The study shows that partnerships between government, conservation groups, and local fishers - known as 'co-management' - have considerable success in both meeting the livelihood needs of local communities and protecting fish stocks.
"This study is the culmination of a huge field campaign, which allows us to identify why co-management works in some cases but not others," says co-author and centre researcher Tim Daw.
One of the largest studies of its kind, the team studied 42 local fisheries arrangements on coral reefs in Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, using a combination of interviews with local fishers and community leaders and underwater fish counts. The team discovered that co-managed reefs were less likely to be overfished compared to reefs that were not.
"We found clear evidence of people's ability to overcome the 'tragedy of the commons' by making and enforcing their own rules for managing fisheries," explains lead author Dr Josh Cinner of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University, Australia.
"More importantly, we have identified the conditions that allow people to make co-management successful, providing vital guidance for conservation groups, donors, and governments as to what arrangements are most likely to work," Cinner says.
Help where help is most needed
The study can help solve the overfishing crisis where it is needed most, by showing what does and does not work in the small-scale fisheries that are most difficult to manage. Essentially, both top-down and bottom up solutions are needed.
More than half the fishers surveyed felt that co-management was positive for their livelihoods.
"People often assume that local population size is the main driver of overfishing - but our research shows that access to global markets and seafood dependence are more important, and provide possible levers for action," Tim Daw says.
Get the structure right
The research also turned up some unexpected results: co-management benefits the wealthier people in the local community, but it is not detrimental to the poor. In other words, most people felt that they got something back from it.
The team found that the institutional design of the fishery management arrangement was vital in determining whether or not people felt they benefited from co-management and were willing to work together to protect fish stocks by complying with the rules.
"If you want people to co-operate to protect their marine resources, it is really important to get the structure of the co-management arrangements right," Josh Cinner says.
"Managers and donors can help build the legitimacy, social capital, and trust that foster cooperation. By making targeted investments that lead toward transparent and deliberative co-management systems, all participants can feel their voice is being heard."
Source: Cinner JE et al (2012) Comanagement of coral reef social-ecological systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1121215109