Creating a model for community- based resource management
‘It’s a wonderful thing to get paid to do research underwater,” said Brian Tissot, associate professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at WSU Vancouver. As a marine biologist, Tissot spent many years diving in tropical waters surveying fish and invertebrates — experiences which, surprisingly, led him into the complex world of social science and community problem solving.
Coral reef controversy
It began in the mid 1990s when a long-simmering crisis in Hawaii’s Kona coast coral reef industry finally reached a boiling point. Live fish collectors were harvesting specimens by the millions while dive tour operators — who relied on the colorful fish to draw their business — protested. Attempts to find a balance in fishery management practices were not resolving the issues, even with government intervention.
In frustration, community members called Tissot and his colleagues, then at the University of Hawaii, for help.
The result was a heated community discussion that evolved, through extensive collaboration, into a successful community-based model for conflict resolution — workable for a range of cultures on both a national and international scale.
Marine protected areas
In similar controversies, marine protected areas (MPAs) have been set up to protect threatened or endangered species, fragile ecosystems and nursing grounds for fish or to benefit fisheries management concerns. MPAs limit human activity at designated sites and have become a major tool for managing coastal areas throughout the world.
On the Kona coast in 1996, Tissot — together with a diverse group of citizens, fishermen, native Hawaiians, state resource management agencies, state legislators, law enforcement officers and other university researchers — unwittingly began to push the concept of an MPA one step further.
Show me the data
“The first thing we wanted to know was if there was really a problem,” Tissot said. “Was fish collecting making a significant impact on actual numbers of fish?”
 To answer that question, Tissot and his colleagues began a series of research projects through the University of Hawaii that were continued when he relocated to WSU Vancouver in 1998.  Initial studies showed that, indeed, aquarium collectors at certain sites were taking nearly 50 percent of the yellow tang — an abundant, easy-to-catch, tropical fish — which amounted to millions of fish taken per year.
Backed with passionate community support, Tissot’s team presented the data to the Hawaii Legislature. It passed Act 306 calling for creation of a network of marine protected areas along the entire west coast of the island of Hawaii. Collection of aquarium fish would be prohibited there. 
 “The theory of an MPA is that if we close an area to fishing, the fish are no longer being impacted by humans, so the population increases, spills out and ‘seeds’ adjacent areas,” said Tissot. “So, it protects the resource while allowing sustainability in surrounding fished areas.”
Citizen’s council formed
In a bold and progressive move for the time, Act 306 also ordered that a council of varied citizen stakeholders be created to represent the interests of the fish and make decisions about the location and size of the MPAs.
“We found that the council worked quite well — it helped reduce conflict,” said Tissot. “It wasn’t perfect, but it worked pretty well — as a way to both resolve disputes and also make collaborative decisions about fishery management.”
It worked well enough that, after studying the MPAs for nine years, Tissot could report “the yellow tangs increased almost 50 percent.” He also found that the aquarium fishery actually improved — collectors were catching more fish and the fishery had more value. At the same time, there was less conflict with the dive tour operators.
Bridging the cultural differences was no easy task but Tissot believes the effort was worth it.
“There are always social barriers and differences no matter where you go” — be it farmers, boat operators, students or fishermen. “It takes time and a lot of networking. You have to develop trust and ‘talk story,’ as Hawaiians say.”
Philippines and Oregon
The Hawaiian MPAs and community-based council were so successful that Tissot was invited to use his case study as a model in a National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) working group in Santa Barbara.
The group is funded by the National Science Foundation. Using an ecosystem-based management (EBM) focus that includes the role of humans in the equation, the group is working to come up with strategies to improve fisheries management in the Philippine islands, which suffer from “staggering poverty, major resource issues and ineffectual government,” he said.
Tissot and his colleagues also are monitoring new MPAs along the coast of California and helping to establish MPAs in Oregon. Using submersible diving, he and his students study deep-sea cold-water corals and other invertebrates. In Oregon, his Hawaiian case study is being used as a model for de-escalating heated disputes between commercial/recreational fisherman and tour boat operators.
“It’s important to recognize that people are an important part of both the problem and the solution in these cases,” said Tissot. “You can pass laws to regulate fisheries, but if you don’t change people’s underlying attitudes and beliefs, they won’t be effective. So we are trying to do both at the same time.”
To learn more about Brian Tissot’s work, see ONLINE @