The two whale sharks turned around to face me, opened their huge mouths and sieved the water filled with tiny baby anchovies. I had to tell myself that they would not bite, but I also remembered these are sharks, not whales and moved out of their path to avoid getting bumped into. It was the last trip at sea of 2.5 years collecting data to describe the coastal fishery off SW Sulawesi, Indonesia, in my PhD dissertation and to advise a decision support model for sustainable fisheries in the area.
In my little research boat, we had Said, a young but fierce looking Makassar boat man, two Dutch students with a throw-away point and shoot camera and a long time friend who just got his dive certificate. I was clearly the expert. I had dived the archipelago, read all papers written over 15 years of research by Dutch and Indonesian scientists, I had been introduced to Said by knowledgeable American PhD student Mark Erdmann and all my two years worth of data was on five floppy disks for serious statistical analyzes so I could conclude some smart findings.
After an initial scare from seeing a huge white spotted blue-ish shark fin cut the water surface next to a bunch of kids hauling in buckets of the schools of anchovies, which had been blasted to catch them easier, the fishers yelled hiu bodok (stupid shark) and we donned our dive gear and swam with the sharks.
Elated when climbing back on the boat, I asked Said, who had been smoking a kretek cigarette throughout the whole excitement, whether he knew how special and amazing this encounter was. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows and said: “well, they have been here for decades ever since I was a kid and they always come here for three months in the year following the juvenile anchovies onto the shallow shelf area.”
Unbelievingly, I stuttered: why, that is so amazing, why did you never tell me? As he started the twin engines, he mumbled: “you never asked.”
As I finished my thesis 13 years ago, one of the main conclusions was that collaborative management of fisheries resources will not likely be successful if managers and fishers do not agree on there being a problem. They would not really have a common ground to agree on the need of a management intervention that requires them to change their behavior if their expectation on its benefits has not already been proven in the “world” that they know. A fisher who has never left his fishing ground, or who has not been fishing for very long, will have a hard time relating lower or higher levels of total fishing pressure to the long-term sustainability of his catches. Also, a fisheries manager who lumps fish catch and effort statistics together across species and areas and fishing gears to a total catch per year, will not easily see the point of a management intervention that is species or season specific. At the time, Marine Protected Areas seemed the best management recommendation to support safe guarding at least part of the fish stocks in part of the oceans.
I recall the interviews that I did with hundreds of people, fishers and their wives, processors, other scientists, government officials, and if I would ask how the fishery was today compared to 5 or 10 or 15 years ago, most people would say it was much better now than before. Unless the weather made them stay at home, as then they’d refer to the fishery being at its worst-ever state. Asking further, it became clear that people referred to the good price they got for selling fish that they did not care for to eat themselves, or that now with their motorized small canoes they can go much farther afield. Trends of the intensifying fishing pressure and diversification of species exploitation did not occur to anyone of these stakeholders if I would have simply stuck to the question of how the fishery was doing today. As I asked more questions, all agreed how there were more fishers today, but no one suggested whether that was good or bad, most fishers just pointed to the horizon, shrugged their shoulders, and said something about how it was a big ocean out there.
Since that time, I also have been part of extensive efforts to convince managers and fishers of the need to have more MPAs, using examples and presentations pointing to science and other fisheries in other parts of the world, and in many cases we managed to have them agree to :give MPAs a try,” but today I must conclude two things:
- – The importance of having some quick and immediate visible or tangible impacts from the management to ensure compliance.
- – We need to ask the right question: how many fishers can actually be in the fishery catching how much fish?
If we are really serious in aiming to rehabilitate the productivity of the oceans for the most optimum provision of food and jobs, more MPAs need to be designed to PRODUCE fish, and all fisheries in and outside of MPAs need to be registered with licenses to allow management of the amount of fish taken out of the ocean, to get the exploitation levels down to what the oceans can provide.