whilst
useful in getting 'buy-in' by many villages, there are limitations to this
approach especially where some village areas may by circumstance, hold
control over relatively more important habitat areas than other villages. In
short, all village scale marine reserve considerations should not start with
the assumption that the resources and effective management impacts are
homogeneous across the area under consideration. While there are many claims
of 'success' at the village level, backed up with impressive data, I wonder
how many failures are also not considered, especially with respect to the
reasons why some reserve designs and locations have been more effective than
others. In other words, in addition to ineffective management as a reason
for failure, there seems to me to be other reasons not duly considered as to
why effectiveness is variable across multi scales, which may be due to the
specific characteristics of the local village area.

Creating lasting interest in local resource management also may have to be
stage planned, by starting with a small but rapid response decision (by
carefully focusing on a rapid recruiting species previously known for its
abundance in a village area, for example), and building on this success
towards more significant management decisions (which may only then consider
no-take areas). Note also that the vain hope of protecting biodiversity is a
long distant aim and expectation, despite the claims by so many in the quest
to obtain funding for projects. That is, biodiversity considerations will be
the least most likely driver of a resource management decision at the
subsistence village level, and will be hardest reason to use to influence a
village based decision. At the same time, I suspect that the immediate
response by 'advisors' to use the no-take reserve approach is driven by the
unrealistic expectation that biodiversity preservation will also be somehow
incorporated in any such decision. Occasionally this will be the case, but
more often than not it is unrealistic to expect such an outcome.

My alternative suggestion to Chris Bone and other 'coalface'
practicioners, would be to not blindly go ahead with the marine reserve
approach (however attractive and 'evidence-based' this approach may be)
before considering all (and many more) of the type of issues and differences
in approach, like I have raised here. I realise this may come across as a
little antagonistic for some of the coral reef community, but the mantra of
'reserve-reserve-reserve' is really not appropriate in many situations for
this scale of activity without due consideration of a practical, ecological,
and sociological context. At present, village scale management is the only
level at which to effect change in many subsistence based economies and as
John McManus suggested, there needs to be far more consideration and
investigation of the best way to do this before we can justify the no-take
reserve option as the only way.

Dave Fisk

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