Webcast Recap

Conflicts erupt over fisheries because there are "more and more people going after fewer and fewer fish in areas where they weren't fishing before," said Richard Pollnac, a professor of anthropology and marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island, at "Troubled Waters: Anticipating, Preventing, and Resolving Conflict Around Fisheries," an event sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program on May 15, 2008. The event was part of ECSP's "New Horizons at the Nexus of Conflict, Natural Resources, and Health" meeting series. Pollnac was joined by Charles Barber of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who said that "we have to deal with these challenges of feeding people and their livelihoods if we want to think about the conservation aspects" of marine ecosystem management.

Fish: A Resource Worth Fighting For

Fisheries are tremendously important to Southeast Asian countries, explained Pollnac, because most Southeast Asians rely heavily on fish for dietary protein and income generation. But rapid population growth, combined with open access to most fisheries, has severely depleted fish stocks and damaged coral reefs in the region. Dwindling fish populations have reduced incomes, lowered food security, increased poverty, and led to the use of destructive fishing technologies like dynamite and cyanide. As the number of fish declines, explained Pollnac, "the competition increases, and so we've got competition between people who are using different gear types. We've got competition of migrants versus locals. We've got competition concerning small-scale versus commercial fisheries."

Pollnac discussed three methods for resolving conflict over fisheries: top-down management, co-management by the government and fishers, or cooperation between users. Examples of top-down management by the central government include the Indonesian government's 1980 ban on trawling in the Java Sea or the Thai government's recent decision to ban large boats from inshore areas. However, neither action has eliminated conflict over those fisheries.

A 2007 study that Pollnac and his colleagues published in Marine Policy found that co-management of fisheries in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia significantly reduced conflict, which they measured indirectly by analyzing demographic characteristics, civil tension, and resource condition, among other variables. Pollnac cautioned that "the larger the population that you're dealing with, the more difficult it is to get people to agree and to develop a co-management scheme." Moreover, said Barber, "a long legacy of mistrust between the central government and people in local communities" is often an obstacle to successful co-management.

Pollnac emphasized that small-scale and commercial fishers sometimes choose cooperation over conflict. "Large-scale fishers and some fisheries—like shrimp fisheries—don't want to keep thin fish in their holds because of the [low] value of the thin fish, so they'll often sell it to the small-scale fishermen who come out to the boats," said Pollnac. True community-based management is not always possible, however, due to "the fact that some of the communities we're trying to work with aren't really very cohesive," added Barber.

Local Fisheries in the Global Economy

The global trade in Southeast Asian reef species, explained Barber, comprises four parts: the aquarium fish trade, primarily destined for the United States; the trade in live reef fish for food, primarily destined for Hong Kong and southern China; the curio trade, largely for international tourist markets; and the trade in ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine.

In the live reef food fish trade, divers chase fish into crevices in coral reefs, and then use cyanide—which poisons coral—to stun them. After they extract them by smashing away large pieces of coral, the fish are placed in boxes or aerated tanks and flown to China and Hong Kong, where they live for a few days in display tanks in restaurants or banquet halls. High-value fish are status symbols, eaten to mark special occasions like a graduation or the closing of a business deal. The live reef food fish trade depletes not only the target species, but also the smaller species that are used as feed.

This extremely lucrative market can engender conflict between outside operators and local fishers; fishers and governments; men and women; and older generations and younger ones. "There are of course conflicts that arise from the growing scarcity [of fish], disputes over the rights to who can fish, where and when outsiders come in, the distribution of the profits in the community, who's involved and who's not, all the kinds of things which happen when you introduce a new economy into an existing social and economic system," explained Barber. One common source of tension between local fishers and outside operators is the fact that "the price that's paid to local fisheries [for valuable species] is often pretty low—incredibly low."

The aggressive live reef fish trade operators exploit weak governments' inability to effectively manage their fisheries. "In many parts of Southeast Asia, the state claims to control and manage the seas, but it doesn't. They have no capacity, no systems, so it's really just open-access. It's whoever's most powerful or can exert their own control," said Barber.

Sadly, the reef species trade is only one of many threats to Southeast Asia's reefs and coasts, which include coastal development, marine-based pollution, climate change, and sedimentation due to deforestation and land-use change, said Barber.

The Coral Triangle Initiative: Prospects for a Better Future?

The Coral Triangle Initiative, currently in its strategic design phase, is a partnership between the governments of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, as well as official development agencies like USAID, international donor organizations, NGOs, and private foundations. Its five goals are:

  • Designating and effectively managing "priority seascapes";
  • Implementing legal, social, economic, and policy changes that will bolster an ecosystem approach to fisheries management;
  • Establishing and effectively managing marine protected areas;
  • Adopting measures for climate change adaptation; and
  • Improving the status of threatened species.

Barber believes the Coral Triangle Initiative has significant potential, but sees a number of possible problems, including:

  • Governments' reluctance to commit to implementing difficult policy reforms on issues like tenure rights, subsidies, corruption, and enforcement;
  • Significant differences among the six countries' capacities and cultures;
  • A lack of emphasis on sustainable livelihoods and economic development for impoverished coastal communities; and
  • A lack of emphasis on community-based coastal resource management.

Barber praised the efforts of WWF, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International, saying that the Coral Triangle Initiative "wouldn't have happened without them," but he warned that some national and local Southeast Asian NGOs resent what they view as "a very exclusive, top-down kind of process." In addition, because the international NGOs that have been most heavily involved are "known mainly for conservation and not for dealing with poverty, livelihood, and development…it'll be important as this moves along to begin to bring in some more of those kinds of actors if we want to get buy-in from the people that really have to change their behavior." Barber emphasized that the Coral Triangle Initiative and other conservation projects must recognize that they are "not going to make any progress with this if people don't have food to feed their kids."

Drafted by Rachel Weisshaar.


  • Charles Barber

    Environmental Officer, U.S. Agency for International Development
  • Richard Pollnac

    Professor of Anthropology and Marine Affairs, University of Rhode Island