Into the Field: Understanding the role of Social Networks in MPA Governance

The cumulative effects of climate change, biodiversity loss and resource exploitation could be devastating to Jamaica’s coastal-marine systems in the near future. For example, the World Resources Institute’s recent global assessment of coral reefs found that Jamaica is highly dependent upon coral reefs that rank globally among the most vulnerable to environmental change. In an attempt to navigate these effects, the Jamaican government signed onto the Caribbean Challenge and in turn initiated the establishment of twelve Special Fishery Conservation Areas (SFCAs) between 2009 and 2012, with more under consideration. SFCAs (locally referred to as fish sanctuaries) are essentially marine no-take zones, and recent efforts to expand the SFCA network build off existing SFCAs that were established well over two decades ago.

Map created by S. Lee, courtesy of CARIBSAVE

Map created by S. Lee, courtesy of CARIBSAVE

Through Memorandum’s of Agreement with local non-governmental organizations and/or fisherfolk co-operatives, the Jamaican government and Division of Fisheries have established co-management arrangements and delegated certain roles and responsibilities (e.g. monitoring) associated with the day-to-day management of the SFCAs. Such hybrid governance arrangements are believed to build resilience and contribute to increased capacity for collective action. However, research has shown that this is not always the case suggesting that there is a need to better understand the conditions which enhance or inhibit the successful management of natural resources.

Local Level Dynamics
On one level, my research is concerned with better understanding local level dynamics and the engagement of resource users in management. Specifically, I am looking to identify and examine patterns of social relations among resource users (i.e. fisherfolk) associated with the Special Fishery Conservation Areas that may facilitate or constrain collective action. While significant strides have been made in regards to identifying attributes that contribute to the collective action and governance of common pool resources, there remains a critical need to better understand the nuances and complexities of the social variables previously identified, particularly in the context of community-based and co-managed marine reserves (i.e. no take zones). Furthermore, the application of a social relational network perspective provides the opportunity to shift the broader discussion from simply if social networks associated with marine reserves (i.e., no take zones) are an attribute to more specifically how social networks enhance or inhibit collective action.

What this looks like:
Over the next several months I will be dividing my time between three different fish sanctuaries and spending time in the communities and with the fisherfolk located in and around those sanctuaries.

An Emerging Network of Special Fishery Conservation Areas
Simultaneously, I am examining the emerging network of fish sanctuaries. To this end, I am specifically interested in understanding: i) how the governance network (composed of state and non state actors) associated with the fish sanctuaries may enhance or inhibit the diffusion of innovative practices, knowledge exchange and collaboration and ii) how the fish sanctuaries are situated in the broader context of coastal-marine management and governance.

What this looks like:
Over the next several months this will involve visits to Kingston to speak with various government agencies and NGOs and to many of the other fish sanctuaries to speak with the community NGOs and/or fisherman cooperatives, managers and wardens.

The next several months will no doubt be busy. My hope is that they are also fruitful, leading to insights that not only inform the scholarly community but also the communities here, so that Jamaicans can continue to rebuild their fisheries, coral reefs and coastal communities.

Galleon Fish Sanctuary

Galleon Fish Sanctuary

“Charting a New Course for Marine and Coastal Protection” in the Caribbean

The Caribbean Summit of Political and Business Leaders was held this past weekend (May 17th & 18th). Despite a fairly mundane sounding title and minimal international coverage leading up to the event, this was an important meeting for the future of marine conservation in the Caribbean as indicated by the tag line for the summit; “Charting a New Course for Marine and Coastal Protection.” More specifically, this summit served as the platform for launching the second phase of the Caribbean Challenge Initiative, an initiative first launched in 2008 whereby eight Caribbean nations committed to protecting 20% of their near shore marine area by 2020.

The issue at hand is that coastal areas and communities of the Caribbean are highly vulnerable to marine degradation and environmental change, including climate change. Increased storm intensity, coastal erosion, coral bleaching, invasive species (e.g. lionfish) and declining marine fisheries threaten the region.

While this is about protecting, preserving and conserving biodiversity it is also about people. The livelihoods and wellbeing of millions of coastal people are reliant on healthy coastal areas with benefits ranging from food security (e.g. key source of protein) and coastal protection to jobs and income. For example, coastal areas and coral reefs contribute to a 1.2 billion dollar fisheries industry in the Caribbean, which supports over 1.5 million people.

These numbers may seem like an abstraction, however one only has to take a stroll

A Landing Site Crowded with Boats for Sale on the Southern Coast of Jamaica. Photo: S. Alexander

A Landing site dotted with boats for sale,  Jamaica. Photo: S. Alexander

through the local fish markets or landing sites to see the tangible impacts ranging from smaller fish on average to the numerous boats for sale.  Furthermore, it is not uncommon to hear fisherman speak of having to travel further to sea and spend longer hours at sea in order to return with similar catches from years past.


It is evident that there is a need to develop effective strategies and mechanisms to manage coastal areas that address the marine degradation and better cope with the challenges of environmental change.

The Caribbean Challenge Initiative has already resulted in the establishment of new marine reserves (no-take zones) across the region. For example, the Caribbean Fish Sanctuary Partnership has been working with communities in Jamaica and Grenada. Among the objectives of phase two are announcing new, innovative public-private partnerships and promoting collaboration among multiple stakeholder groups.

However, with such a significant focus on establishing marine reserves to protect 20% by 2020 there is also cause for concern. While marine reserves have been shown to provide a variety of benefits (e.g. protecting biodiversity, increases in biomass and contributing to the spillover effect), they must not be seen as a silver bullet. As policy makers, government leaders, NGOs and private partners move forward it will be critical to a) ensure that these marine reserves are effectively embedded in broader management frameworks so as to avoid being islands of protection and b) ensure that the establishment, design and management of marine reserves consider both the ecological AND social context. Otherwise, rather than improve the problem, they may exacerbate the problem, shifting fishing activities and effort from one place to another and possibly resulting in new stocks and new species being exploited in addition to increased competition and conflict among resource users.

While the Caribbean Summit has come to a close, we have yet to hear of any formal commitments made by the participants in attendance. Based on the objectives of the summit and Phase 2 of the Caribbean Challenge Initiative I am optimistic. It certainly has the potential to result in new partnerships and arrangements that could serve as models of what marine conservation and governance looks like in the twenty-first century. However, it also serves as a reminder that now, more than ever, it is imperative to both consider and better understand the social dimensions of marine reserves in hopes of increasing the resilience of coastal communities and coral reefs alike. It is this concern that fuels my own research which seeks to examine if and how marine protected areas and marine protected area networks can serve as effective governance strategies for coping with environmental change.