A socio-economic investigation of the Torres Strait indigenous dugong and turtle fisheries

Delisle, Aurelie (2012) A socio-economic investigation of the Torres Strait indigenous dugong and turtle fisheries. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Dugongs (Dugong dugon) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas) are of international ecological and conservation significance. As one of the few developed countries in their range and with globally significant populations, Australia is in a key position to ensure the survival of both species. Dugongs and green turtles are protected under Australian national and state laws and the rights of Torres Strait Islanders to hunt these species are recognised in Commonwealth and state regulations and an international Treaty between Australia and Papua New Guinea. The Australian government must therefore ensure the sustainable use of these species to comply with biodiversity principles while protecting Indigenous rights.

There is thus a potential for conflict, making sound management an absolute imperative. Local stakeholders in Torres Strait have been working together with government agencies to implement co-management arrangements for the Torres Strait Indigenous dugong and green turtle fisheries that acknowledge the ecological and cultural significance of both species. But effective management of the Indigenous fisheries also requires a good understanding of the ecological, economic and social issues operating in Torres Strait and of their interactions. A large body of literature has thus far described the ecological and social systems in the region independently. However, few studies have attempted to describe the synergy between the ecological and social systems. Moreover, economic information about these Torres Strait Indigenous fisheries is all but absent.

The overarching objectives of this thesis were thus to provide: (i) economic information, gathered from the point of view of local stakeholders that could be used to inform the management of the Indigenous dugong and green turtle fisheries in the Torres Strait; and (ii) baseline data and insights to underpin subsequent economic investigations. Most of the information required to fulfil those objectives was collected during extended visits (amounting to almost nine months of field work) on two case-study islands: Mabuiag and St Paul's.

I used a case study approach to understand the interactions between the ecological system (dugongs and green turtles) and the social system (Torres Strait Islanders) from the point of view of the local stakeholders. I focused on providing economic information that explains at least in part the interactions between the two systems. I used several qualitative and quantitative methods from a range of disciplines to gain this information.

The first sub-objective of my research was to improve understanding of the socioeconomic system in which the Torres Strait Indigenous dugong and green turtle fisheries operate. I started by looking at the financial context of those fisheries on my case-study islands using both secondary data (from the Australian Bureau of Statistics) and primary data (collected through household expenditure and shop-price surveys). Through the use of questionnaires complemented by qualitative data collected through semi-structured one-on-one interviews, I also established the size of the harvest of dugongs and green turtles by Mabuiag and St Paul's communities and generated estimates of the market 'value' of the meat, and of the financial (fuel) costs associated with the hunt.

I then explored the social processes associated with the Indigenous fisheries, focusing on the way in which the financial costs and benefits were shared. I described the complex distribution of these costs and benefits among several segments of the population within the two communities. I found that groups benefit from hunting through sharing behaviours based primarily on their relationships with hunters and their financial situation. The ways in which meat was shared varied according to whether the hunt was for subsistence or for ceremonial purposes, and hunters reduced their direct financial costs through a complex flow of remittance payments or other indirect contributions.

This analysis clearly highlighted the fact that hunters are not the only people closely associated with these fisheries. Evidently, the complex social processes governing the sharing behaviours of traditional marine resources within communities requires a whole community approach rather than a focus on hunters. Having learnt that it was not just hunters who were closely associated with these fisheries, I thus sought to ensure that my subsequent investigations elicited information from a broad range of people within each community on each case-study island.

Moreover, the sharing of traditional marine resources was found to extend beyond the boundaries of the Torres Strait communities to members of the Torres Strait Islander Diaspora on the Australian mainland. This information indicates that the scale of management relevant to the Torres Strait Indigenous dugong and green turtle fisheries needs to match the social processes underpinning the sharing of these traditional resources. Initiatives governing the management of those Indigenous fisheries thus need to expand to include members of the Diaspora.

The second sub-objective of my thesis was to develop appropriate methods to understand local values associated with the Torres Strait Indigenous dugong and green turtle fisheries (beyond the mere market or financial values considered in the preceding sub-objective). Rather than presenting members of the community with a list of 'values' for consideration, two lists were generated during focus group discussions – one focusing on 'benefits' and one focusing on 'costs'. During individual interviews, respondents were asked to: (a) undertake a cognitive mapping exercise designed to learn more about the relationship between the lists of 'values'; and (b) rate those values.

I found that the two communities of Mabuiag and St Paul's identified the same types of benefits and costs and that these costs and benefits could then be categorised into three cognitive clusters. Study participants referred to the benefit clusters as those relating to: community, family and individual benefits. Cost clusters were identified as being those related to the community, the family and the environment. On the 'benefit' side, a clear distinction emerged between the market and non-market benefits; such a distinction was not as clear for costs.

The rating exercises highlighted the fact that non-market aspects of the Indigenous fisheries in these two communities were perceived to be more important than market aspects. I also found statistically significant differences in the relative importance ascribed to different costs and benefit clusters by younger and older members of the two communities. Although the relative importance attributed by younger and older members of the two communities was different, both groups considered community benefits and community costs of greatest importance.

The clear distinction between the market and non-market benefits enabled me to use a replacement cost method to estimate the financial contribution of the market-related benefits (i.e., those directly linked to food for home consumption) associated with the Indigenous fisheries. My findings indicated that the gross market benefits were worth approximately 8% of household income. My results also suggested that the community benefits (i.e., non-market benefits directly linked to the cultural aspects of the Indigenous fisheries) were statistically more important than the market benefits. As such they must be 'worth' more than 8% of household income. Thus, even without estimating the market value of the individual benefits, I was able to conclude that the gross benefits (market and nonmarket) of the Torres Strait Indigenous dugong and green turtle fisheries exceed 16% of household income (this is approximately equal to the proportion of income spent by the average Australian on mortgage repayments).

My third sub-objective was to learn more about the likely social acceptability of different types of fishery management tools. This result was important because the remoteness of Torres Strait and the legal rights of the hunters mean that management tools need to be acceptable to local communities to increase compliance (external monitoring and enforcement is too costly).

In a series of individual interviews, I thus asked respondents to evaluate the perceived impacts of several management tools (some of which had already been identified in community management plans) on the different value clusters previously assessed. I argue that a good understanding of these perceptions can provide fisheries managers with an indication for the likely compliance rate of local members towards a specific management tool as well as an indication on its potential social acceptability. I found that tools such as "gear restriction", "seasonal closure" and "spatial closure" were likely to be more acceptable to community members than tools such as "quotas", "taxes" or "subsidies".

The methods I used highlighted that the social acceptability of management tools was driven by their perceived impacts on the cultural aspects associated with the Indigenous fisheries. Tools that provided an increase in cultural benefits and a reduction in cultural costs would likely be more accepted than tools that did not. I conclude that policies aiming to connect cultural aspects to the environment may be more likely to succeed than those connecting financial aspects to the environment in these Indigenous fisheries.

Finally, the implications of this research for the management of the Indigenous dugong and green turtle fisheries in the Torres Strait and of other traditional natural resource use systems are discussed and suggestions made for future research.

Item ID: 44639
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Chelonia mydas; conservation; customary hunting; Dugong dugon; dugongs; fishery management; green turtles; management; marine resources; protection; subsistence fishing; Torres Strait Indigenous fisheries; Torres Strait Islanders; traditional fishing
Date Deposited: 11 Aug 2016 03:54
FoR Codes: 05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050211 Wildlife and Habitat Management @ 50%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050201 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Environmental Knowledge @ 50%
SEO Codes: 96 ENVIRONMENT > 9608 Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity > 960808 Marine Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity @ 50%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9607 Environmental Policy, Legislation and Standards > 960702 Consumption Patterns, Population Issues and the Environment @ 50%
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