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Samal, Philippines: protected area to manage fish recovery. Rare, CC BY-SA

Local fishing rights + marine reserves: a better approach to small-scale fisheries recovery

From the big, stilted offshore guardhouse overlooking one of the six fishery replenishment zones in Bindoy, Philippines, local volunteer guards keep a 24/7 watch against illegal fishing. Recently, a hopeful sign has caught the guards’ attention: they’ve spotted more and more fish weaving around the structure’s thick wooden legs in the teal and blue waters below.

Seeing more fish in these no-take zones and the seas surrounding the Philippines is a sign of renewed life – for marine ecosystems, for the locals that look to fish as a portion of essential daily protein and for the coastal communities that depend on fishing for food, barter or cash.

In the Philippines, Belize, Brazil and other countries of the developing world, catching, processing and selling fish from coastal, small-scale fisheries represents a primary source of both food security and livelihood.

Getting by on an occupation connected to fishing has become more difficult, as the ocean no longer provides what it used to. A small-scale fisher in the Philippines who once caught more than 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of fish in the 1940s can now expect to catch just 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) with the same effort by the early 2000s. As fish landings decline and the number of mouths to feed grows, the demand for fish climbs and overfishing expands. Small-scale fisheries are in serious need of a durable recovery strategy. We recently coauthored a paper in the scientific journal Oceanography with a solution: “TURF-Reserves.”

By pairing “territorial user rights fisheries” (TURFs) with marine reserves (fully protected marine areas) – two well-known and typically independent concepts – TURF-Reserves present a unique opportunity to restore small-scale fisheries and promote marine conservation at the same time.

The community-driven marine protection effort in Bindoy, Philippines joins a number of countries whose communities have taken their first steps in TURF-Reserve implementation, including Belize, Brazil, Chile, Fiji, Japan and Mexico.

Local incentive

Under TURF, a form of rights-based fisheries management, local fishers receive exclusive access to a designated fishery area, enabling them to dodge a common “race to fish” against all other fishers operating off a given coast. By guaranteeing exclusive fishing access, TURFs can give local fishers and community members powerful personal incentives to ensure their fisheries are well managed and the surrounding ecosystem is healthy.

Fishing in Ayungon, Philippines, among the many places in developing countries where local fishing provides protein and livelihood. Rare, CC BY

TURF areas and marine reserves can be mutually beneficial, and it is their combination that provides a hopeful new approach. Studies have shown that well-managed no-take areas boost fish stocks by an average of 446% inside a protected area and 207% outside the area.

Inside a marine reserve, fish populations have room to recover, and fish can grow quite large. Eventually, some of the bounty inside the reserve can spill over into surrounding areas. If the reserve is surrounded by a TURF, fishers who made the investment in the reserve have secure rights to fisheries benefits.

Existing TURF-Reserves have produced encouraging results. For instance, a fishing cooperative in Isla Natividad on the central coast of Baja California, Mexico, implemented two no-take marine reserves in 2006 to allow their abalone populations to rebound and improve their TURF. Four years after the La Plana and Punta Prieta reserves were closed to fishing, abalone density doubled within the reserve and juvenile fish from the reserve began appearing in fishing grounds adjacent to the reserves.

We are involved in one initiative called Fish Forever that works with communities in the Philippines, Belize, Indonesia and elsewhere to pilot and implement TURF-Reserves. Fish Forever, a partnership between the conservation group Rare, the Environmental Defense Fund and the University of California Santa Barbara’s Sustainable Fisheries Group, demonstrates how collaborative TURF-Reserve efforts can form.

Guard against poaching

TURF-Reserves will be durable only if community stakeholders embrace the project as something worth their time, effort and protection. In some cases, a fishery’s success hinges as much on strong community leadership and community cohesion as it does on sound fisheries management strategy or scientific data.

TURF-Reserves are more likely to be successful if their creation, management and enforcement include not only fishers but also community leaders, fishing industry members, nongovernmental institutions, scientists, and other local fisheries user groups. TURF-Reserves also require government cooperation at local, regional and national levels to thrive.

If coastal communities and the nations that encompass them further explore and adopt TURF-Reserves, they may save thousands of small-scale fisheries that employ and feed most local people.

By setting and respecting fisheries management controls in the TURF, following the rules of the reserve and protecting their area from illegal activity, fishers and their communities can successfully manage their resources into the future. And eventually the people of communities like Bindoy may once again see a sea full of fish.

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