Reconciling fisheries with conservation on coral reefs: the world as an onion

Multiple layers of political and socioeconomic pressure bear down on the fish and fishers in coral reef ecosystems, where conservation and fisheries often come into great conflict. This paper draws on conversations with members of an alliance of small-scale fishers in the central Philippines, and on their experiences, in order to explore ideas for reconciling reef fisheries with conservation.

The challenge of ensuring long term viability of exploited reef populations, for maintenance of biodiversity and for resource security, will only be met if we simultaneously promote sustainability at the levels of the fish, ecosystem, fishers, societies, governments, and global policy. These and other influences can be pictured as a series of concentric rings (similar to an onion), with the outer layers exerting pressure on the inner layers, such that there is little flexibility to manage the fish at the center of our picture.

The Alliance of Fishers in Danajon (KAMADA) offered ideas that coincided with such a model, beginning with the fish and reaching out through layers of societal influence. Members suggested the need to 1) set minimum size limits, 2) manage fisheries spatially, 3) stop illegal fishing, 4) reduce effort, 5) empower women, 6) promote good governance, 7) obtain international support, and 8) limit human populations.

I explore each of these ideas in turn, noting that unconstrained demand, whether from overconsumption or overpopulation, threatens to overwhelm all conservation and management measures. Whether on coral reefs or in any other aquatic ecosystem, all of us seeking to reconcile fisheries and conservation will need to show innovation, pragmatism, flexibility, considerable humility, and an acceptance that imperfect responses based on best available knowledge are generally better than none at all.

Vincent, A.C.J. (2008). Reconciling fisheries with conservation on coral reefs: the world as an onion. American Fisheries Society Symposium 49:587-618.