A new study investigating the links between coastal communities and coral reefs in Kenya and Madagascar has found that access to education and markets can help mitigate acute vulnerabilities for communities struggling with poverty and reliant on ecosystems degraded by overfishing.

Led by conservation scientists from the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and Macquarie University, the new research, now published in the journal Environmental Science & Policy, comes as coastal communities cope with the effects of the climate change and now the COVID-19 crisis.

Strengthening “social adaptive capacity” can help communities adapt to change, hopefully minimizing the negative impacts of environmental disasters and other crises on economically stretched communities and the vulnerable ecosystems they depend on for their livelihoods

“Coastal communities feel the immediate impacts of climate change, as their livelihoods are completely dependent on local ecosystems,” said WCS and Macquarie University scientist Stephanie D’agata, lead author of the study. “Many small-scale fishing communities are totally dependent on coral reefs and will need to be able to adapt to new environmental conditions and other potential crises, like the current global pandemic, as they arise. What can help these small communities is their ‘social adaptive capacity’ – characteristics that allow communities to survive and flourish.” 

In the new study, WCS scientists surveyed over 1,400 households in small fishing communities in Madagascar and Kenya. They found that access to education and markets were particularly important factors to improve a household’s social adaptive capacity. Specifically, both the higher the level of education in the community and the better their ability to access local markets to buy and sell goods, the more readily the community was able to adapt in the face of change.

Conversely, households with less education and further away from markets had lower social adaptive capacity. Scientists also monitored the marine ecosystems, particularly coral reefs, and the small-scale fishing communities rely on. When considering the status of the nearby coral reef ecosystem, 80 percent of the households lived with unsustainable social-ecological relationships, and 10 percent were already experiencing unsustainable reliance on an already-degraded marine resource.

They found that reefs also experience increased stress during times of crisis as waters warm and people come to rely more heavily on them for food, which can quickly lead to overfishing and ecological degradation. The study showed that marine areas that were being effectively managed were more productive and better able to provide resources for the community than their unmanaged counterparts.

“Our findings show that people with access to educational resources and markets can be better able to handle periods of change and crisis,” said Dr. Emily Darling, WCS Conservation Scientist and a co-author on the study.  “Access to markets can increase a community’s access to higher fish prices and more stable livelihoods, but it must be paired with effective local management to avoid overexploiting climate-impacted ecosystems, like coral reefs and falling into a poverty trap.”

As part of work with Bloomberg Philanthropy’s Vibrant Oceans Initiative, WCS monitors the health of coral reefs around the world and advocates for the protection of marine areas alongside the communities who depend on them most.

This study on the social-adaptive capacity of fishing communities was generously funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA).

The authors of the study titled “Multiscale determinants of social adaptive capacity in small-scale fishing communities” are: Stephanie D’agata; Emily S. Darling; Georgina G. Gurney; Tim R. McClanahan; Nyawira A. Muthiga; Ando Rabearisoa; and Joseph M. Maina.

About Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Vibrant Oceans Initiative:

As climate change increasingly threatens key ocean ecosystems, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Vibrant Oceans Initiative is working around the world to advance evidence-based conservation practices and implement data-driven policies to protect our oceans and the 3 billion people that depend on them. Launched in 2014, Bloomberg’s Vibrant Oceans Initiative currently operates with partners Rare, Oceana, Global Fishing Watch, and the Wildlife Conservation Society in 10 countries that are top fishing nations – Australia, the Bahamas, Chile, Fiji, French Polynesia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Tanzania, Peru and the United States – to win science-based policies, protect priority coral reefs least vulnerable to climate change, and increase transparency through the adoption of national fishing data platforms.

The Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) is dedicated to advancing regional co-operation in all aspects of coastal and marine sciences (including socio-economic and management sciences) and management, and to support sustainable development in the Western Indian Ocean Region, while promoting interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary approaches.