Making co-management work

Some 200 million around the world people depend on fisheries for some part of their livelihoods. An overwhelming proportion of these are in developing countries, where the capacity of national governments to effectively manage fisheries is low. As a result of this weak governance, overfishing is rampant and threatens marine ecosystems and the people that depend on them.

In 2006, I launched an ambitious research project that sought to better our understanding of whether and how communities can locally manage fisheries in ways that sustain marine ecosystems and local livelihoods. For several years, my research team and I travelled across the Indo-Pacific visiting 42 coastal communities throughout Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. Our results showed that under the right conditions, local people can sustainably manage their resources in ways that improve human wellbeing. Since so much of the headlines about fisheries are doom-and-gloom, our success story is worth sharing.

Collaborative management on the rise

Many governments, conservation organisations, and donors are engaging natural resource users in collaborative arrangements to deliver better outcomes for both people and the ecosystems they depend on. This is frequently called “co-management” and is a process that provides local people with greater participation in decisions about natural resources.

An example is the Beach Management Units (BMUs) introduced in Kenya during the past six years, which have allowed stakeholders to develop and enforce local rules. These rules are expected to improve the management of a fishery that has historically suffered from weak management and enforcement. Such arrangements aim to make management more reflective of local conditions and more legitimate in the eyes of stakeholders, thereby increasing the incentives for people to comply with the rules of their own accord. In Kenya, the introduction of co-management was initially met with some skepticism, but results from our survey of resource users in eight of the 33 pilot sites reveal that less than 3% of respondents think that co-management is bad for them.

Reef fishing in Kenya

One of the most exciting and unexpected results from the Kenyan co-management legislation has been a proliferation of small community-based reserves. There has been considerable opposition to government controlled marine reserves in Kenya. Indeed, attempts by the government to establish a marine reserve in the southern coast of Kenya was met with protests and subsequently abandoned. A key difference is that proceeds from tourist fees to dive or snorkel in government marine parks used to go to government coffers, but with the new BMU legislation, communities can now design and implement their own fee system that they can collect and keep. Now that the decision-making power, and benefits, remain local, 18 communities have now established community-based reserves (locally referred to as tengefu, the Swahili word for “set aside”).

Similar movements toward fisheries co-management are afoot throughout the world. In the western Indian Ocean, Madagascar and Tanzania have developed similar initiatives. In places like Papua New Guinea, local customary laws are often used to manage local fisheries. Yet the forces of globalisation are breaking down these traditional institutions, so some communities are looking toward governments and civil society to develop new co-management partnerships. Communities and scientists are working together to develop conservation programmes based on local traditions that are meeting community needs. For example, contemporary science and mapping is being combined with local knowledge to determine where management areas should be placed. Results form these types of hybrid management initiatives are promising: we are seeing tangible conservation benefits of 2 times the biomass of fish inside periodically harvested areas. Scientists, managers and policy makers are looking at ways to better understand the human dimensions of coral reef ecosystems and learn how to scale-up these local successes.

A map of our study sites across the Indo-Pacific. At each village, we gathered information on the status of the local fishery, people’s socioeconomic conditions, and the types of rules people developed to manage their resources.

Some good news

Sustaining fisheries
We found that 2/3 of co-managed fisheries were sustainably managed. Although not perfect, it was certainly better than the fisheries that lacked local management—only 1/3 of those were regarded as sustainable.

High compliance
Getting people to comply with restrictions on resource use is a continual challenge for many fisheries management and marine conservation initiatives. We found that 88% of co-managed fisheries were mostly or fully complied with.

Making co-management work for people’s livelihoods
Across the Indo-Pacific, the majority (54%) of people we surveyed felt that co-management was positive for their livelihoods, while only 9% felt that it was bad for them.

Kenyan fishers using a gill net on the reef flat

When does co-management work best? Setting the stage for success

Our study found that, overall, co-management was largely positive for people and marine ecosystems. Nevertheless, there were also cases when co-management facilitated overexploitation, resulted in poor compliance, and made people worse off. We found that successful co-management has socioeconomic, institutional, and contextual attributes.

Socioeconomic characteristics of resource users

People may avoid being involved in management if they do not have the time and resources and do not understand that human activities can impact the condition of marine ecosystems. The main socioeconomic considerations include:

• Poverty- People may have difficulty making the short-term sacrifices that are required to engage in co-management if they are struggling to meet their basic requirements.

• Knowledge about how humans impact marine ecosystems- People may be unwilling to restrain their use of resources because they do not see a connection between human activities (such as fishing) and the condition of the resource or ecosystems.

• Dependence on resources- People heavily dependent on fishing often find it difficult to find time to engage in other livelihood activities. On the other hand, when people are heavily dependent on fishing, they are more likely to have an incentive to cooperate and solve problems.

• Social capital and trust- People need to trust each other and their leaders if they are going to work cooperatively towards solving fisheries problems.

Getting the institutions ‘right’

Local institutions that are well organised and functioning are a critical ingredient of making co-management work. Specific institutional characteristics, known as design principles, help to promote cooperation among people. These design principles include:

• Clearly defined boundaries and membership, which helps people understand where and to whom the rules apply and who gets to make them.

• Active participation, which can be facilitated through forums that encourage users to actively participate in management, particularly in decision-making processes.

• Transparent monitoring and leadership, which provide the reassurances necessary for people to invest in co-management.

• Graduated sanctions, which are punishments that increase with the frequency and severity of infringements. For example, the first time a rule is broken, the person gets a warning, a fine is given the second time and lastly the person is jailed. These help to create a sense of learning and fairness about the rules.

The local context

Conditions that can either encourage or discourage people from participating in co-management include:

• Population size- Small groups of people are more likely to coordinate and build the trust necessary to work together to solve problems.

• Markets- Temptations for people to break comanagement rules are created by easy access to markets for their marine products. Co-management organisations can, however, harness markets and add value to products. This can create powerful incentives for people to participate in and comply with co-management, when done effectively.

The down side

Of course, people have raised a number of important critiques about co-management. In some cases, national governments simply put the costs of managing fisheries on local communities who can ill afford it and lack the capacity to implement it.

My study found that, although co-management helps to put decision-making power in local people’s hands, it does not always do so equitably. Indeed, co-management has the potential to decrease social equity by creating opportunities for local ‘elites’ who control resources to coopt the process and capture the majority of the benefits. For example, in Kenya, to ensure that BMU leaders understood the rules, regulations, and responsibilities, the BMU legislation required that chairmen have at least six years of education. Yet in some communities, there were no fishers with this basic level of qualification, meaning that people who were not involved in the fishery were in charge of fisheries co-management.


There is no silver bullet for the problems facing the world’s fisheries, but co-management arrangements that reflect local conditions can help to sustain fisheries and the people that depend on them, even where poverty is pervasive and national governance weak. The likelihood of co-management becoming successful is, however, higher when specific institutional, socioeconomic, and contextual conditions are in place. Communities, donors, and managers can facilitate desirable co-management outcomes by implementing locally-appropriate strategies to address these critical conditions.

This article is from issue


2013 Jun