What the future of artisanal coral reef fisheries research should look like.

How much fish can we sustainably take out of coral reef ecosystems? Can artisanal fishing on coral reefs be sustainable at an economically viable level? I asked an interdisciplinary group of researchers to help me grapple with these questions at the 2010 American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference. I organized a symposium entitled “Limits to the Sustainability of Fishing on Coral Reefs,” aiming to push my colleagues to discuss these limits in concrete terms. In the conversations that followed, it became clear that the body of knowledge on this topic was in need of synthesis, and that there were some areas in particular need of focused future research efforts.

Hence, this recently published paper, which includes a literature review of 464 peer-reviewed articles on artisanal coral reef fisheries, describes the types of data and categories of management recommendations presented, identifies trends in research effort, and suggests 9 priority areas for future research:

  • effectiveness of management approaches,
  • ecological thresholds, trade-offs and sustainable levels of extraction,
  • effects of climate change,
  • food security,
  • the role of aquaculture,
  • access to and control of fishery resources,
  • relationships between economic development and fishery exploitation,
  • alternative livelihoods, and
  • integration of ecological and socioeconomic research.

What are graduate students for if not to undertake massive projects like assessing each of 464 articles for 66 attributes? (See figures below for a subset of this data.) I have surprisingly good memories of the quality time spent with the associated spreadsheet, and unsurprisingly good memories of working with my great co-authors Josh Cinner, Marah Hardt, Jennifer Jacquet, Tim McClanahan, and Jim Sanchirico.

My hope is that this review will be useful to researchers; that they will consider taking on some of these priorities, and that this will spur increasingly sustainable management of artisanal fishing. I am particularly concerned with priority #1, effectiveness of management approaches, because that relates to all the others. We need to be more diligent about actually testing the effectiveness of various management interventions, which only 22% of these analyzed papers did. Given increasingly limited research funding, concerted efforts should be made to develop strategic and collaborative research agendas.

As we concluded in the paper:

“We encourage multidisciplinary research initiatives that inform the management process, present the potential ecological, social and economic benefits and costs of regulatory options and take a systematic approach to reporting so that meta-analyses can be conducted and broad lessons learned. However, it is not enough to simply do the research. Researcher expertise and research outputs need to connect with fishers, communities, resources managers and decision-makers at all levels to enable more informed decisions. There is great need for evidence-based management recommendations. From this, a more strategic and collaborative approach, focused on the drivers of fishing, can emerge to guide sustainable management and help ensure the future of coral reef fish, fisheries and artisanal fishing communities.”

Citation: Johnson AE, Cinner J, Hardt M, Jacquet J, McClanahan T, and Sanchirico J. (2012) Trends, current understanding, and future research priorities for artisanal coral reef fisheries research. Fish and Fisheries. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-2979.2012.00468.x

For another take, read Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s article/alumni feature announcing this publication.