Reef Conservation Strategy Backfires Conservationists worried about overfishing on the Pacific island of Kiribati persuaded fishermen to pick coconuts instead. The strategy backfired: Coconut oil production increased, but so did fishing. It turns out, fishermen who earned more money in coconut agriculture had more leisure time — which they spent fishing.
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Reef Conservation Strategy Backfires

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Reef Conservation Strategy Backfires

Reef Conservation Strategy Backfires

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Rainforests are often cut down, and coral reefs are overfished by poor people who are struggling to get by. There are hundreds of aid projects around the world that try to protect these habitats. The idea is to create other methods for the poor to make money.

As NPR's Richard Harris reports, a young scientist traveled to the Central Pacific to investigate whether these programs work, and she was shocked at what she found.

RICHARD HARRIS: The island nation of Kiribati has a very simple economy. People either catch fish, or they pick coconuts from their trees and produce coconut oil.

Ms. SHEILA WALSH (Postdoctoral Researcher, Brown University): Most people have a little bit of land, and they have access to the coral reefs, and so they should easily be able to switch between the two; and they do, actually.

HARRIS: Sheila Walsh is a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University. She says the government of Kiribati had a program that was designed to protect the fish on the reef by subsidizing the local coconut industry.

Ms. WALSH: The thought was that by paying people more to do coconut agriculture, they would do less fishing and that this would fulfill two goals: One, they would reduce overfishing; and two that people would be better off. They'd have higher incomes.

HARRIS: Walsh wanted to know whether this plan was working, and the government said go ahead, find out. So, as part of her graduate studies at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, she flew to Kiribati to interview fishermen.

Ms. WALSH: And it turned out that, actually, the result of paying people more to do coconut agriculture was actually to increase fishing.

HARRIS: How could that be?

Ms. WALSH: Right. It was a bit of a surprise, and we were wondering: What's going on here?

HARRIS: The answer was simplicity itself. Her study concludes that people earned more money making coconut oil, which meant that they could work less to support themselves, and they spent their new leisure time fishing.

Ms. WALSH: It hit us like a bumper sticker saying, you know, a bad day fishing is better than a good day working, and I think that's sort of the story here.

HARRIS: The impact on the reef was distressing. The fish population had dropped to even lower levels, putting the whole ecosystem at risk.

HARRIS: It turns out that Walsh had stumbled into a universal truth about fishing. Fishermen aren't just in it for the money.

Anthropologist Richard Pollnac at the University of Rhode Island says just think of those snazzy sport-fishing excursions.

Professor RICHARD POLLNAC (Anthropologist, University of Rhode Island): People pay big money to go sports-fishing.

HARRIS: Fishing as an occupation provides psychic benefits, as well as money. Pollnac argues not just individuals but whole cultures get hooked on the thrill of being out on the water and the gamble of coming back with either a boatload or empty-handed.

Prof. POLLNAC: This type of an occupation selects for a certain type of personality, and that personality type will not be happy in many other occupations other than fishing.

HARRIS: As a result, attempts to get fishermen to do something else � even something that pays better � often end in failure, Pollnac says.

Prof. POLLNAC: There have been projects where they had vessel buyback programs, and almost 50 percent of the fishermen used that money to buy another boat and do another type of fishing and, in some cases, get right back into fishing.

HARRIS: The track record for international projects is poorly studied, which makes Sheila Walsh's research notable. Pollnac says he can't point to any real successes.

Prof. POLLNAC: A great deal of the international development money, I would argue, is basically wasted.

HARRIS: This problem is not lost on Craig Leisher at the Nature Conservancy. His organization does spend money to help fishermen seek other livelihoods. But does it keep them out of their boats?

Mr. CRAIG LEISHER (Policy Advisor, Nature Conservancy): Well, no. It doesn't work to get them off the water. Rarely.

HARRIS: So he says the Nature Conservancy funds non-fishing jobs as a tactic to help during a transition. For example, fishermen may need a temporary source of income when a new no-fishing zone is established. Fishermen lose their fishing income for a while, until the regional fish population recovers.

Mr. LEISHER: What we have found with our research is that a lot of alternative income activities are not successful in the long term, so what we do is just look for activities that can benefit communities just in the near terms, the next two or three years.

HARRIS: Which brings us back to the island nation of Kiribati. Sheila Walsh says the government there is now trying to figure out how to fix the problem of overfishing, which it had accidentally made worse.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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