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Reef Fisheries

Who are the Reef Fishers?

Traditionally, Indo-Pacific coral reefs were fished by nearby coastal communities who often owned them under customary laws and practices. Customary tenure arrangements vary enormously from place to place, with ownership of certain areas or species groups vested in different clans, families, tribes or other social units. By and large, however, coastal marine resources were not considered to be common property until after European contact. In many locations, especially remote ones, customary tenure is still very strong. Close to market outlets and urban centres, however, customary tenure of marine resources is increasingly ignored in the face of commercial pressures and opportunities.

Customary tenure was often accompanied by strict controls on which members of society could use which fishing methods, and where. Certain techniques were restricted to resource-owning clans or tribes, while, for example, women were commonly prohibited from using nets or boats. Traditional fishing techniques typically included locally-made nets, traps, fish fences and corrals, fibre lines carrying one or more baited hooks, spears and arrows, and traditional poisons, operated from the shore, on foot, or from paddling or sailing canoes. These gears have now been supplemented or replaced by technologically more advanced gears, including synthetic nets and lines, mechanised fishing vessels, trawls and dredges, modern poisons, and explosives. Some of these fishing methods are destructive and cause damage to the reef environment, and to non-target organisms.

Fishers today are largely the same as those in the past – coastal communities, including men, women and children, harvesting resources for food and as a source of cash income. However with the progressive demise of customary marine tenure arrangements, and increasing commercial pressures on coral reef fisheries, greater numbers of ‘outsiders’ – people with no traditional connection to the resources in question – are increasingly involved in harvesting them. In many situations this leads to conflicts with the traditional resource users, who still consider themselves the owners, even though this may not be articulated through modern laws. Competition for resources also leads to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in which competition leads to resource over-exploitation because users have no vested interest in resource conservation for the long term.

Source: Gary Preston (written for ReefBase)
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