Marine Tenure and Small-Scale Fisheries: Learning from the Philippines Experience


Through its commitment to addressing extreme poverty, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is focused on developing a deeper understanding of the importance of small-scale fisheries and the role of marine tenure in achieving food security, inclusive economic growth, biodiversity conservation, and other priority development objectives. Small-scale fishing communities are among the poorest and most vulnerable groups in developing countries, and are highly dependent on wild fish stocks for food and livelihoods. These communities are largely landless, residing in coastal areas that are vulnerable to threats, especially those related to climate change. Small-scale fisheries employ more than 90 percent of the world’s capture fisheries workforce and receive few if any subsidies. With fish stocks declining globally due to open access and poor governance of both land and sea, small-scale fishers and their families continue to be marginalized to a life of extreme poverty. In the Philippines, the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) characterizes small-scale fishers as the poorest sector in the nation.

The USAID Land and Urban Office’s Tenure and Global Climate Change (TGCC) program has developed focused guidance designed to assist USAID staff and partners consider the role of sustainable small-scale fisheries and responsible governance of marine tenure in reducing extreme poverty. As part of this process two resources were produced: a draft sourcebook that documents the state of knowledge and good practices; and, a primer that provides specific guidance and job aids. Field assessments have been conducted in the Philippines and Indonesia, alongside a desk-based study in Bangladesh, to refine this guidance based on lessons from the field.


As part of the TGCC mechanism, the Land and Urban Office has produced guidance for inclusion of marine tenure in programming and projects in collaboration with fisheries projects in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. This field assessment feeds into the broader refinement of USAID guidance for the inclusion of tenure into fisheries programming. The initial field assessment took place in the Philippines and was carried out over a two-week period from July 4 to 15, 2016.

In addition to testing and refining the draft marine tenure guidance and job aids, key objectives of the field assessment were to:

  • Determine the extent to which marine tenure is considered in project design and implementation as an enabling condition for securing sustainable small-scale fisheries;
  • Identify challenges and opportunities for investing in small-scale fisheries to support multiple USAID development objectives;
  • Draw out insights and lessons that can be applied to USAID marine and coastal programming worldwide; and,
  • Improve guidance and tools to support USAID staff and partners to integrate marine tenure and small-scale fisheries in programming and project design.

Prior to the field assessment, the team conducted a review of the existing context for marine tenure and small-scale fisheries in the Philippines. In the field, the team conducted interviews and focus group meetings with USAID staff and implementing partners from Rare and the Ecosystems Improved for Sustainable Harvests (ECOFISH) project as well as project stakeholders from local government units (LGUs), indigenous peoples groups, Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Management Councils (MFARMCs), barangays, and peoples organizations (PO) in Negros Oriental and Coron.

The field visit to the Philippines was also intended to take stock of the country’s rich history of USAID fisheries programming and capture lessons and opportunities that can be applied to future investments not only in biodiversity conservation but also in the larger USAID portfolio dedicated to reducing extreme poverty. Since the 1980s, USAID has supported projects from community- to ecosystem-based levels, building on the best available science and management practices to support the government of the Philippines in their efforts to conserve marine resources and improve the livelihoods of small-scale fishers. These USAID-funded projects have not only been responsive to evolving management paradigms, but have also been at the cutting edge for building capacity for devolved coastal and fisheries management in Southeast Asia and globally.


The 1987 Philippines Constitution established an overarching tenure principle by providing for the preferential use rights of subsistence fishermen to communal marine and fishing resources. Subsequent national laws reflect this tenure principle by establishing municipal waters extending 15 km from the shoreline for exclusive use by small-scale fishers operating in boats less than three gross tons. The responsibility of coastal and fisheries management has been largely devolved to local government (approximately 850 municipalities [and cities] in the country) through the establishment and engagement of MFARMCs composed of fishers and other stakeholders. Despite the strong national and legal policy framework for devolved resource management as the mechanism to uphold the preferential use of small-scale fisheries, building commitment and institutional capacity at multiples levels, from national to community, remains a challenge.

While devolution has established a legally sanctioned enabling environment for the sustainable management of small-scale fisheries at the local government level, there is a need to build up, strengthen and supplement this skeletal architecture so that a top-down meets bottom-up approach can be effectively integrated through a marine tenure and governance lens. Despite the ever-shortening political cycles and changing LGU agendas and MFARMC membership, it has been the existence of legislative protections coupled with capable local-level POs and communities that has provided longer-term continuity and commitment to fisheries management issues. Additionally, although political leaders and elites may be encouraged to support business interests in the marine sector (such as aquaculture or mariculture), there is a growing recognition of the clear advantages of supporting community-based resource management institutions, including the improved representation of often excluded groups, who are also key voting constituents. Ultimately, the generation of effective co-management practices at multiple scales of governance is proving to be an important approach to enabling shared authority over coastal and marine resources.


Recognize the substantial and multidimensional contribution of sustainable small-scale fisheries in reducing extreme poverty. Most coastal and island developing countries have large maritime jurisdictions that support a complex and often conflicting and competing array of human uses. Small-scale fishers are at the heart of this “blue development space” where approximately 10 million Filipinos rely directly on small-scale fishing to meet their household food needs. USAID/Philippines mission staff emphasized the need to develop a shared understanding of the importance and multi-dimensional plight of fishing communities in order to justify investment beyond biodiversity conservation.

USAID/Philippines has an opportunity to support more inclusive economic growth for small-scale fishers, to help youth in fishing communities become part of a more competitively educated workforce, to improve the health and welfare of fishing families, and to meet other development objectives through the next update of the Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS). Existing global agendas on poverty reduction and food security such as the Global Food Security Act of 2016 and the Voluntary Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (SSF Guidelines) provide a platform to justify investment focusing on fishers.

In discussions with USAID staff, existing analytical tools, such as a political economy analysis (PEA), could be used to expand the development context to provide a more comprehensive analysis of small-scale fisheries as economic and demographic sectors. In addition, a country-level assessment of the status of implementation of the SSF Guidelines, developed collaboratively with partners, could guide the development of multi-sectoral investment strategy to reduce extreme poverty in fishing communities. A SSF Guidelines country-level assessment methodology was tested as part of the Philippines field assessment and has been refined to help USAID missions spearhead this activity with its partners, if deemed appropriate.

Diversify and harmonize investment portfolios to secure sustainable small-scale fisheries. Historically, USAID’s investment in marine and coastal issues has largely focused on meeting biodiversity conservation objectives. Despite great progress made in the Philippines toward reducing threats to marine biodiversity, other social, economic, and governance issues need to be addressed as part of a holistic approach to reduce extreme poverty and build resilience in the small-scale fisheries sector. Discussions held with local leaders and community organizers in Coron and Negros Oriental indicated a strong interest and need to address issues such as poverty (drawing upon the National Anti-Poverty Agenda), food security, and education in the context of fishing communities. On multiple occasions during the field assessment, the team heard that fishing families are seeking alternatives to fishing, especially for their children, but also for themselves. Declining fish stocks, disasters (such as typhoons), and annual seasonal limitations on fishing due to rough sea conditions affect small-scale fishers who depend primarily on fishing for their food and livelihood.

USAID missions should seek innovative ways to diversify and align investments to support multiple development objectives. A country-level policy review on small-scale fisheries could identify priority reforms and strategies that could be supported by different programs within the mission, such as eliminating harmful subsidies that promote overfishing or supporting a more inclusive coastal economy. The team learned during the field assessment that the Philippines National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) has national multidimensional datasets that could be used for geospatial analysis of poverty, biodiversity, vulnerability, and other indicators in coastal communities. This would enable coordinated place-based investment from multiple funding streams.

Consider responsible governance of tenure in small-scale fisheries explicitly in project design. Responsible governance of tenure involves respecting the rights of small-scale fishers and fishing communities to the resources that form the basis of their social and cultural well-being, their livelihoods, and their sustainable development. National legal and policy frameworks, administrative and judicial systems, effective co-management arrangements, dispute resolution mechanisms, local participation and empowerment, and strengthened institutional capacity are all key ingredients of responsible governance of marine tenure.

Over the long history of USAID/Philippines’ investment in biodiversity conservation, the consideration of marine tenure has been largely implicit in project design and iterative as new projects are designed. The Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP) supported the nationwide delineation of municipal waters and strengthened LGU capacity to manage coastal resources and enforce preferential use rights for small-scale fishers. The Fisheries Improved for Sustainable Harvests Project (FISH) strengthened inter-LGU arrangements to manage fisheries resources sustainably. ECOFISH builds on this legacy by acquiring and using knowledge of the social-ecological system to improve the ecosystem services upon which municipal fishers depend.

A more explicit approach would seek to: (a) define and secure the full bundle of tenure rights, including exclusion, withdrawal/access, management, enforcement, and alienation rights; and, (b) identify and build the capacity of national and local tenure governance bodies to secure these rights by strengthening the role of local resource users in decision making, supporting more effective co-management arrangements and dispute resolution mechanisms, and providing the administrative, legislative, and other mechanisms to recognize tenure rights. A review and analysis of the capacity and record of accomplishment of key tenure governance institutions in the Philippines including national and local government entities, MFARMCs, indigenous peoples groups, and POs is needed to identify strategies to strengthen responsible governance of tenure in the context of the existing national legal and policy framework. The development of situation models and theories of change that explicitly consider governance of both land and marine tenure can provide vital insights on constraints to improve project design and performance.

Work to secure the full bundle of land and marine tenure rights for small-scale fishers. Preferential use rights of small-scale fishers to fish in municipal waters are protected by the Philippines Constitution and seminal national policies and laws. Both ECOFISH and Rare are supporting security of marine tenure rights, but are not explicitly considering the entire bundle of rights. By providing assistance to LGUs for fisher registration and gear licensing, both projects are securing the rights of fishers to access and extract marine and fishery resources from municipal waters. In the case of ECOFISH, right-sizing the fishing effort within a marine managed area that spans multiple municipalities will help define withdraw/access rights of registered fishers in those municipalities. Secure access to fishery resources needs to be coupled with appropriate support for legislation that enforces the exclusion of fishers from other municipalities from fishing. Rare is strengthening community-based management of marine reserves in combination with managed access zones to provide greater incentives. Under this approach, managed access zones are being established around the marine reserves where access/withdrawal rights are provided only to those fishers enforcing the marine reserve. Further, land tenure for small-scale fishers has also not been considered in project design.

Alienation/transfer rights are not explicitly considered, thus increasing the potential for other rights to be eroded. For example, in Coron, the expansion of leases of municipal water areas to commercial operators of pearl farms was attempted but successfully opposed by local fishers. Further, existing leases provide no compensation for lost fishing grounds. A number of examples from coastal tourism development where small-scale fishers were excluded from an area of municipal waters were highlighted during the field assessment.

Strengthen marine tenure governance institutions to protect tenure rights and effectively engage in co-management arrangements at multiple scales of governance. While marine tenure considerations often focus on the tenure rules governing rights and responsibilities, it also is critical to strengthen marine tenure governance institutions (POs, barangay, MFARMCs, as well as various national and local government offices and Sagunian Bayan) that design and support tenure arrangements through the creation and enforcement of associated rules. By providing consistent support to strengthening governance bodies (at barangay and municipal levels), an effective institutional modality can be created through which multiple objectives can be pursued over time such as biodiversity conservation, food security, economic growth, and climate change resilience. Focusing not only at the municipal but also at the barangay level builds sustainability into the tiered tenure arrangements since communities have the greatest commitment to support their ongoing welfare and well-being. The field assessment revealed that few MFARMCs, the legally mandated body to uphold preferential use rights and recommendary body for appropriate rules, are truly representative of the small-scale fishers’ interests and that they are minimally effective. The erosion of tenure rights has occurred sometimes with the approval of a MFARMC whose members can be hand-picked by LGU executives. In the absence of capable and transparent local institutions, special interests can threaten tenure security. There is an opportunity to support and strengthen MFARMCs so that they can support the fullness of their mandate, develop effective co-management arrangements, and consider the vision for sustainable management of local waters. An assessment of how well co-management arrangements are working could provide insight into the key gaps and challenges at work in different parts of the Philippines.

Acquire knowledge of the social-ecological system early to define project focal areas and guide interventions. Small-scale fisheries are complex social-ecological systems. Traditional, local, and modern scientific knowledge are all needed to understand the connectivity and interactions among the ecosystem, resource users, governance systems and an array of social, economic, and political drivers. Participatory coastal and fisheries resource assessments (used by a long line of USAID-funded projects) are considered by both Rare and ECOFISH as the standard entry point to foster stakeholder engagement and to build a knowledge base of use patterns and conditions of resources in the area as well as conflicting and competing uses. Given the complexity of these systems, ECOFISH has conducted additional scientific studies and modeling to inform the delineation of the project’s focal areas and interventions consistent with an ecosystem-based management approach. Both projects have introduced technology and built capacity to strengthen tenure rights for small-scale fishers such as through registration, marine spatial planning, and right-sizing. For new projects, there is a need to conduct baseline assessments that include not only ecological and socioeconomic conditions, but also characterization of existing marine tenure rights and institutions. Informal or weak marine tenure systems often go unrecognized during project design and implementation. As many fishing households are landless, tenure assessments should also provide an understanding of their land tenure security.

Develop focused job aids designed to guide investments in securing sustainable small-scale fisheries aligned with USAID’s program cycle. As comprehensive guidance already exists to support implementation of the USAID program cycle, this field visit confirmed that USAID staff need guiding questions to stimulate and focus thinking and analysis about marine tenure and small-scale fisheries in programming and project design and analysis. These guiding questions can be used to support preparation of the CDCS, PEA, environmental impact assessment, gender analysis, and other important analytical requirements leading to a robust theory of change. Indeed, the USAID Land and Urban Office’s TGCC program is taking this approach by developing key questions on marine tenure and small-scale fisheries that can be interjected at appropriate phases of the USAID program cycle.