By Peter Aronson, SRC Intern
Following regulations can be vital for conservation, yet the world’s realities place pressure onto people, which can incentivize non-compliance. This undermines conservation work and the positive ecological outcomes achieved by it. In the ocean specifically, short bursts of illegal fishing can negate the effects of decades of protection, especially for species whose populations take a long time to recover, like many sharks (Russ and Alcala, 2010). As shark populations have declined globally, conservationists have advocated for shark sanctuaries to be established to protect sharks from exploitation (Dulvy et al., 2014; Ward-Page and Worm, 2017). By understanding the motivations and traits of those not following regulations, strategies can be developed to increase compliance (Keane et al., 2008). Nearly all fishers in the world live in lower-income countries and are engaged in small-scale fisheries, but research on the behavioral drivers of illegal fishing has traditionally focused on recreational fishers in wealthier countries (Bova et al., 2017; World Bank et al., 2012). A group of scientists set out to Myanmar to study fishers’ awareness of, compliance with, and perceptions towards shark fishing regulations.
Myanmar prohibits the capture and sale of whale sharks and has two shark reserves in which shark fishing is not permitted; however, many fishers are unaware of these regulations. The Department of Fisheries also lacks the ability to enforce them. There is additionally ambiguity as the law was declared informally, and it doesn’t address instances of bycatch. Scientists studied five coastal communities they had well-established relationships with where prohibited shark fishing was known to occur. They conducted surveys with fishers, in which fishers could voluntarily answer whether, where, and when they had caught sharks and witnessed others catching sharks. Scientists found 40% of respondents had accidentally or intentionally caught an estimated 4821 sharks in the year prior to the survey (MacKeracher et al., 2020). Of the 58 respondents, 35 reported having caught sharks themselves (MacKeracher et al., 2020). Overall, 49% of respondents were aware of shark fishing rules, with levels of awareness varying among communities (MacKeracher et al., 2020). Shark fishers tended to be younger and not to own their own boat. Most sharks being caught fell within three families: bamboo and epaulette sharks (Hemiscylliidae), requiem sharks (Carcharhinidiae), and hammerhead sharks (Sphyrnidae) (MacKeracher et al., 2020). Nearly 80% of fishers came from the large coastal city of Myeik and sold their catch there and other large coastal cities, while the remainder of fishers from the local communities sold their catch locally (MacKeracher at al., 2020). Fishers who reported catching sharks themselves most commonly said they did so for money, and also mentioned food (MacKeracher et al., 2020).Understanding the levels and potential drivers of illegal shark fishing puts the issue into context and allows resource managers to strategically and effectively plan how to improve compliance. In areas where poverty rates are high and options for alternative sources of income are low, there is a high incentive to fish illegally. Further, communities with limited interactions with fisheries officials are less likely to be aware of regulations, which can contribute to non-compliance. In resource-dependent communities with few options as sources of income, shark conservation efforts can benefit from strategies to reduce fishing pressure by providing incentives for alternate sustainable livelihoods. Further, as most shark fishers are young men, these can be incentives targeted for that demographic. While educational campaigns can improve awareness and compliance, long-term compliance must be achieved by addressing broader issues such as poverty and food security.
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