IN RECENT YEARS, it has become increasingly clear that small island communities and nations are amongst the first global communities to be affected by the current changing climate. Small coastal communities across the Indo-Pacific have, for generations, relied heavily upon natural resources and the traditional management of those resources as a successful means of survival on their island homes.

This, however, is changing. For coastal communities in the Indo-Pacific, marine resource management is becoming an ever more critical task, with climatic changes such as ocean acidification and rising sea surface temperatures as well as anthropogenic effects such as overfishing and nutrient loading. The future is uncertain for both marine ecosystems and the local human communities they support.

In regards to coral reef ecosystems and their associated biomes such as mangrove forests and seagrass beds, one component has been identified by researchers that greatly improves survival chances in the face of climate change – resilience.

Research over the last decade has proven that areas with so-called “high resilience” have a much higher chance of recovery after bleaching events and other climatic stressors such as those mentioned above. To use a real-world example, in 1998 a large and incredibly severe bleaching event affected reef systems across the Indian Ocean. Locations like the Maldives and the Seychelles lost more than 90 percent of live coral cover, a huge percentage.

However, from research conducted in the Seychelles from 1994 onwards at 21 coral reef sites, it was seen that 12 recovered close to pre-disturbance live coral states, an encouraging statistic (Graham N.A.J. et al. 2015). These 12 reefs all had one thing in common – a high level of resilience. Nine of these sites, however, went through what is known as a regime shift to an algal dominated system rather than coral, leading to a substantial decrease in biomass and diversity – the resilience of these systems was low.

Communities in Fiji are leveraging traditional resource management techniques to allow commercially important species to thrive (Photo by Luke Gordon)

Resilience is seen as a measure of ecosystem complexity – an ecosystem displaying high levels of diversity, structural complexity and abundance of keystone species. Resilience hinges on a number of factors, but by far the largest is the effect that humans can have on a system.

Overfishing and nutrient loading are both examples of how resilience of a system is greatly reduced. The removal of herbivorous fish in large numbers, for example, or a large amount of sediment runoff from agriculture, can both lead to a reduction in resilience of that particular system. If resilience falls at a certain locale, the system could end up sharing the same fate as those nine reefs in the Seychelles; now dominated by algae, they are far less productive than their coral dominated cousins. This kind of shift could be the determining factor in the survival of coastal communities across the tropical Indo-Pacific.

For communities to continue to thrive and ultimately survive in locations such as the Fiji Islands, a change in approaches to resource management is needed. And that is exactly what certain communities, NGO’s and governmental organisations are trying to achieve there.

Small island nations are no strangers to resource management. In Fiji for example the word tabu (pronounced “tam-bu”) is used for an area of traditional fishing ground which is protected. It is a very similar concept to the marine protected areas (MPAs) of today. Traditionally a tabu would be created after the death of a chief and would stand as a tabu area for 100 days. After 100 days has passed, the community would harvest the area and feast in memory of their lost leader.

The idea of protecting a natural resource and then reaping the rewards are engrained in the culture. However, traditional methods of just protecting one area of coastal fishing grounds has needed to evolve. Data now shows that this “traditional MPA” framework, the tabu, does not result in higher resilience, but by adapting management techniques, that can be changed.

Fiji's inhabitants are being empowered to increase the resilience of their marine environments, by also protecting land-based areas (Photo by Luke Gordon)

“Community-based adaptive management” is a phrase which has gained much momentum over the last decade. By working with NGOs and governmental organisations, communities are now implementing “adaptive management” strategies in a “ridge-to-reef” approach.

This approach goes a step further than just managing one small traditional area of fishing ground. These new management areas incorporate as many different productive ecosystems as possible. The usual productive coral reef area is now accompanied by mangrove forests and seagrass beds, allowing commercially valuable species to successfully complete their life cycles, as many utilise all three habitats.

Resilient reefs allow communities to reap the rewards (Photo by Luke Gordon)

This approach also encourages communities to manage land-based areas, to alleviate pressures such as nutrient runoff and sediment loading, preserving and increasing resilience.

Read the rest of this article in 2017 Issue 1 Volume 144 of Asian Diver magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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