Looking to the Sea to Support Development Objectives: A Primer for USAID Staff and Partners

How does marine tenure security support biodiversity conservation for sustainable small-scale fisheries? USAID’s Biodiversity Policy (USAID, 2014b) recognizes the essential role that healthy natural systems play in advancing resilient societies and achieving human-development outcomes. Biodiversity conservation efforts, including sustainable use, help to maintain natural processes that create the ecosystem goods and services—such as wild fisheries—essential for human well-being. Maintaining healthy and resilient marine and coastal ecosystems provides the natural capital to support USAID’s objective to conserve biodiversity for sustainable, resilient development. Insecure resource tenure rights to fisheries can be one of the most significant drivers of biodiversity loss and unsustainable natural resource management (USAID, 2013c). Where rights are poorly defined, marine and freshwater ecosystems can be quickly degraded, leading to overfishing. Securing resource tenure for fishers can set the stage for reducing pressures to biodiversity, creating sustainable livelihoods, enhancing food and nutrition security, building resilience, and reducing competition over limited resources.

The current lack of secure tenure in many countries leaves many resources claimed by no one or everyone, resulting in “open access,” which may lead to a “tragedy of the commons,” where users are incentivized to exploit open-access resources before others do, thereby degrading areas once beneficial to people and biodiversity. Securing sustainable, small-scale fisheries is emerging as a critical development agenda with responsible governance of tenure as one of multiple themes in this agenda. USAID’s Land and Urban Office has committed substantial support to addressing land tenure and property rights, primarily in terrestrial landscapes (USAID, 2007) where secure land tenure and access have provided the institutional incentives for investing in terrestrial agriculture and sustainable forestry that directly benefits small-scale farmers. This substantial body of work and lessons can be applied in the marine and coastal setting.

Marine tenure in small-scale fisheries establishes a set of rights and responsibilities as to who is allowed to use and access which resources, in what way, for how long, and under what conditions, as well as who is entitled to transfer rights to others and how. Small-scale fishers and coastal communities with secure rights over a given fishery, fishing ground, or territory have a strong interest in organizing and acting collectively to manage their resources sustainably. Marine tenure institutions and property rights form the overarching governance structure that enables a fishing group or community to establish rights to both use resources from a defined territory as well as exclude outsiders. Marine tenure, therefore, establishes a set of rights and responsibilities as to who is allowed to use which resources, in what way, for how long, and under what conditions, as well as who is entitled to transfer rights to others and how. Secure tenure and governance promotes stewardship of natural assets such as fish and creates incentives to maintain ecosystem goods and services. As in terrestrial settings, secure tenure for small-scale fishers can help prevent coastal land and fish grabs. A community’s secure right to make management decisions on resources within the coastal zone is crucial to building their resilience to the impacts of climate change. Secure tenure and mediation mechanisms can also reduce conflicts, which will become more important with climate change impacts such as rising sea levels and movement of environmental refugees. Overall, the explicit consideration of marine tenure rights and responsibilities in project design can minimize potential destabilizing factors that can significantly undermine or prevent successful implementation of development programs.

Why look to the sea to support USAID development objectives? Most coastal and island developing countries have extensive maritime jurisdictions that support a complex and often conflicting and competing array of human uses including small- and large-scale fishing, coastal tourism, ports and harbors, maritime transportation, and oil and gas development. Weak or inadequate governance of the marine and coastal environment has resulted in open access to resources leading to a substantial loss of biodiversity, valuable ecosystem goods and services, such as fisheries production, nutrient cycling, and coastal protection. This “blue development space” creates many opportunities to support multiple USAID development objectives by rebuilding the natural capital of marine and coastal ecosystems. Coastal communities have long depended on the sea for food, shelter, livelihoods, cultural practices, and other basic human requirements. These communities represent a highly vulnerable segment of society, who often lack secure land and marine tenure, are exposed to a range of coastal hazards, and are relatively invisible in terms of development priorities. Securing sustainable small-scale fisheries, which employ 25 times the number of fishers and catch about the same amount of fish for human consumption as large-scale fisheries (Jacquet & Pauly, 2008), represents an important opportunity for programming. The growing recognition of the importance of tenure in small-scale fisheries to biodiversity conservation, food security, sustainable economies, and climate resilience puts a spotlight on the nexus between people who depend on the sea and USAID development objectives with marine tenure a principal component of a theory of change for securing sustainable small-scale fisheries.

How can this Primer be used to support multiple development objectives? This Primer provides six support tools to help USAID staff and partners consider the role of healthy marine and coastal ecosystems, sustainable small-scale fisheries, and responsible governance of marine tenure in programming and project design. Support tools are provided to guide the development of programs and design projects as part of the USAID program cycle. The Primer draws on a range of knowledge, particularly from recent findings and lessons derived from USAID projects, academic published literature, policy documents, and publications by scientists and practitioners detailed in an accompanying Sourcebook entitled Small-Scale Fisheries and Marine Tenure: A Sourcebook for Good Practices and Emerging Themes (Courtney & Jhaveri, 2017b) as well as field assessments conducted to test the applicability of support tools (Courtney, Jhaveri, Pomeroy, & Brooks, 2016; Courtney et al., 2017; Pomeroy, Thompson, & Courtney, 2016).