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Mainstreaming Fisheries Co-Management in Asia-Pacific

Presented paper - Mainstreaming Fisheries Co-Management in Asia-Pacific

The background paper presented by the APFIC Secretariat noted that there is a long tradition of fisheries management in the Asia-Pacific region. Traditional (or customary) fishery management systems have evolved over centuries in response to increasing population pressures and the need to resolve disputes over access and exploitation of fishery resources. The control of access to what were initially "common property" resources was originally the responsibility of local communities and customary fishery organisations.

These systems have been breaking down in recent decades in the face of increased mechanization of fishing vessels (or fleets) and the adoption of new gears and technologies. The process has been accompanied by a shift to government-driven scientific/economic management of the resource (through legislation) and the removal or marginalisation of traditional management mechanisms. The logic for the transfer of management responsibility to government has been partly reinforced by the theory of the "tragedy of the commons", which assumes that management of common property resources by individual "users" inevitably leads to their over-exploitation.

Unfortunately, government-managed models of management have proved to be largely unsuccessful in managing fishery resources in the Asia-Pacific region. Over the last 20 years it has become increasingly apparent that management initiatives will not be effective if those that exploit the resource (communities and fishers) are not fully involved in the management process. The focus has therefore shifted from scientific/economic management models to those of co-management. Co-management systems are those that involve both governments and communities/resource users (both small and large scale) in sharing decision-making and planning to varying degrees. This is in contrast to "full community-based management" or "full government management" approaches wherein one or more of these stakeholders is excluded from formal involvement.

Recent experience with piloting co-management in many countries in the region has shown that it can be successful and that those exploiting the resources are capable of managing the fishery for specific purposes - including conflict reduction, use of more responsible fishing gear etc.

Four pillars are considered essential for successful co-management. These are:

(a) an enabling policy and legislative environment;
(b) empowerment of communities;
(c) effective linkages and institutions; and
(d) adequate resources (i.e. a fishery asset considered worth managing, and the people) and finances to implement the system.

An important feature of this is a robust enforcement mechanism and the existence of implementable sanctions to ensure compliance with the locally agreed rules. A critical step in the evolution of co-management is government's (either local or national level) demonstration of willingness to change policy, involve communities in the preparation of policy/laws, define roles and responsibilities of organisations and devolve power to local agencies. Community "ownership" improves compliance with locally agreed rules as well as with national legislation.

Communities involved in co-management of small-scale fisheries must also be mobilized in order to participate effectively and in a sustained manner. There must be genuine sharing of power in decision-making. Often, other (non fisheries) users of the resource such as farmers and the tourism industry will need to be involved in some stages or aspects of the process. Governments and other agencies must recognise the competence of fisher organisations and allow them to make their own local rules regarding the management of the fishery.

Effective co-management requires good linkages between participating stakeholders. The networks of stakeholders must be understood and encouraged to share information. It must also be recognised that in a co-management system success criteria may differ between stakeholders and that there may be differing priorities and emphasis on management objectives. Ecological well-being (or "state of the resource") must be balanced with human well-being (i.e. the need for food or income) and this inevitably requires management trade-offs. Communication and dialogue between stakeholders, government fishery agencies, fishers and researchers must take place effectively and be part of a participatory process.

Lastly, it must be recognised that effective co-management requires the existence of an asset that is considered worth managing since it requires the input of resources (time, effort, finance) by those involved. The transaction costs for participation in meetings, monitoring, enforcement and management can be considerable and are often underestimated at the commencement of a co-management initiative. Governments and communities must recognise and commit to providing these realities if initiatives are to be sustained.

Our current state of knowledge shows that there are no simple formulae to ensure success in fisheries co-management initiatives. What works in one area may be inappropriate or fail in another for many different reasons.

The Workshop agreed on the general concept and definition of co-management proposed in the presentation, i.e. involving a wide partnership between stakeholders. The definition was further refined in the plenary session at the end of the Workshop. Other points noted were that: co-management should focus more on local institutions than on local communities; it is very important to think about who facilitates the process and about the scale of the process (i.e. what and how much should be under co-management); and problems associated with industrial fisheries and with small-scale fisheries are different.

Working Group discussions on co-management in the context of fisheries management in Asia-Pacific.


  • Community driven/sense of ownership (resources and process)

  • Supportive policy & legislative framework

  • High-level commitment

  • Building on existing initiatives/systems

  • Government role as "facilitator"

  • Supported by awareness and capacity building

  • Detailed/clear guidelines on regulation and enforcement

  • Proper mechanism/system for conflicts/disputes settlement/appeal mechanism

  • Linkages/dialogues/coordination and cooperation mechanism

  • Personal relationship and trusts

  • Community is organized with proper capability and resources

  • Empirical/research-based management with community involvement

  • Stakeholder participation involvement in formulating policy and legislation

  • A principle of subsidiarity (giving allowing fishers the right of self-determination and political participation)

  • Build on local knowledge and traditions

  • Inter-government agency coordination/cohesion in policy and legislative development (to avoid duplication, conflict)

  • Decentralization/delegation must be comprehensive (adequate powers and rights over resources complemented by the means to manage the resources)

  • Creating alternative livelihood opportunities


  • Too much dependence on government inputs

  • Overly prescriptive system

  • Insufficient incentives/rewards (i.e. low salary of civil servants)

  • Benefits/incentives derived not shared/accessible

  • Centralized enforcement

  • Top-down policy formulation

  • Top-down consultation or passive participation

  • Inadequate legislative framework and weak enforcement

  • Lack of awareness (at the local level on the policy; at the central level for local systems/needs)

  • Absence of national co-management plan

Following the Secretariat's introduction to this topic, participants were divided into four working groups. Groups I and II addressed the theme "Issues and constraints in mainstreaming fisheries co-management" and Groups III and IV, the themes of "Roles and responsibilities of major players in fisheries co-management" and "What works and what doesn't". After the presentation of each working group's report back in plenary, participants discussed various related issues.

The importance of an appropriate legal framework for successful fisheries co-management was unanimously recognized, as well as the need to move from open access to a regulated fishing access regime. It was also emphasized that the constraints to fisheries co-management were not limited only to the sectoral legal framework; the overall national legal system has an impact on the sector in various ways.

The role of government was discussed by the participants. In this regard, its facilitation role in the co-management process was questioned since the state in some instances may provide the essential regulatory framework while at the same time function as a key user of the resource. It was therefore recommended that these two activities be clearly distinguished during the formulation and implementation of the fisheries co-management regime. Governments' facilitation role can also represent a bottleneck for mainstreaming fisheries co-management if the appropriate human capacities are not existing or properly developed.

The challenge of delegating responsibilities for fisheries management when the sector generates important revenues for the state was therefore fully recognized by the Workshop. The participants also considered that a successful management scheme should address both the large-scale and small-scale fisheries sub-sectors since they interact in various ways.

Fisheries resources in the region are generally fully or over-exploited, meaning that the need for promoting alternative livelihoods opportunities is critical. It was, however, emphasized that these alternative options should be identified and promoted outside the fisheries sector (including aquaculture) to avoid further pressure on these resources and the ecosystem on which they depend. It was also noted that a possible strategy was to provide incentives for the large-scale operators to leave the sector, which is also likely to have a follow on benefit to the small-scale sector.

Issues and constraints to mainstreaming fisheries co-management


Levels and areas for co-management knowledge and skill building National advisory committee

  • Basic concepts of co-management - national workshop (one off activity); documentation, especially on success stories

  • Legal review and legal aspects of co-management

  • Needs of the grassroots level; awareness of local issues


  • Concepts on co-management
  • Legal aspects of management
  • Planning & monitoring
  • Local issues
  • Conflict resolution
  • Training of trainers

District and community

  • Concepts of co-management
  • Awareness of local issues
  • Conflict resolution
  • Organization and training of users
  • Training of local district committees
  • PRA, institutional strengthening, formulation of management plans, group mobilization/dynamics, social savings, alternative livelihoods

Note: Should be approached as a learning by doing exercise, through exchange visits etc.

It was noted that poverty in a community can be a major constraint to co-management arrangements. Long-term rational decision-making is difficult for those it affects, because short-term needs are so urgent. The importance of fishing as a "last resort" also means that it can be especially difficult to restrict people's access to managed resources. It was further observed that in co-management it can be very difficult to engage with the poor and ensure equity of both participation and benefits.

Legal and policy frameworks

Legal and policy frameworks may not be supportive of co-management and/or may not be adequately enforced. Some issues that should be clarified are user property rights, rights to manage resources, and rights to equitable sharing of benefits from resources. However, it can be risky for leaders and officials to limit access to resources, and this may explain some of the lack of political will. It was noted that current examples of co-management are mainly local pilot projects; larger frameworks for co-management of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) are not available.


Identification of legitimate representation from both government and community institutions can be problematic, as can be ensuring the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders (e.g. women may not be seen as important in co-management, the importance of local governments as a stakeholder may not be recognized, etc.). Co-management itself may lack legitimacy in the eyes of stakeholders due to a lack of understanding of the roles the different actors must play for it to be successful, and also due to lack of trust between parties owing to poor communication.

Institutional capacity to manage resource

Communication needs

Communication is a process that should:

  • Target the appropriate people
  • Flow is vertical and horizontal
  • Create a common understanding of management objectives and process (e.g. this could be done through working on a joint management plan).

Note: Good communication is essential for success.

Many institutional structures do not provide for co-management, and there is often a lack of organizational capacity to accommodate it - both within governments and local non-government institutions. It was observed that a lack of institutional capacity applies to both small- and large-scale fisher groups. It was further noted that capacity development of government staff can be problematic owing to changes in political representation that lead to changes in staff.


Information needs

  • Inventory of all resources (not just fish!) and their dynamics
  • Information on rights - legal requirements
  • Law and order situation and relevance of laws
  • Weather forecasts/warning systems
  • Wealth of information in communities themselves - should be a two-way flow
  • Many demands from government for information e.g. number of fishers, gear, catch etc.
  • Alternative livelihoods
  • Functions of other organizations
  • Monitoring is expensive
  • Monitoring of organizations

Lack of information about many co-management initiatives operating in a non-project environment.

Co-management needs to incorporate different systems of knowledge (i.e. scientific/economic and local/traditional) in a two-way learning process. Co-management efforts are often constrained by a poor understanding of the ecology of fish resources, and the inter-connectedness of aquatic and land-based ecosystems. It can also be difficult to establish ways to integrate stakeholders, rather than polarize them.

Co-management as a process

It was noted that co-management should be adaptive and not too ambitious, and that it takes considerable time and resources. Experience shows that there is often a lack of appropriate mechanisms to link resource users and higher level managers, and to resolve the many different management priorities amongst stakeholders.

Lack of holistic/ecosystem approach

Co-management has to-date often been implemented on a pilot scale. As a result, it often ignores the "bigger picture" in terms of other sectors, ecosystems, etc.

Actors and stakeholders in co-management - their roles and responsibilities

As a general point, it was noted that there is often a lack of facilitation or of sufficiently skilled facilitators, and that this may act as a potential bottleneck in any up-scaling of co-management initiatives. The identification of facilitators is therefore important.

Table 1. Co-management actors and stakeholders in co-management: roles and responsibilities


Role and responsibilities


  • Central/national/federal
  • Provincial/regional/state/local govt.)

At the national level:

  • Provide an enabling environment through the specification of policy and legislation

  • Technical support/advice/human resource development

  • Empowerment, incentives, equity

  • Facilitate a participatory process/partnership

  • Ensure linkages

  • Standard-setting

  • Quality control, trade and market support

At the local level:

  • Execute policy; implement management plan and measures; issue local administrative rules, regulations and ordinances; coordinate with other sectors; local project planning


  • Communities
  • Groups
  • Organizations etc.

· Local planning and implementation
· Custodian/stewardship over resources
· Sustainable exploitation of resources
· Formulation/observance of local rules and regulations
· Conservation and resource enhancement
· Participation in objective-setting and planning
· Facilitate participatory process/partnership
· Involvement in national/regional processes

INDIVIDUAL FISHERS not included above

  • Individuals
  • Groups outside formal systems
  • Migrants
  • Etc.

· Stakeholders in that they use the resources and are expected to follow management interventions

· Maybe "outside" formal arrangements but still need to be considered/involved


  • Small-scale entrepreneurs
  • Larger-scale/industrial

· Involvement in terms of upstream and downstream linkages


  • IGOs and international agencies
  • NGOs - international, local
  • Trade unions
  • Advocacy groups

· Financial support and pilot implementation of projects
· Capacity building
· Advocacy
· Linkages
· Extension and pilots
· Standard setting


  • Means of awareness, information flows/exchange

(Government and non-government)

  • Support and implement research and development activities and capacity building

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