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The future held in reserve

Around the world, half of humanity lives concentrated within 60 kilometres of the seacoast. Two-thirds of the world's largest cities are situated in coastal areas. As these populations grow more quickly than those inland, it is estimated that, by 2020, three out of every four people will be living in coastal regions. Not surprisingly, many of the world's poor are crowded in these regions, where local communities and indigenous people depend on the valuable resources coastal ecosystems provide. But rapid population growth is leading to environmental degradation, declining fish stocks and marine biodiversity, and increasing vulnerability to storms and rising sea levels. Traditional livelihoods based on fishing or harvesting coastal resources are no longer a certainty. Can marine reserves provide a more sustainable future?

Small island life

Home to 700-plus people, the volcanic island of Apo in the Philippine Visayan Islands has seen its population double in less than a decade. On the island, scarce freshwater supports only limited subsistence farming, so fishing is the major livelihood activity for most of Apo's people. But an increasing population and rising tourism have begun to deplete the fish and coral species that once thrived in the unique reef system that surrounds the island. Although a reef conservation programme was established in 1978, it was not until 1985, when agreement was reached between local fishermen and councillors, that a full marine reserve was established to prevent illegal fishing and overexploitation of the reef. Commercial fishing is banned, but traditional fishing with hook and line, bamboo traps and spears is permitted within the reserve except in a fish-breeding sanctuary on the southeast of the island, which allows the coral fish to grow to maturity and breed.

Fish populations have recovered, and tourism is now a controlled but important part of Apo's economy. Through revenue raised from visitors, the islanders have purchased a generator to provide electricity for 6-11 hours a day and established a primary school. Life may not be luxurious, but the Apo community is at least thriving, and its marine reserve is now seen as a highly successful case study for community-based management for coastal resources.

From conflict to co-operation

Tamil Nadu fishermen
Tamil Nadu fishermen

Whilst the benefits of community-based management have proved themselves in the small island community of Apo, it is a far different challenge to achieve success with larger, more diverse communities that are equally reliant on a marine reserve. For instance, the Gulf of Mannar, located on the southeastern tip of Tamil Nadu, India, is one of the world's richest regions for marine biodiversity. But with more than 100,000 local people (Marakeyars) dependent on its fisheries, destructive fishing methods and coral mining, combined with sewage and industrial pollution, have resulted in declining catches both near and offshore. The impact on overall biodiversity is particularly dire as it is estimated that for every 1,000 kilograms of fish collected, more than 300 kilograms of by-catch is discarded on the beaches. Farmers affected by the continuing drought and failure of monsoon rains in the region have also turned to fishing, adding to the pressure on marine resources and worsening poverty and conflicts amongst coastal communities.

Declared a marine national park in 1986, the gulf became a biosphere reserve three years later. However, the wide range of legal measures put in place to protect over 10,000 square kilometres of the reserve often resulted in conflicting jurisdictional responsibilities amongst government departments and agencies. The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust, established with support from the Global Environmental Facility and implemented by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, has given priority to community-based management initiatives through the setting up of village-level eco-development committees. Around 55 village committees have participated in preparing a plan for the conservation and use of marine resources whilst also identifying alternative livelihoods for village households currently dependent on local fisheries. Income-generating activities supported in the last 2-3 years include the establishment of an agar plant, a fish pickle unit and a pearl farm, each owned by a village community.

The setting up of a community-managed artificial reef has proved to be particularly successful. Video footage of the reef taken just one year after its establishment showed good growth of a wide variety of marine organisms, including soft corals. Species of fish popular with local fishermen, including grouper, snapper and grunter, all appeared in large numbers. Illegal fishing around the reef area is regulated by the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department and district administration, and the success of the reef has led to the fisheries department to set up a further ten sites. As with other community enterprises, revolving funds for the reef are made available by the trust. It is hoped that, as with the artificial reefs, the success of community enterprises will be replicated in other regions along Tamil Nadu's coast.

Date published: May 2005


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