Serve the aspirations of the stakeholders or fail: Thoughts on the state of marine resource management, ocean planning, social justice, and equity in the Pacific Small Island Developing States


By Hugh Govan. Hugh Govan is an ocean and fisheries policy and governance consultant based in Fiji, an adviser and trainer for the Locally Managed Marine Area Network, and a regional coordinator for Melanesia for the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas- Marine. He can be reached at hgovan [at]

I wanted to share some observations on ocean planning in the Pacific, particularly in the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS). These 12 countries have been receiving attention disproportionate to their population (approximately 10 million people) because, despite their small land masses, they have large maritime jurisdictions (30,000,000 km2). One thing that is lost in many discussions about the PSIDS is that this group includes some of the poorest countries in the world, with a large majority of the total population struggling to meet basic human needs in relative isolation.

Given the relatively low land masses, the rapidly increasing populations, and the degradation of land resources in these countries, it is hardly surprising that their traditional dependency on marine, particularly coastal, resources for subsistence has become more intense. This increased dependency in combination with a steady shift towards cash economies is contributing to declines in coastal resources. In addition, while communities are struggling to meet food and cash needs inshore, governments are striving to generate revenue offshore from globally significant tuna stocks while also casting their eyes towards the potential of seabed mining.

A surprising lack of ocean planning and a dire lack of marine resource management

Despite the importance of the ocean to PSIDS, there is a surprising lack of ocean planning and, with only a few exceptions, a dire lack of marine resource management in general. This may be partly because of the low development status of the countries. But it is also due to a delay in recognizing the need for management by national governments. Regional policy commitments such as the Framework for a Pacific Oceanscape (2010) have called for practical and integrated ocean planning, but little activity has materialized. And past experience suggests that even if “ocean plans” are developed, there is little likelihood that they would be implemented.

Tuna management

Despite the absence of explicit and integrated ocean planning, there have been notable sectoral successes. Recent years have demonstrated the potential of regional approaches to tuna management such as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), which has increased the proportion of tuna revenue that is retained by the PSIDS member countries five-fold to some US$450 million annually. The PNA use of input controls for fishing effort (a vessel day scheme), while not perhaps the optimum biological solution, has proven to be tremendously more practicable than quota systems. It has even been able to regulate a variety of activities such as fishing in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ), a notoriously difficult area for management, through license conditions.

Coastal fisheries management

Another sector that has shown evidence of large scale management interventions is coastal fisheries. Nearly 8% of the region’s more than 11,000 coastal communities, primarily in Fiji and Samoa, are receiving or have received resource management support - generally from NGOs - to practice ‘community-based’ management. In the other countries, most communities still practice traditional ownership of the coastal resources. And despite the convoluted attempts of the legal systems to accommodate (or reduce) these rights, in the absence of significant government strategies to manage inshore fisheries, the main coastal fisheries management tool is local rights-holding communities restricting the access of outsiders who wish to exploit coastal resources commercially.


The final sector that has experienced large scale management intervention in the region is the conservation sector, which has seen foreign NGOs and philanthropic foundations encouraging country leaders to make large MPA declarations. The process has usually involved high level lobbying of prime ministers or presidents to make a declaration with the details of the arrangement left to be sorted out later. Examples of dependent territories with such a process include the Cook Islands and New Caledonia. The utility or effectiveness of these large scale MPAs (LSPMPAs) is open to question, e.g. their relevance in the management of the vitally important tuna resource for a number of reasons. But certainly the LSMPAs are raising the public profile of conservation and protected areas in these countries.

Thoughts on the social justice and equity implications of the current systems

The current system of marine resource management measures (or lack thereof) has major social justice and equity implications for these countries:

Tuna management

Resource management of the tuna sector is driven by regional arrangements, national government priorities and the influence of fishing nations and companies. Governance and transparency are not optimal, and more equitable distribution of rents to countries and communities should be promoted through increasing transparency and accountability of government decision making to their people. Decisions that improve equitability and sustainability could be promoted through media and engaging civil society and perhaps by judicious counter-lobbying of the fishing interests and their host governments, something that could be an ideal role for the powerful and knowledgeable US-based foundations and NGOs.

Coastal fisheries management

Community management of coastal fisheries through de facto access control seems a relatively socially just and equitable approach for resource management with the benefits generally staying with local people and distributed through traditional or community systems. Issues arise, however, when inhabitants who do not hold resource rights are reliant on fisheries for cash income. Examples include migrants, resettled communities, and the Fijian communities of Indian extraction. In general, subsistence access by these groups is tolerated, but commercial access is an issue that needs to be addressed, perhaps through improved licensing mechanisms such as those currently being discussed in Fiji.


Various indicators underline the relatively poor governance of lesser developed countries in the Pacific, but their policies are generally derived through some sort of democratic process and more or less transparent dialogue on policy that includes the local civil society. Policies reflect the major development aspirations of the population at large, e.g., meeting basic needs such as water and sanitation, improving health and education, and finding other sources of income to support the burgeoning populations. Regional intergovernmental organizations have reflected these national aspirations in their advice to member countries and the development of regional policies and priorities, and regional policies and priorities are generally determined through relatively accountable and transparent processes.

However, there is little evidence that the declarations of LSMPAs emerged from legitimate or sovereign policy processes. An examination of national priorities and public policy reflections on major unmet human needs made prior to these declarations will likely not yield much basis for the declaration of LSMPAs as urgent and priority actions. In other words, the public policy processes are being bypassed by foreign lobbying and public relations exercises – if similar approaches were undertaken by mining or fishing interests, there would be public outcry. Given that realizing development aspirations for these small developing countries will depend to a great extent on the sustainable utilization of their major ocean resources, it would be more appropriate to ensure that a public debate on the reallocation of resource rights takes place to avoid adding conservation refugees to the threatened exodus of climate refugees. In addition, despite significant injections of cash from NGOs, government staff and financial resources are inevitably diverted away from much needed resource management in biodiverse inshore areas, which provide most of the marine protein for food security towards these high-profile deep sea declarations.

Conservation actions in the region must become more just and equitable or they will fail

My arguments might seem to fall on one side of the current debate on people before nature vs. nature before people. However, most of the large NGOs, foundations and, of course, national leaders advocating for LSMPAs acknowledge the important and inextricable cultural and social link between their ocean management attempts and Pacific peoples. There is little dichotomy in the discourse, but much in the actions and tools selected and promoted.

It is critical for the conservation lobby to move towards a more socially just and equitable approach. The development aspirations of PSIDS populations will soon require serious consideration of increased exploitation of their ocean resources. Under the current governance arrangements, it would be relatively easy to redesignate or abolish MPAs for “humanitarian” reasons to allow access to urgently needed cash resources. And just as the EEZs are ultimately sovereign national resources, the rights over coastal resources are largely in the hands of communities. In both cases, conservation attempts cannot bypass the rights holders or fail to acknowledge the diversity of their development aspirations and be successful long-term.

Failure to move beyond simplistic foreign prescriptions and consider other avenues that may achieve the same ultimate objectives is likely to undermine the broader societal and environmental benefits we all claim to be seeking. Crucially there is a strong risk that promoting and using “bad governance” approaches to achieve foreign aims (whether by conservationists or resource extractors) will undermine progress at achieving the transparent, inclusive, and accountable governance needed for sustainable and environmentally friendly development in these nations.

The appropriation of use, control, or access to ocean space or resources from prior rights holders or inhabitants through inappropriate governance processes has been termed “ocean grabbing”, and it would appear that both foreign resource extraction and conservation lobbies are at times perpetrators.

It is time for a regional approach to integrated ocean planning built on nested country approaches that ensure that national priorities are foremost and that the most appropriate tools based on context and national experience are chosen. Practical in-house solutions have been developed in the region (such as the PNA and aspects of the community-based management movement), and there is a hunger to pursue these avenues. Indeed, this is the essence of the Framework for a Pacific Oceanscape, the region’s overarching ocean policy. However, if ocean planning does not abide by the highest principles of good governance, public involvement, legitimacy, transparency, and accountability, then it will merely add another layer to the current rash of ocean grabbing afflicting the region and would be better avoided.

Add new comment

Sign-in with your OpenChannels Member Account and sign-up for email notifications of news. Simply visit any news post and click the "Subscribe to updates of new content of this type" link just above the comments section.