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To fish or not to fish?

Most fishermen would not give up their livelihood despite dwindling catches, a new study has revealed.

The study, carried out by an international team of experts including Professor Selina Stead from Newcastle University, challenges previously held notions about poverty and adaptation by investigating why fishermen in developing countries stick with their trade.

Published today by PLoS ONE, the research found that half of fishermen questioned would not be tempted to seek out a new livelihood – even if their catch declined by 50 per cent.

Professor Stead, based in the School of Marine Science and Technology at Newcastle University, explained: “The reasons fishermen cling on to their jobs are influenced by much more than simple profitability.

“Fishers often have an occupational attachment, job satisfaction, family tradition, culture, and a sense of identity, which makes them reluctant to stop fishing – even when it would be an economically rational decision.”

Fisheries are challenged by the combined effects of overfishing, climate change, deteriorating ecosystems and conservation policies. Understanding how fishermen respond to these changes is critical to managing fisheries.

The research project, led by the University of East Anglia, is the largest of its kind and was undertaken as a joint project with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the School of Marine Science and Technology at Newcastle University, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia.

Researchers surveyed almost 600 fishers across Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar about how they would respond to hypothetical catch declines.

They then investigated how social and economic conditions, such as local culture and socioeconomic development, influenced whether fishermen were willing to give up their trade.

“Surprisingly, fishermen in the more vibrant and developed economies were less likely to give up their trade – despite having more economically fruitful opportunities open to them,” said co-author Dr Joshua Cinner from the ARC Centre of Excellence for coral reef Studies in Australia.

“This is the reverse of the common belief that poor communities are less likely to adapt than wealthy ones. We suspect that this may be in part due to the perverse impacts of subsidies in more developed countries encouraging people to stay in the fishery which would otherwise not be profitable.”

Lead author Dr Tim Daw, from UEA, said the research demonstrates the complexity of decision making and how willingness to adapt is influenced by a range of factors.

“We have found that willingness to adapt to change is influenced by characteristics of the individual fishermen, their households, and most importantly, the local conditions where they live and work,” said Dr Daw.

Tim McClanahan from the Wildlife Conservation Society said: “It is important to understand why and when fishers will leave a fishery, as the creation of parks, management restrictions, and ecological disasters require that fishers change or leave their fishing practices.

“One of the unexpected findings was that fishermen in a poor country like Madagascar would leave the fishery sooner than those in wealthier countries such as Seychelles. The reason seems to be that they already have diversified livelihoods, while fishermen in wealthier countries may be locked into this occupation.

“This is contrary to many arguments about the impacts of management and climate change on poor people, so will surprise many people working in this field and on resource and disaster management policies”

Source Information: ‘To Fish or Not to Fish: Factors at Multiple Scales Affecting Artisanal Fishers’ Readiness to Exit a Declining Fishery’ is published by PLoS ONE on February 9. The research was funded by the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association, via a grant to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

published on: 10 February 2012