Coastal Fisheries Programme
Number 6 - December 1999

Editor and Group Coordinator: Bob Johannes

Production: Information Section, Marine Resources Division, SPC, PO BOX D5, 98848 Noumea Cedex, New Caledonia Fax (687) 263818)

Prepared with financial assistance from Australia, France and New Zealand.

From the Editor

When faced with environmental problems, experts on marine resource management often recommend new laws. Yet most such laws, including those against using cyanide in the live reef fish trade, are broken routinely in Southeast Asia, and increasingly in the Pacific Islands.

Our management prescriptions often ignore this central problem because biologists (who for better or worse are usually the people who prescribe conservation measures) generally don’t know how to deal with it. And social scientists who study natural resource-use patterns in the region tend to ignore it, leaving resource managers with nowhere to turn for insight or guidance in designing management measures that come to grips with it.

The only research I have come across that focuses squarely on the subject as it relates to destructive fishing in the coastal tropics is that of Galvez et al. (l989)1. These authors lived in two Philippine fishing villages long enough to gain the trust of the villagers. This enabled them to learn much about why destructive fishing was routine in the area, how it operated, and how participants viewed it. Published in the proceedings of a conference
that focused on a single bay in the Philippines, their work has not received the attention it deserves.

The authors describe how local fishermen justified their fishing with cyanide or explosives by saying that it was a victimless crime, that without it ‘how would our children live?’, and that there was no other way of catching certain species. Fishermen also said that trawlers operating illegally in their waters, but towards whom the law turned a blind eye, did far more damage to marine habitat. The benefits of illegal fishing were widely distributed
within the fishermen’s communities, and were thus often seen by community members to outweigh the costs of environmental damage, bribes, and (less frequently) fines.

In addition, fisheries enforcement officers were poorly paid, providing strong incentives to overlook destructive fishing practices in exchange for money, fish or other favours from fishermen. In doing so they considered that they were doing the latter a favour. The military was reportedly also heavily involved in taking bribes, as well as in supplying fishermen with explosives.

Enforcement authorities considered legal penalties too harsh, enhancing the appeal to fishermen of bribery as an alternative. There were loopholes in the law. Politicians, who often financed illegal fishing activities, sometimes forced the release of arrested fishermen in exchange for political support from their communities. The law-breaking was not confined, then, simply to fishers. Corrupt practices that encouraged their activities were operating in every key institution in the area except, perhaps, the church. Here, then, is an example of why natural resource management laws and regulations based solely on biological considerations often fail.

Education and co-operative management with the assistance of NGOs can assist some fishing communities to find satisfactory alternatives to illegal fishing. But such efforts appear to be too time-consuming, labour-intensive and costly to extend to the majority of fishing communities in the region. We have no alternative but to try to steer most of them away from these practices by simpler strategies.

To help us design such strategies, we badly need social scientists to replicate the research of Galvez and colleagues and to extend it geographically and culturally. It should focus not just on natural resource users themselves, but also on institutions whose corrupt practices encourage their environmental lawbreaking.

The primary object of natural resource management is to influence people. Better understanding of the human dimensions of environmental problems is thus essential if we are to improve our performance.


Ciguatera seems to have quickly become perhaps the single biggest issue in connection with the live reef food fish trade in the Pacific Islands. Yvonne Sadovy’s article in this issue provides an important perspective on it and poses some difficult questions.

TRAFFIC LRF report finally out

This issue includes a summary of Nokome Bentley’s excellent and comprehensive report for TRAFFIC on the live reef fish trade in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, bureaucratic delays held up its release for more than a year, weakening its impact. Nevertheless, it remains an important document. One of Bentley’s findings for Indonesia that bears repeating is: ‘for most regions, once exports began, it took only three to four years for them to reach a peak and then to decline. Like a wave, the industry has spread throughout the country; live fish exports rising and falling in its wake.’

Bob Johannes


Ciguatera - A continuing problem for Hong Kong's consumers, live reef fish traders and high-value target species
Sadovy Y. (pdf: 28 KB)
The live reef fishery in the Seychelles
Bentley N., Aumeeruddy R. (pdf: 35 KB)
Live reef food fish trade in the Banggai islands (Sulawesi, Indonesia): A case study
Indrawan M. (pdf: 55 KB)
Grouper aggregation protection in proactive Pohnpei
Rhodes K.L. (pdf: 27 KB)
Adaptive management of aquarium fish collecting in Hawaii
Tissot B.N. (pdf: 70 KB)
Live reef fish developments in Fiji
Yeeting B.M. (pdf: 55 KB)
Fishing for solutions: Can the live trade in wild groupers and wrasses from Southeast Asia be managed?
Bentley N. (pdf: 32 KB)
The Hong Kong trade in Live Reef Fish for Food
Lau P., Jones R.P. (pdf: 37 KB)
The use of chemicals in the live fish export industry
Kelly K. (pdf: 29 KB)
The capture and culture of postlarval coral reef fish: Potential for new artisanal fisheries by
Bell J., Doherty P., Hair C. (pdf: 37 KB)
Collecting grouper seed for aquaculture in the Philippines
Johannes R.E., Ogburn N.J. (pdf: 175 KB)
'Best Practice' manual does not live up to its title
Squire L., Johannes R.E. (pdf: 23 KB)


Download the complete publication:

Live Reef Fish #6 (pdf:)


The views expressed in this Bulletin are those of the authors and are not necessarily
shared by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community

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