There is a long tradition of fisheries management in the Asia-Pacific region. Traditional (or customary) fishery management systems 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 organizations but these systems broke down or are breaking down owing to modernisation. Fishery modernisation typically involves mechanization of fishing vessels (or fleets) and the adoption of new gears and technologies. This is accompanied by a shift to government-driven scientific/economic management of the resource (through legislation) and removal of traditional management mechanisms (this may only be a lack of formal recognition, although traditional or local management systems often persist in some form at the local level and can be the basis for the establishment of a co-management system). The logic for the transfer of management responsibility to government was driven by the model used in more temperate developed countries at that time and 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 overexploitation.
Unfortunately, government-managed models of management have also proved to be largely unsuccessful in managing open access fishery resources both in countries where they originated and in countries where they were adopted. Over the last 20 years it has become increasingly apparent that management initiatives will not be effective if the resource users (communities and fishers) are not fully involved in the management process. Focus has therefore now shifted from scientific/economic management models to those of co-management that involve both governments and communities/resource users in sharing decision-making and planning, to varying degrees.
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 (this may not always focus on the resource and may be more directed towards conflict reduction etc.). However, there are also examples of situations where co-management initiatives were not sustained.
Four pillars are considered essential for successful co-management, these are: (i) an enabling policy legislative environment; (ii) empowerment of communities; (ii) effective linkages and institutions; and (iv) adequate resources - a fishery resource considered worth managing, and the people and finances to implement the system.
An enabling policy and legal framework is essential to ensure that governments have appropriate policy in place to support co-management. Whilst the state is entrusted with the management of the resource, it can assign responsibility to or recognize the competence of local communities/individuals for the management of fisheries. In so doing, local ownership improves compliance with locally agreed rules and greatly improves compliance with national legislation. 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 the governments (either locally or nationally) demonstration of its willingness to change policy, involve communities in the preparation of policy/laws, define roles and responsibilities of organizations and devolve power to local agencies.
Communities (both small-scale fishing communities and large-scale industrial groups) involved in co-management must also be empowered in order to participate effectively and ensure sustained involvement. There must be genuine sharing of power between governments and resource users in policy development and decision-making. Often, other (non-fisheries) users of the resource such as farmers and the tourism industry will also need to be involved in some stages of the process. Governments and other agencies must recognize the competence of fisher organizations and allow them to make their own rules.
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 recognized 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 that must be recognized and addressed. Communication and dialogue between stakeholders such as researchers, government fishery agencies and fishers must also take place effectively and be part of a participatory process.
Lastly, it must be recognized that effective co-management requires the existence of a resource 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 recognize and commit to providing these resources, otherwise these initiatives cannot 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.