Managing coral reef fisheries

September 1, 2012, 12:49 pm
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Pocillopora coral with small fish. Source: NSF; Credit: Hollie Putnam.


The management of coral reef fisheries generally involves restricting fishers’ access to marine resources of economic value (food fish, edible invertebrates, fish for the aquarium trade, decorative shells for tourists, etc.) through licensing fishers and fishing vessels, restricting the use of certain fishing gear, setting catch limits, or designating waters as closed to all commercial and artisanal fishing short term or more permanently as is generally the case with marine protected areas. Given that coral reefs are of interest to multiple user groups whose interests vary considerably, from commercial and sport fishers to snorkelers, divers, researchers, glass bottom boat operators, and other stakeholders, managers are faced with the challenging task of addressing the needs of stakeholders, while protecting the biological richness of reefs. The establishment of marine protected areas that prioritize research and recreational uses is a widely used approach in the management of coral reef fisheries; such marine protected areas often promote tourism and species conservation but conflict with the livelihood interests of fishers.

The majority of the world’s coral reefs are located in poorer, tropical countries, and marine protected areas offer economic benefits via park entry fees and recreational services. Nonetheless, the income generated is rarely sufficient to offset the management costs (patrols, mooring buoys, educational placards, lifeguards, etc.) and an unfortunate reality is that most coral reef-based marine protected areas are undermanaged due to lack of funds and corruption. Managing coral reef fisheries is further complicated by the fact that the benefits from marine parks (jobs and recreational opportunities) tend to accrue to non-local people, whereas the costs in terms of lost livelihood opportunities tend to affect local fishing communities. Finally, many modern approaches to fisheries management do not support the informal management systems historically practiced by indigenous people, potentially fueling local fishers’ discontent with marine protected areas. Local fishing communities receiving few benefits and experiencing notable costs due to the presence of marine protected areas often leads to the illegal extraction of resources, increased law enforcement costs, and ultimately the failure to achieve conservation aims.

The History of Coral Reef Fisheries Management

Coastal fishing communities have used their hands, nets, traps, lines, spears/harpoons, and non-motorized vessels to capture marine organisms in tide pools, lagoons, and reefs for thousands of years. The abundance of marine organisms and the much smaller human population made active management of the marine environment unnecessary for much of history. Locally available plant materials were used to fashion fishing gear and fishing vessels and a relatively short fishing day sufficed to capture more than enough to feed one’s family. Regional trade of marine organisms was limited due to lack of refrigeration and few roads. The ease of collecting large volumes of certain shellfish and fish from seasonally migrating schools passing near shore could lead to the capture of more than communities could consume or effectively trade. Waste rather than active conservation was typical under conditions of apparent limitless supplies of marine organisms.

Over time, as new communities formed and existing ones grew, fishers from neighboring communities often began to view ‘their’ seas to have particular territorial limits, with unique features of the landscape, such as promontories or coastal caves, marking their extent. Leaders of fishing communities typically worked out agreements for conditions under which neighboring fishers could enter what were viewed as waters belonging to another fishing community. Agreements normally involved a minor tribute or gift or simply asking for permission before entering another region to fish.

Although fishing generally took place quite close to shore, there was always the danger of drowning or being injured while working at sea. Many coastal communities developed belief systems about the causes of fishing accidents or deaths and created informal codes of behavior at sea meant to protect fishers’ lives. Codes varied, but often included elements which could improve fisher safety, reduce tensions among fishers, and conserve fish stocks through reducing excessive wastefulness. There were social benefits to not catching more than could be used because large piles of rotting fish not only smelled bad, but also led to unsanitary conditions. Fishers’ codes might include not whistling at sea (which could be associated with calling evil spirits), not tapping on the edge of a fishing vessel (which could attract sharks), not drinking intoxicating beverages at sea, not fishing overly far from shore, at night or on holy days, not putting excessive effort into fishing, or to cease fishing if an area of ‘strange phenomena’ such as a spawning aggregation was being overexploited.

Fishing activity was generally linked to an awareness of lunar calendars. Fish catches were expected to vary according to this calendar, but if there were temporary declines in fish stocks which were not anticipated, communities generally sought explanations in human behavior (breaking elements of the code of the sea) or disharmony with the spirit world. Fishers might be fined or asked to make a public apology for inappropriate behavior at sea, and the spirits which many coastal communities believed inhabited the seas and coastal areas might be appeased through offerings during formal community-based ceremonies. Fish being plentiful and fishers not drowning was often viewed as evidence that the spirits were content with people’s offerings to them (a slaughtered animal, eggs or other symbols of fertility let into the sea). Offerings were generally made at specific locations viewed as significant or sacred due to the number of fishers who drowned there (such as the rough waters in breaks between coral reefs) or the unusual abundance of fish in that location (particularly large coral heads, sites of spawning aggregations). Ill fortune with regard to catches or fisher safety might lead to additional offerings or a change of leadership in the fishing community.

As such, most indigenous approaches to coral reef fisheries management were community-based, quite flexible and open to change based on community beliefs and local conditions at sea, and relied on knowledge of the lunar calendar and locally-defined territories and sacred sites. Management traditions were passed on orally. With the expansion of colonial rule and trade, world religions spread to the tropics and often challenged traditional belief systems among fishing communities. Nonetheless, indigenous approaches to coral reef fisheries management remain in many parts of the world, but must function alongside state fisheries management systems which often do not know of or acknowledge their existence.

State involvement in coral reef fisheries management generally became more active in the 1940s as fish catches increased with the advent new materials, most importantly stronger, nylon fishing nets and lines, and fish markets expanded due to population growth, refrigerant technology, and better transportation. States created or enhanced loans to fishers programs to grow their marine fisheries industries and focused on how to exploit what still appeared to be rather limitless supplies of marine life. The rise in air travel and domestic and international tourism in the coming decades encouraged states to give more attention to their tropical coasts, with some realizing as early as the 1950s that marine resources were not as limitless as once thought and that conservation through marine protected areas may be required if coral-reef based tourism was to thrive. As a whole, marine protected areas were designated later than their land-based counterparts; whereas the world’s first terrestrial parks were established in the late nineteenth century, few marine parks were established prior to World War II. Although marine protected areas initially seemed to offer much promise in the realm of conservation, managers often realized within only a few years that protected areas were being compromised due to a poor understanding of or poor relations with the fishing communities they displaced or otherwise negatively impacted.

Stakeholder Relations in Coral Reef Marine Protected Areas

Early marine protected area management relied largely on managers setting rules and local people following them. Managers sought to maintain ‘marine wilderness’ by creating no-take zones where fishing was not allowed as well as limited take zones in which only lower impact, traditional fishing methods were sanctioned, and doled out fines and jail time to fishers who violated regulations. The top-down management approach in which managers were the experts and fishers had no say offended many who fished the reefs as a livelihood. Fishers believed they held knowledge of the seas due to their apprenticeship with elder fishers and experiential learning by virtue of time spent making observations at sea and that they should be part of the decision-making process for formal marine management plans. This rarely occurred, however, as fishers tended to lack the formal education required for newly established jobs as park rangers, wardens, or other similar positions. Also, few fishers held the foreign language skills desired by the tourist industry in and around newly established marine protected areas. In addition to losing their fishing livelihoods or having them curtailed and not finding new employment in tourism or marine management, fishers were also faced with lost access to beach front land. Over time fishing communities were pushed back from beach fronts as these areas became the sites of hotels, restaurants, dive shops, and other services aimed at tourists. In some cases fishing communities were dismayed to find tourists taking their photograph without asking permission, visitors scantily dressed in tiny bathing suits or none at all, fishers losing clothing or other items left on shore while at sea to presumably non-community members now commonly making use of the beach, having people ‘borrow’ their fishing vessels without permission and other threats to their fishing culture and way of life.

Fishers faced with new regulations on their fishing gear, restricted access to fishing grounds, perceived threats to their fishing culture, and apparent disrespect by managers of their knowledge of the seas reacted in many cases by poaching, especially at night and in less patrolled marine protected areas. When ecological studies revealed that the majority of marine protected areas were not having their intended conservation effect, or were meeting conservation objectives to much more limited degree than had been hoped, managers turned, generally in the 1980s to 1990s, to more cooperative and collaborative approaches to coral reef fisheries management. Fishers were invited to stakeholder meetings and asked for their input on management plans. Such efforts tended to reduce fisher animosity towards marine protected areas, at least temporarily. In many cases however, managers were asking fishers for input as a requirement for continued funding, not because they believed fishers held valuable knowledge about the sea. Fishers realized that they were asked for their opinions, but that what they said did not appear to matter or make it into the revised management plans. ‘Fishers’ were often treated as a single stakeholder group, management plans did not vary by season or the lunar calendar or even at times according to gear type, and few managers had any interest in fishers’ ‘superstitions,’ their codes of behavior at sea and sacred sites. In many cases, trust was lost, creating obstacles to improved future relations between managers and fishing communities. Some managers created or maintained trust through the appointment of a community relations officer whose sole duty it was to understand fishers and relay their concerns to management; unfortunately when budgets faced cuts such positions were often the first to go. Once cut, the positions were rarely reinstated. Small-scale, reef-based fishers recognize that they are a low priority relative to the more lucrative hotel and tourism industries and in many cases anger has given way to a mix of anger and apathy towards coral reef management approaches and marine protected areas.

Case studies

It is often rather remarkable when speaking with fishers from different parts of the world to hear how their concerns are so similar even when their housing, fishing vessels, and catches differ dramatically. Small-scale fishers operating from fishing vessels of less than 40 feet (12 meters) often express feeling misunderstood or unfairly portrayed by the media and environmental groups as uncaring towards the environment. It is not the environment for which they do not care; it is their perceived treatment within fisheries management systems which do not appear to genuinely value their fishing culture and knowledge, but that of managers, many of whom rarely spend significant time at sea.



caption Fish trader in Kenya. (Credit: Heidi Frontani)


Kenya created its first marine park and reserve complex in the late 1960s with parks at the popular tourist destination of Malindi and nearby, less frequented Watamu and a reserve surrounding the two parks. In the Kenyan case a marine park is solely for non-fishing tourist activities and a marine reserve allows for fishing with gear deemed traditional. Additional marine protected areas were established in the 1970s on Kenya’s south coast, in the 1980s adjacent to the popular beaches of Nyali, Bamburi, and Shanzu just north of Mombasa, and in the 1990s adjacent to the white sand beaches at Diani south of Mombasa. Overall, Kenya’s oldest marine protected areas were those created in the most top-down fashion and its newer protected areas involved some measure of cooperative management. Nonetheless, Kenya’s oldest marine protected areas tend to be those with the least conflict between fishing communities and managers and have had the greatest ecological improvement (in the diversity and number of fish and increased coral cover).

The greatest obstacles to the continued recovery of Kenya’s coral reefs stem in large part from the country’s poverty. Kenya’s Fisheries Department (in charge of monitoring fish catches) struggles with low budgets and staff that generate false fish catch data or only partially record it due to working second and third jobs to make ends meet. The Kenya Wildlife Service (in charge of managing marine protected areas) similarly struggles with inadequate funds for monitoring protected areas and some KWS staff are known to turn a blind eye to illegal fishing in exchange for free or discount-priced fish to feed their families. Officials working for Kenya’s Ports also have been willing to accept the presence of foreign trawlers illegally operating in Kenya’s waters in exchange for minor funds to supplement inadequate salaries.


caption Coral reef researcher in Kenya. (Credit: Heidi Frontani)


Kenya’s efforts at more bottom-up approaches to management have been laudable, but obstacles to improved fisher—manager relations remain, largely due to the low social standing of Kenya’s fishers and their lack of English language skills. Meetings on how to improve marine management are often held at major hotels and conducted in English at times when fishers are working, some Fisheries Department officials speak of and to fishers in a derogatory manner, and improvements to beach fronts (walkways, life guard towers, recreational boat slips) have largely benefited the tourist industry rather than fishers. Fishers at Kenyatta Beach, the main public beach north of Mombasa, did receive building materials for the construction of a fish marketing platform and a fishing gear storage facility which has improved the aesthetics of the beach popular with Kenyan and foreign tourists, but they did not receive the larger motorized vessel to fish waters beyond the reef which they desired, but which had no value to the tourist industry.

Overall Kenya’s coral reefs are relatively well managed considering the severe budget constraints under which most of its government departments and parastatal organizations operate. Kenya is fortunate to have many citizens, hoteliers, government officials, and researchers who care deeply about the well being of its coast. Kenya hosts annual Beach Cleanup events for school children and interested citizens, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Coral Reef Conservation Project based at Bamburi Beach is a leader in coral reef research, especially on sea urchins and the impact of their grazing on coral habitats, and there are many non-governmental organizations operating in the country which focus on environmental education, the protection of coral reefs, sea turtles, and mangroves, coastal water quality, and more.

The Florida Keys, USA


caption Anti-MPA placard in the Florida Keys. (Credit: Heidi Frontani)


In the mid-1970s the Florida Keys received one of the first marine sanctuaries in the United States at Key Largo. This relatively late start to marine protected area establishment in the United States was due in part to concern from the oil and gas industries that marine protected areas would be used as a means to thwart ocean development. By the 1980s, environmental groups frustrated by the relative lack of progress in designating marine sanctuaries explored ways to designate marine protected areas other than through the Office of the President. In the early 1990s several marine sanctuaries, including the large 3,674 square mile (9,515.67 square kilometer) Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) were established in a top-down fashion by Congress. In the Florida Keys case, the rationale given for the sanctuary was the need to protect corals from damage by ship groundings and oil drilling.

Residents of the Florida Keys believed that the main regional environmental concerns were poor water quality in Florida Bay, pollution from south Florida, and the need for sewage treatment. Many believed that the marine sanctuary’s management would not concentrate on these issues, but add a layer of bureaucracy for the several dozen local agencies already involved with addressing environmental problems in the Keys. The Conch Coalition, an opposition organization to the marine sanctuary, was formed. The approximately 1,500 member group included commercial fishers, collectors of shells and treasures from sunken ships, and others; they protested the top-down nature of the sanctuary’s establishment, called for local involvement in decision-making, requested that the no-take fishing area be reduced from the proposed 20 percent, and that a referendum be held such that citizens could vote on the sanctuary issue. Over 100 stakeholder meetings were held and hundreds of pages added to the proposed FKNMS draft management plan.

In November 1996, after the referendum votes had been counted it was revealed that, by a narrow margin, the majority of the citizens of the region were against the establishment of the sanctuary. This was largely due to their preference for elected local officials over appointed federal officials working on environmental protection in their area. Nonetheless, citizens were told that the referendum was non-binding and that the sanctuary would be fully implemented in 1997. Ultimately the fully-protected, no-take fishing zone was reduced from 20, to 6, to 1 percent of the FKNMS’s area, but the expectation for meaningful participation in decision-making in the USA left many angered by the sanctuary designation process. Local concern over improving water quality remains.

The United States Virgin Islands


caption Map of East End Marine Park, US Virgin Islands. (Source: US Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources)


Fishing is historically important to the culture and livelihoods of US Virgin Islands’ communities but, as in many Caribbean islands, social and economic developments over the last half century, particularly a vast increase in population and tourism have altered local residents’ traditional relationships with marine resources and threatened the integrity of the marine environment. As a result, fisheries policy makers struggle to promote tourism and address mounting environmental threats, while still protecting the livelihoods of artisanal fishers.

The distinct biophysical seascape and social structure of each of three main US Virgin Islands – St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John – add to the controversy and complexity of fisheries management issues. In the early 1960s Buck Island National Monument and the marine component of Virgin Islands National Park were established as marine protected areas, but had little direct impact on artisanal fishers of nearby St. Croix and St. John as they only imposed restrictions on non-traditional fishing methods. In 2001, however, President Bill Clinton expanded the size of Buck Island National Monument by 18,000 acres (7,284.34 hectares) and designated the entire area a no-take zone and established the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, a 12,000 acre (4,856.23 hectare) no-take zone adjacent to Virgin Islands National Park. The majority of the local population opposed the marine protected areas due to their unilateral manner of establishment and new area closures which placed considerable limitations on St. John’s and St. Croix’s fishers’ livelihoods.

The Caribbean Fisheries Management Council, which includes federal scientists, fisheries managers, and some local fishing stakeholders, has established three marine protected areas at spawning aggregation sites. The first was Red Hind Marine Conservation District established in 1989 as a seasonal closure for a small spawning aggregation of red hind, an important species to the relatively large artisanal fishing community of St. Thomas. The closure was supported by the fishing community who recognized its overexploitation and provided scientists with the traditional knowledge necessary for its establishment. The closure is credited with increasing the average length of red hind adults from 29.5 centimeters (cm) in 1988 to 38.8 cm in 2000 and their abundance from 5 fish to 25 fish per 100 meters squared. In 1999, just prior to documenting this achievement, the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council designated the marine protected area as a permanent no-take zone and expanded its size by 16 square miles (41.44 square kilometers) to include reef areas not proven to be aggregating sites. This decision was a surprise to St. Thomas fishermen who viewed the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council as having abused their trust by using their traditional knowledge against them. Similarly, in 2005, the Council deemed St. Croix’s marine protected areas, Mutton Snapper Spawning Aggregation and Lang Bank Red Hind Spawning Aggregation, as permanent no-take zones. The Council has also implemented seasonal bans on St. Croix’s conch fishery.

There has been great pressure from the local population and conservation organizations for the territorial government of the US Virgin Islands to establish its own system of marine protected areas using more bottom-up management approaches. These efforts have yielded numerous, relatively ineffective marine protected areas. The most recent and notable case is St. Croix’s East End Marine Park which, due to compromises made during the establishment process, includes few restrictions against fishing and thus has little potential for aiding the recovery of local fisheries. Even the territorial government’s efforts to curtail overfishing by placing a moratorium on commercial fishing licenses has had a negligible effect as they lack any significant means of enforcement.

Coral Reef Ecology and Coral Reef Fisheries Management

Most coral colonies grow rather slowly and there are many physical threats to healthy coral reef colonies. The fastest growing branching-type coral colonies are easily damaged in storms, by ships’ anchors, and careless or inexperienced divers and snorkelers. Ships can crash into or become stranded on reefs in storms or when they have mechanical difficulties. Runoff from coastal and hinter lands can carry sediments that stress corals polyps which need to put extra effort into sorting food from non-food items and create murky waters which reduce sunlight needed by coral polyps’ symbiotic algae. Changes in water temperature can bleach and kill corals via the loss of their symbiotic algae. Parrot fish, sea urchins and other grazing organisms can degrade or physically remove portions of coral colonies. Abandoned fishing gear including traps can be tossed about in rough waters and smash into corals causing physical damage. Fishing with dynamite, smashing corals intentionally to drive fish into nets and other destructive fishing methods physically damage corals. Using poisons, natural or otherwise to capture food fish or those for the[ aquarium trade can also harm reef organisms.

Integrated coastal management has become a widespread approach to reduce the range of threats to and negative impacts on coral reefs. Effective coastal management remains a challenge in most locations because it must address not only commercial and sport fishing communities, but also educate tourists, hotel operators, those building tourist facilities, dredging harbors, farming and operating industries upstream, and others living and working in the region. Overall, active management has reduced damage from dynamite fishing, fishing with poisons, and physical damage from ships anchors, especially in locales with greater funds in relative terms, such as Hawaii and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, considered not only the world’s largest barrier reef, but one of the best managed. Reef monitoring has helped researchers to better understand the dynamics of coral reef communities and how to protect them, but takes place in rather few coral rich areas due to the lack of trained marine biologists and the expense involved in conducting research. In the Caribbean the desire for income from tourists, including those on large cruise ships remains a considerable problem, especially in terms of waste generated and left by tourists. Mooring buoys can reduce damage to reefs, but in many tropical areas governments have insufficient funds to install and maintain them. In addition, requiring fishers to use mooring buoys can concentrate fishing effort to relatively small areas as there are a limited number of sites fishers can choose. The expense involved in removing ‘ghost traps’ (traps lost by fishers in storms or otherwise which nonetheless continue to lure, and eventually kill fish) has meant that few are ever extracted. Legislation is limited as a tool to effectively protect coral reefs when funds are lacking to enforce regulations.

Marine protected areas remain among the most viable approaches to safeguarding coral reef communities. Yet most subsistence fishers and many commercial ones view them as unwelcome additions to waters because of the costs they carry for their livelihoods. In Kenya, the USVI, and the Florida Keys local fishers were informed that the creation of no-take zones in which fishing was prohibited would be of benefit to them in the long term due to the ‘spillover’ of commercially important fish from protected areas into neighboring waters in which fishing was allowed. In the Florida Keys no-take areas were initially referred to a ‘replenishment reserves’. After several years with little discernible spillover of fish into fished waters, the reserves were renamed ‘ecological reserves’. Although some scientific studies have demonstrated that a ‘spillover effect’ from marine protected areas does exist, most fishers argue that it is on such a small scale that it does not make up for waters lost to fishing to what have been designated as marine protected areas.


Improved awareness of fishing community concerns, and their origins, can lead to more informed interpretations of community-coral reef manager relations and allow for policies that better support not only local livelihoods, but also conservation objectives. Yet relations with fishing communities are just one aspect of managing coral reefs. Potential rapid rises in sea level could harm coral reef communities unable to build up at rates equivalent to sea level rise. Increasing human populations, the expansion of the global tourist industry, and the adoption of a consumer lifestyle by more people adds chemicals and wastes to waters which are potentially harmful to coral reefs. Once damaged or destroyed, coral reef communities are difficult to restore.

Fisher knowledge remains underutilized in coral reef management relative to the management of colder water fisheries. Outreach and education related to coral reefs could be enhanced by incorporating fishers, especially those from multi-generation fishing families, as educators. Similarly, reef monitoring, which increasingly includes training tourists and volunteers to identify and count fish, could better incorporate knowledgeable fishers, especially if monetary compensation were offered.

Although the United Nations sponsors regional seas programs and there are a growing number of environmental groups and researchers interested in coral reef protection and management, institutionally much work remains. Managers would benefit from additional training and expanded opportunities for effective outreach to the public, including school groups and the media. In many coral reef areas, multiple agencies are charged with reef protection, most are underfunded, and inter-agency collaboration is limited. Capacity building for agencies charged with protecting reefs is likely to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future.

Further Reading

  • Friends of the International Year of the Reef (2008); (provides links to many organizations engaged in coral reef protection and monitoring)
  • Frontani, H. Marine Protected Area Management for Whom? Stakeholder Concerns and Resistance in the Florida Keys, USA and Mombasa, Kenya, Focus on Geography, Spring 2006, Vol. 48(4) 17-24.
  • Glaesel, H. Community-level Marine Resource Management and the Spirit Realm in Coastal Kenya, Women in Natural Resources (Special Issue: Fisheries & Aquatic Ecology) 2000. 21(4): 35-42.
  • Halpern, Benjamin S., and Robert R. Warner. 2003. Matching marine reserve design to reserve objectives. Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences 270: 1871-8.
  • Johannes, R.E. Traditional Marine Conservation Methods in Oceania and their Demise, Annual Review of Ecological Systematics, (1978) 9: 349-364.
  • Kelleher, G. 1999. Guidelines for marine protected areas. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.
  • National Marine Protected Areas Center.
  • Sobel, Jack, and Craig Dahlgren. 2004. Marine reserves: A guide to science, design, and use. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  • US Coral Reef Task Force Working Group on Ecosystem Science and Conservation. 2000. Coral Reef Protected Areas: A Guide for Management.
  • Westmacott, S., K. Teleki, S. Wells, and J. West 2000. Management of Bleached and Severely Damaged Coral Reefs. IUCN—World Conservation Union.
  • Zerner, C. Transforming Customary Law and Coastal Management Practices in the Muluku Islands, Indonesia, 1870-1992, pp. 80-112 in Western, D. and R. Michael Wright (eds.) Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community-Based Conservation. Island Press, Washington (1994).


Frontani, H., & Hopkins, A. (2012). Managing coral reef fisheries. Retrieved from


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