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6.1 Access for specific stakeholder groups
6.2 Controlling access in artisanal fisheries
6.3 Multiple use of aquatic resources
6.4 Access versus ownership - Traditional management and equity

Access to and control of fisheries resources are increasingly becoming a key issue as the focus of fisheries management shifts from production to ensuring the sustainability of resources. Understanding existing, and past patterns of access and ownership of fisheries resources is of key importance if appropriate mechanisms for management are to be developed.

Frequently, patterns of access and ownership are intimately linked to long-established social and cultural traditions. Such "traditions" can cut both ways - in many Melanesian cultures the concept of private or group ownership of inshore fishing grounds is perfectly acceptable but, in many Western nations there is an equally strong tradition that "the sea belongs to everyone". The necessity in fisheries management of changing forms of access to fisheries resources is frequently in conflict with these traditions.

Sociological analysis needs to incorporate a better understanding of existing access and tenure arrangements for marine resources into plans for the management of those resources.

6.1 Access for specific stakeholder groups

6.1.1 Gender issues

Women's access to fisheries resources and their ownership of the means of exploiting those resources, will often be significantly different from men's. As a result, efforts to manage or change the way in which those resources are used will have very different impacts on men and women.

Patterns of inheritance of access and tenurial rights will often differentiate between male and female descendants. At times, certain forms of access to certain areas may be passed through the female line while others may pass through the male line. Customary arrangements covering the passage of rights in this way may be fundamental to a proper understanding of existing patterns of resource use and the different ways which men and women are able to exploit fisheries.

Women's patterns of resource use

Women's use of fisheries resource may be quite different from those of adult men or other groups of stakeholders. Sociological analysis needs to identify these differences clearly so that the effects of changes in the fishery on women's access will be understood. This is particularly important in fisheries management. If fishing techniques or gears are being restricted, do women use them or depend on the catch from those gears in any way? If minimum length regulations are being introduced, will this effect the ways women currently catch fish? If quantities of catch are to be limited, will this effect women involved in processing that catch? Will licensing arrangements lead to the exclusion of women fishers who might depend on fishing in regulated areas?


In recent years there has been a resurgence in the use of customary tabu in many villages in Vanuatu, particularly to protect commercially important stocks of top shell (Trochus maculatus) on village and clan-controlled reef areas. Commonly, these tabu forbid the collection of trochus for 3 years or more within a set area. The fishery is then opened for a short period to collect commercial-sized shells after which the tabu is immediately reinstated for a further fixed period. These tabu are frequently placed on reef-areas near to settlements, where monitoring is relatively easy. However, in some cases, the ban, generally decided by all-male councils of chiefs or elders, has been extended to all shellfish collection (generally a female activity) on the grounds that "the temptation to collect trochus would be too great". Thus the areas nearest to the village and therefore most readily accessible to women are often off-limits for shellfish collection of any kind. In some of these areas shellfish seems to have contributed anywhere from one third to one half of all fish consumed in the community, almost all of this coming from women's collection on nearby reefs. In these cases, the impacts of such bans on patterns of protein consumption in the community may have been considerable.
(MRAG, unpublished)

As illustrated by the case from Melanesia in Box 8, efforts to limit use of particular resources for commercial purposes may end up limiting subsistence fisheries as well and can have unexpected and unintended impacts on nutrition. In this case, a measure introduced (by male decision-makers in the community) to manage a resource primarily exploited by men, seems to be having significant impacts on women involved in a different, but related, fishery. Within a community where decision-making is dominated by men, these impacts had not really been taken into consideration.

Numerous cases of this sort could be quoted here. Decision-making procedures, both within institutions and agencies concerned with fisheries management and at local levels are commonly dominated by men. Partly because of this, and partly because fisheries administrators are inevitably more concerned with fisheries which produce income and revenue, much fishing activity undertaken by women, or fishing which is aimed at subsistence uses, tends to be ignored when management measures are being considered. But more commercial fisheries are also often more mobile than subsistence fisheries. If one area is closed, or access limited, they can often move to other areas. Such options may not be open for women, children or old people engaged in subsistence fishing. They may depend entirely on a few very local fishing grounds which are readily accessible from their homes and which do not require long journeys and can be reached quickly without interrupting vital household tasks. Access regulation can often have more serious impacts on these fishing activities than on the commercial activities which were originally targeted by fisheries managers.

6.1.2 Age issues

Many of the issues raised concerning gender are also applicable to age. All changes to fisheries need to be considered in the light of their possible impacts on children and old people's access to resources. Children's access to fisheries will generally be precarious but may enable them to contribute to household food supply. The effects of changes in fisheries on that access needs to be considered.

Old people may be less concerned with physical access to fisheries but they often play a disproportionately important role in determining access distribution within the community. In many "traditional" communities, decision-making responsibility about resource-use resides with councils of elders or groups of lineage heads who may actually take a very limited part in the actual exploitation of the resources. This may mean that decisions relating to management of fisheries are based on limited first-hand or current knowledge of the resource and its needs or problems.

6.1.3 The community

Many forms of community or communal control of access to fisheries are found world-wide. Increasingly, the state plays the leading role as ultimate arbiter of fisheries access and distributor of the rights of exploitation. In many parts of the world this is linked to the perception that enforcement of any form of regulation should only reside with the state.

But in many traditional societies, the control of access and distribution of fisheries resources has long been the responsibility of the local communities most dependent on those resources for their livelihoods. The history of community control of resources needs to be understood in detail by fisheries managers. The ways in which community management has functioned in the past may convey important lessons for the present and future of fisheries. Where such systems still survive, they may offer the best options for effective, and cheap, fisheries management. But insufficient understanding of how these mechanisms work, and in particular why they work, can lead to their disruption and collapse. Efforts to adapt traditional systems of resource control to the needs of modern fisheries management have to be carefully assessed as the two do not necessarily mix well.

6.1.4 The household

At the household level, access to resources is frequently determined by ownership of the means of production, in other words the bundles of technology and rights of access needed in order to exploit or process those resources. Households with secure ownership of the required technology, or primary tenure over resources, will have more secure access than those reliant on technology owned by others or on secondary rights. This will affect the security and stability of households' livelihoods and hence the impacts on them of measures to manage fisheries.

The social status of individual households, determined by their history, the social or ethnic group they belong to, or by their caste or occupational group, may also play an important role in determining access. Customary patterns of inheritance can be of crucial importance in determining the ways in which people use the resources which they control. The ways in which rights of access to resources are passed between generations and through marriage links can have very significant impacts on levels of exploitation and people's perceptions of access rights. The case in Box 9 shows how "traditional" norms regarding marriage can affect fisheries.


In many parts of Melanesia, various forms of customary tenure enable local people to control the way in which marine resources are used. Often, whether for reasons connected with the cultural significance of certain resources or because of a highly developed awareness of resource limitations, this leads to a relatively balanced utilisation of resources. But, in some areas, such as certain island communities off the coast of Malakula Island in central Vanuatu, traditional norms of marriage and the exchanges of access rights between different clans which accompany marriage, have apparently ended up opening fisheries access to the extent that currently it is extremely difficult to enforce any control at all. Some of these island communities traditionally married people from off their home islands, either from communities on nearby islands or on the mainland. In some cases, marriage would be accompanied by an exchange of rights to fish in the respective family's or clans' fishing areas. Over time, the network of groups enjoying reciprocal rights has expanded. The result in some communities has been to establish a "traditional" perception that the sea is "open" for everyone to fish.
(Baines, 1989 - MRAG, unpublished)

In some situations, traditional patterns of inheritance and exchange of rights to resource use may represent a finely balanced tradition of stewardship of fisheries resources which has ensured sustainability from generation to generation. The introduction of externally formulated management measures can upset these systems.

6.1.5 The production unit

Particularly in artisanal fishing units, different participants will make different contributions to the production process and may even provide different technological elements which go to make up the production unit. Ownership of the means of production is often spread among members of the fishing unit. The contributions by different participants will generally affect the distribution of benefits as well. By extension, this will also mean a differential distribution of the impacts of management.

Existing mechanisms for the distribution of access rights to fisheries at the production unit level need to be clear before any changes are attempted. Frequently such mechanisms depend more on ties of patronage and kinship between unit members and those controlling such mechanisms. Official bureaucratic procedures are often by-passed or ignored in favour of informal contacts which are more difficult for outsiders to observe and understand. But understanding how particular groups of producers gain access will be essential to designing appropriate changes in access regulation.

6.2 Controlling access in artisanal fisheries

Interventions in artisanal fisheries which aim to restrict certain destructive fisheries can end up excluding some resource users from fisheries altogether if careful attention is not paid to who the users of particular fishing methods are and what their alternatives might be. Access to fishing for many poor rural households living in coastal, estuarine or riverine areas may depend on the use of a particular gear targeted for management. This is particularly true of some of the small, cheap gears used by unskilled seasonal or part-time fishers. The small pushnet, found throughout Asia and often blamed for quite significant damage to juvenile fish in coastal, estuarine and freshwater areas, is a good example. If this net was not readily available, many of those who use it would probably have significantly reduced access to fishing as it is the ease of operation of low cost of that particular gear which makes fishing an option for them. Fisheries managers may need to consider modifications to gear or making available other types of gear to ensure that some access to fisheries is still possible for those with limited other options.

6.3 Multiple use of aquatic resources

The consideration of access issues as part of the sociological analysis accompanying fisheries also has to take account of the different uses of aquatic resources. Fisheries of any sort may constitute only one of many uses of a particular water area. In freshwater areas, the water itself may be as important or more important as a resource than the fish which it contains. In arid or semi-arid areas, drinking water, irrigation and water for livestock are all likely to have a higher priority for local people than fisheries. Attempts to manage access to the fish in the water clearly cannot interfere with these more important uses.

At the same time, the possibility that some of these activities may themselves affect fisheries resources which are targeted for management, needs to be borne in mind. Water areas may also be used for the collection of non-fisheries products, such as aquatic plants, and ways in which access to these resources can be sustained while limiting exploitation of fisheries resources may need to be identified.

6.4 Access versus ownership - Traditional management and equity

Traditional forms of aquatic resource management are arousing increasing interest as viable and sustainable systems of management. For example, forms of customary tenure are extremely attractive as management mechanisms as they ensure that individuals or delimited groups of people have an interest in managing the resource, as they are "guaranteed", to some extent, to be able to reap the benefits of that management in the future.

However, such systems are frequently anything but equitable. Traditional social structures often concentrate control of access into the hands of relatively small groups of people and may well operate specifically to maintain such inequalities. On occasions, the "real" function of what appears to be forms of traditional resource management may be precisely to establish the predominance of one group or individual over others by claiming "tenure" of a resource.

Sociologists on fisheries teams need to help managers to understand the real priorities behind traditional mechanisms for controlling resources and their use and ensure that these are not co-opted in a way which could damage their viability as social and cultural mechanisms.

6.4.1 Flexibility of traditional access controls

Customary or community-based forms of access control tend to be relatively flexible and dynamic. They respond to changes in the social and political structure of stakeholder communities and the surrounding society. The whole notion of what constitutes "customary" is constantly being reinterpreted in the face of changes both within the community and introduced from outside.

While communities may be encouraged to develop these mechanisms with more specific management orientations, there is often a tendency for outside, bureaucratic agencies concerned with management to encourage some form of "codification" of existing practice.

This can often extract the very flexibility and dynamism which is one of the strengths of community-based systems. External agencies engaging communities in discussions regarding resource management should instead be prepared to adapt their own procedures to accommodate the dynamism of uncodified traditional mechanisms.

In coastal areas, along river banks and on the shores of lakes and other waterbodies where fisheries are important, ownership of land on the seashore may have implications regarding access rights to fisheries and other aquatic resources.

Interlocking rights of this kind are often dynamic and subject to constant change in response to shifts in the economic context. In many areas of the world, tenurial rights to fisheries resources have been "dormant" or only implicit in the past as the value of fisheries resources was limited to subsistence or the general abundance meant that their sale value was insignificant. As fisheries become more commercialised and resources more scarce, tenurial rights to areas of water are often "discovered" and complex sets of overlapping claims are brought to bear on areas which were previously effectively "open-access" or subject to rather uncertain forms of tenure. Box 10 provides some examples of this.

Investigation of how claims to fisheries access have changed over time can provide resource managers with important indications about the relative state of resources and how they are changing.

BOX 10

In some locations in Melanesia, reef areas adjacent to village lands have commonly been controlled by lineage groups or clans, with the heads of clans, or their appointed "fishing masters" or "chiefs of the reef" making decisions about how to manage resources there. However, situations where individual households have assumed control over particular sections of reef are also frequently encountered, usually where those households already have well-established tenurial claims to adjacent shoreline. Sometimes this seems to be an integral part of the continual jostling for power and influence between families and clans which are a normal part of the social life of the region. But in some situations, the shift towards "private" control is probably also in response to the realisation of the commercial value of the resources contained in reef areas, whether in terms of tourist access, fish or simply as "property". On the floodplains of Bangladesh a similar process of encroachment of private claims to deeply flooded, low-lying areas, where tenurial rights were previously rather vague. Whereas many of these areas used to be used only for seasonal capture fisheries, the advent of irrigated agriculture during the dry winter months and the spread of techniques for containing water and fish after the drawdown of floods have led to an increase in landowners claiming rights over flooded areas and restricting access for non-land-owning fishers

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