News & Views

New Study Examines Traditional Fish-Management Practices in Island Communities


Dwindling fish stocks in seas and waterways around the world – caused by excessive fishing and other factors – have put a spotlight on “fisheries management” policies designed to maintain adequate levels of aquatic vertebrate. A new study published in Marine Policy, a journal focused on ocean policy studies, details how distinct island communities have used a unique mix of long-standing traditional governance measures to help ensure the long-term health of their fish stocks.

Titled “Institutional designs of customary fisheries management arrangements in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Mexico,” the report finds that the studied communities rely on customary rules adhered to by fishers to maintain the health of their fisheries. These traditional ‘regulations’ include a weekday fishing ban, limits on what gear can be used, and stipulations on who can fish, and where. Despite the difficulty that the international community has of demarcating and regulating the ‘boundaries’ of national and transnational waterways and fisheries, most of the communities in the study are able to do so successfully in traditional ways, the report finds.

Conducted over 10 years in Mexico’s Northern Gulf of California, Papua New Guinea’s New Ireland and Manus Provinces, and the northernmost part of Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, the study is the first one to “systematically examine the presence of design principles in customary fisheries management institutions,” meaning the presence of an intricate rules-and-appeals system in local fisheries-management communities. Of the 20 communities studied, 17 were in Indonesia, where all of them practice Panglima Laot, a social-order system that has existed formally for at least 400 years. Panglima Laot features many elements of fisheries management, as on Weh Island, where it disallows cyanide and blast fishing in all fishing areas. In select areas of the island and in other nearby island areas, net fishing over reefs is prohibited, as is fishing on Fridays (the Muslim day of rest).

In the Muluk community of Papua New Guinea’s Karkar Island, clan chiefs have regularly closed reefs to fishing – sometimes for several years – in an effort to boost the numbers of available fish, the study found. On Papua New Guinea’s Ahus Island, leaders oversee an intricate system that gives certain kin groups permission to hunt specific aquatic species. Other kin groups, meanwhile, are allowed to use particular fishing gear – an arrangement that requires the groups to work with each other if they want to expand their fishing limits. In the Infiernillo Channel off Tiburon Island, located in Mexico’s Midriff Island Region of the Gulf of California, the people known as Seri or Comcáac impose strict conditions on fishing for the valuable Pen Shell that live there. No hookah diving (diving with basic breathing gear) is allowed on sandbars, while outside fishing crews must employ someone from the Comcáac community to use the Infiernillo Channel waterways – a requirement that “provides community members with a source of income and a low cost monitoring mechanism of outsider activities within the Channel,” the study found.

Leaders in all the communities studied maintain flexibility in their fisheries-management rules, and adapt regimes to suit the changing needs of their communities, the researchers reported. Indeed, the autonomy and flexibility to adapt and change rules based on social, economic, environmental and ecological conditions is critical to the success of many traditional common property management systems, including the land-based regimes of nomadic herdsmen in the African Rift Valley and elsewhere. ‪The study highlights the untapped potential of giving greater weight to traditional knowledge and practice in order to determine effective policies for marine ecosystem management.   ‬

Five prominent researchers – J.E. Cinner, Xavier Basurto, Pedro Fidelman, John Kuange, Rachael Lahari and Ahmad Mukminin – participated in the study. The Christensen Fund, National Geographic Society and the Australian Research Council funded the research.

Click here to download a PDF of the full report.

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