Marine conservation efforts, such as implementation of marine protected areas, have a history of taking place at the expense of local fishing communities. Acting purely from scientific information, but neglecting regional socioeconomic conditions, complete fishing bans have at times been implemented in areas where small-scale artisanal fishing has endured for centuries.

This greatly compromises the livelihoods of coastal fishing communities. Sustainable Development Goal 14 emphasizes the importance of small-scale fisheries for the economic prosperity as well as the food security of island nations, and these topics were avidly discussed at the United Nations Ocean Conference.

A growing body of research suggests that the support of these communities is also very important to the success of conservation projects, such as marine protected areas (MPAs).  Not unexpectedly, when artisanal fishers experience unfair treatment and negative impacts on their livelihoods, illegal fishing and tensions between fishers and government often follow.

I witnessed this dynamic firsthand while visiting three Indonesian fishing villages in 2016. My purpose was to study how people in these communities experienced the socioeconomic effects of local marine conservation efforts, and if this had any effect on their support for these projects. (In other words, I wanted to learn if these factors played any part in the success of the conservation efforts).

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Interviewing Indonesian village fishers about the effects of a nearby marine protected area in Komodo National Park on their livelihoods and welfare. (Credit: Björn Eriksson)

The MPA in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park was created in 1980. In some ways it still represents the old-fashioned, top-down approach to conservation, the first sign perhaps being that it is governed by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, located over two thousand kilometers (1,240 miles) away in Jakarta.

Many of the fishers I spoke to were highly discontent and bitter with their situation. Restrictions on fishing gear, combined with a lack of access to information on when and where they were allowed to fish (regional fishing zones shifted regularly to allow for stocks to recover), had severely compromised their incomes.

Some fishers told me with defiant voices that they went fishing in forbidden zones as soon as the tourist boats departed.

Many also witnessed or encountered regular harassment by patrol boats, to the point of gun threats.

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A fishing village in Komodo National Park. (Credit: Björn Eriksson)

In contrast, fishers on the Nusa Penida islands southeast of Bali were highly supportive of the MPA surrounding their three islands. In fact, they wished for more patrol boats to protect their waters. Why? Because regular meetings with the (Bali-based) NGO governing the MPA meant that they had been involved in its implementation from the start, and that they understood the importance of healthy corals and sustainable fishing.

Perhaps more importantly, this close involvement also eased their access to earning income through the tourism economy, which in many cases brought more money into their households than fishing.

The fishers understood that a strong stream of tourists depended on healthy reefs (both the Nusa Penida and Komodo regions are famous for their dive sites), expressed their worries about the threats of illegal fishing, and understood that the patrol boats were acting in their best interests.

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Fishers used this map and chart of the Nusa Penida marine protected area as a guide to which activities, such as fishing or tourism, were allowed in particular zones. (Credit: Björn Eriksson)

My third and final visit, to the fishing village Tanjung Luar, on southeast Lombok, reinforced the importance of providing alternative livelihood options to artisanal fishers as part of implementing a marine protected area.

Tanjung Luar is one of Indonesia’s main trading ports for shark fins. But given the proven economic benefits from diving tourism, the government has worked hard to stem the trade, including legislative protection for sharks, and export bans of the most endangered shark species.

Indeed, the fishers told me that government officials regularly came to the village to discuss and inform about the importance of preserving these species.

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The government had yet to make good on promises to help fishers in Tanjung Luar, a hub of Indonesia’s shark fin trade, gain access to alternate livelihoods. (Credit: Björn Eriksson)

Nevertheless, even though these talks and negotiations had educated the fishers about the situation for sharks, as well as the penalties for fishing them, lack of access to alternative livelihoods meant that many had little choice but to keep heading out to sea for more fins. In addition, promises of help with alternative livelihoods had been given but were not yet met, generating distrust.

Since the presence of the government signaled that the situation for shark populations was obviously urgent, many fishers perceived that their interests were being ignored.

Local veterans of the shark fin trade also told me that recent catches were not nearly as big as they used to be. This was another sad reminder of the alarming over-fishing of sharks, here and worldwide.

Remaining outwardly calm while standing in the very midst of this destructive trade was, to say the least, a challenge, and something I will bear with me for the rest of my life.

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Sharks being put up for auction in Tanjung Luar, Indonesia. (Credit: Björn Eriksson)

These three examples from Indonesia all underline the importance of including not just biological, but social and economic factors as well in environmental planning. If my findings from interviewing these fishers are anything to go by, it is crucial that small fishing communities near proposed or established MPAs are treated as the cornerstone stakeholders that they are, for both conservation efforts and local livelihoods to prosper.