Of the top five countries in the world most at risk to disasters, three are Pacific Island nations. Yet time and time again, Pacific Islanders exhibit marked abilities to quickly recover. Part of the reason may be due to strong social networks that help to distribute resources to those most in need, say marine scientists from the University of Hawaiʿi, National Geographic Society and WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) in a new study.

Published in the journal Coastal Management, the study has found that sharing is stronger in more remote communities in Fiji. These communities were also associated with greater levels of fishing. By contrast, communities on the main island, with greater infrastructure and markets, had more fractured social networks and were more likely to share cash and purchased goods than natural resources.

“One important finding was that use of gillnets and spearfishing at night were the two fishing practices most associated with sharing marine resources,” said Dr. Rachel Dacks, researcher from the University of Hawai’i and lead author of the study “These practices have the potential to bring in large volumes of catch very efficiently, which enables the sharing practices that bring Pacific Island communities together. However, excessive use of these gears is causing concern for coral reef fish populations due to overexploitation and habitat damage.”

These results are timely given that many Pacific Island nations, including Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Tonga, have just been hit by a double-whammy of severe economic shocks brought on by national restrictions associated with COVID-19 and then large-scale destruction from the late season, category five Tropical Cyclone Harold.

“We are already hearing anecdotal reports of poaching within nationally recognized marine protected areas and lifting of local management rules in customary fishing grounds that were put in place to improve sustainability of fish stocks,” reported Dr. Stacy Jupiter, Melanesia Regional Director with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in Fiji. “With few other alternatives, people are harvesting what they can from the reef and sharing it with their family and neighbours, as is custom, to ensure community survival.”

So, what does this mean for community and coral reef resilience in the face of such turbulent times?

Dr. Alan Friedlander, Chief Scientist for National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Project, explained: “In the short-term, harvest and distribution of fisheries resources is going to be essential to enable people who have lost their homes and jobs to survive, and this needs to be a priority. However, getting information out to communities to fish sustainably and avoid using small-mesh gillnets and target larger reproductively mature fishes will be key to ensure that the current fishing free-for-all does not do irreversible harm to fish populations, which ultimately would will leave people hungry in the future.”

The authors of the study titled “Investigating the Role of Fish and Fishing in Sharing Networks to Build Resilience in Coral Reef Social-Ecological Systems” are: Rachel Dacks and Tamara Ticktin of University of Hawai`i at Mānoa; Stacy Jupiter of the Wildlife Conservation Society; and Alan Friedlander of the National Geographic Society.

This study was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship Research Award to the lead author.