Breaking bread with rivals leads to more fish on coral reefs

A spear fisher with his catch in Kenya. © ARC CoE for Coral Reef Studies/Fraser Hartley
A spear fisher with his catch in Kenya.

Cooperation is key to most successful endeavours. And new research by an international team of sciencitsts including Lancaster University has found that , when fishermen and women cooperate with their fiercest competitors, this can improve fish stocks on coral reefs.

Dr Michele Barnes, a senior research fellow from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University (JCU), is the lead author of the study in Nature Communications that looks at the relationships between competing fishermen and women, the fish species they hunt, and their local reefs.

“Relationships between people have important consequences for the long-term availability of the natural resources we depend on,” Dr Barnes said.

“Our results suggest that when fishers—specifically those in competition with one another—communicate and cooperate over local environmental problems, they can improve the quality and quantity of fish on coral reefs.”

Co-author Prof Nick Graham, from Lancaster University, said: “Across the world coral reefs are severely degraded by climate change, the pervasive impacts of poor water quality, and heavy fishing pressure. Our findings provide important insights on how fish communities can be improved, even on the reefs where they are sought.”

Dr Barnes and her team interviewed 648 fishermen and women and gathered underwater visual data of reef conditions across five coral reef fishing communities in Kenya.

They found that in the places where fishermen communicated with their competitors about the fishing gear they used, locations for hunting, and fishing rules, there were more fish in the sea—and of higher quality.

Co-author Dr Jack Kittinger, Senior Director at Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, said this is likely because such cooperative relationships among those who compete for a shared resource—such as fish—create opportunities to engage in mutually beneficial activities. These relationships also help build trust, and can enable people to develop a shared commitment to managing resources sustainably.

“This is why communication is so critical,” said Dr Kittinger. “Developing sustained commitments, such as agreements on rules and setting up conflict resolution mechanisms, are key to the local management of reefs.”

“The study demonstrates that the positive effect of communication does not necessarily appear when just anyone in a fishing community communicates – this only applies to fishers competing over the same fish species,” saidco-author Dr Örjan Bodin, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.

The study advances a framework that can be applied to other complex environmental problems, where environmental conditions depend on the relationships between people and nature.

Co-author Dr Orou Gaoue, from the University of Tennessee Knoxville, emphasised the broad appeal of the results.

“Although this study is on coral reefs, the results are also relevant for terrestrial ecosystems where, in the absence of cooperation, competition for non-timber forest products can quickly lead to depletion even when locals have detailed ecological knowledge of their environment.”

“Environmental problems are messy,” explained Dr. Barnes. “They often involve multiple, interconnected resources and a lot of different people—each with their own unique relationship to nature.

“Understanding who should cooperate with whom in different contexts and to address different types of environmental problems is thus becoming increasingly important,” she says.

The paper is published today: Barnes M, Bodin O, McClanahan T, Kittinger J, Hoey A, Gaoue O, Graham N (2019). ‘Social-ecological alignment and ecological conditions in coral reefs’. Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-09994-1

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