Addressing poaching in marine protected areas through voluntary surveillance and enforcement

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Poaching renders many of the world’s marine protected areas ineffective. Because enforcement capacity is often limited, managers are attempting to bolster compliance by engaging the latent surveillance potential of fishers. However, little is known about how fishers respond when they witness poaching. Here, we surveyed 2,111 fishers living adjacent to 55 marine protected areas in seven countries and found that 48% had previously observed poaching. We found that the most common response was inaction, with the primary reasons being: (1) conflict avoidance; (2) a sense that it was not their responsibility or jurisdiction; and (3) the perception that poaching was a survival strategy. We also quantified how institutional design elements or conditions were related to how fishers responded to poaching, and highlight ways in which fishers can be engaged while mitigating risks. These include emphasizing how poaching personally affects each fisher, promoting stewardship and norms of personal responsibility and poverty alleviation to reduce the need for fishers to poach for survival.

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Fig. 1: Maps of the 55 study sites across the world.
Fig. 2: The responses of the fishers to observed poaching.
Fig. 3: Reasons for inaction.
Fig. 4: Relationships between institutional design elements and the voluntary enforcement actions of the fishers.


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Funding for this project was provided by the Australian Research Council through their Centre of Excellence Program, a Future Fellowship (J.E.C.) and by the Pew Charitable Trust, through a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation (J.E.C.). We thank T. M. Daw, A. Mukminin, A. L. Rabearisoa, A. Wamukota, N. Jiddawi, S. Hamed, R. Lahari, I. Muly, S. Wanyoni and J. Kuange for assistance with data collection and storage; and D. James for support and insightful comments.

Author information

B.J.B. and J.E.C. conceived the study. B.J.B. led the manuscript. B.J.B. and G.G.G. developed and implemented the analyses. All authors contributed data and made substantial contributions to the text.

Correspondence to Brock J. Bergseth.

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