Community-Based Fisheries Management in Kiribati: Our Field Research Process

Written By: Indy Reid-Shaw (Fisheries Opportunity Fund Fellow 2023)

In Kiribati, you indicate how long a fish is by imagining it stretched from your fingertips to the place on your arm that you are pointing to. A smaller fish might come to the end of your fingers while a large fish might reach all the way up to the crease in your forearm. As I sit on a buia (or raised, thatched dwelling) with my research team, I intently note down interview responses, but also remember to glance at the fisher’s arm when the conversation turns to size so I can record the fish length.

This gesture, common in some of the other Pacific Island nations, is helpful to tell a friend what size fish you caught, but also to talk about fisheries loss. For instance, one Kiribati fisher told us: “There’s a change. Before when we fished with hook and line, we would catch [points to elbow] length fish. Now we see very small fish [points to wrist].”

three individuals sit under a structure
Caption: My co-researcher, Josephine Katovai, of the University of the South Pacific, and I interviewing the mayor of Abemama Island in his family buia during our 2022 research trip.

Kiribati, pronounced “Kiribiss,” is a nation made up of 33 small island atolls across three island chains and a large expanse of the central Pacific ocean. The productivity of coral reef fish and invertebrates, here, is projected to decline by 20% by 2050 due to changes in sea surface temperature and fish habitat. This is a pressing issue for I-Kiribati (the people of Kiribati) who depend on coastal fisheries for domestic nutrition. In addition to food, fish and shellfish are important for livelihoods and culture. As one fisher expressed to us: “Fishing is part of who we are. Everyday we want fish… a few days without it and we feel bad missing it.

view of atoll from above
Caption: I’m flooded with wonder and gratitude every time I first spot an atoll in the vast ocean from my perch above in a small Air Kiribati plane. Each has its own unique shape consisting of a sliver of white sand studded with coconut trees encircling a brilliant turquoise lagoon. I-Kiribati know this beautiful view well.

I’m broadly interested in how climate change adaptation and natural resource management initiatives can be community-led and equitable, and ask how these efforts are actually carried out on the ground and whose voices are incorporated.

The goal of our research in Kiribati is to shed light on a potential strategy to improve marine resource supply and access, called Community-Based Fisheries Management (CBFM). The CBFM program began in 2014 and aims to improve reef-based habitat and reinvigorate community-level engagement in coastal fisheries management. We want to understand whether these programs are working in Kiribati and whether they are benefiting people, as well as their coral reefs. CBFM village management rules restrict certain fishing and gleaning (or hand-collecting seafood) activities. Examples of rules include avoiding species during their spawning season, avoiding closed areas of the lagoon, and only using larger mesh size nets. Our findings on fishers’ perceptions of the social and ecological impacts of these rules could inform the efficacy of CBFMs in Kiribati and in other small-scale fisheries around the world.

researchers hover over papers
Caption: Ministry of Fisheries Officer, Village leader, and I discussing the location of a village-implemented Marine Protected Area on Butaritari Island.

This backdrop brought us to three of the islands in Kiribati where Community-Based Fisheries Management (CBFM) programs have been implemented: Abemama, Butaritari, and North Tarawa. The three islands help show how CBFM might work differently depending on place-based context. We revisited one village with the CBFM program in each island and one village without the program for comparison.

We are in the early stages of analyzing data, but in this blog I would like to take the opportunity to reflect on an equally important part of our field research: the process.

Key tenets guided our second fieldwork trip in 2023, where we built on our research and experiences from our initial trip in 2022. They were: Being Respectful and Present, Building Partnerships, and Showing Curiosity and Openness.

Being Respectful & Present

As outside researchers, we discuss joint objectives and ask permission to conduct our research with the national Kiribati government, with each Island Council, and then lastly, but very importantly, with both village leaders and the entire village.

 A public introduction is traditional for visitors in the outer islands and it also feels right that everyone hears from us and our objectives before we visit their community. My research team and I sit cross-legged side-by-side on a woven pandanus mat looking out at the semi-circle of villagers facing us. One-by-one we stand and introduce ourselves. I get up on my bare feet and start with a traditional greeting: “Kam na bane ni mauri.” The villagers respond strongly and in unison: “mauri,” or hello. I express happiness in recognizing familiar faces, our gratitude for being hosted in the maneaba (open-air thatched meeting structure) and I ask their permission for us to conduct our research. 

We also stayed in the maneabas, fixtures of community life in each village. It was easier to build on relationships from the year before when we ate, slept, entertained kids, and helped with chores, within our research villages. Being present in each maneaba meant we were also ready for impromptu invitations to community meetings, festivities, or fishing trips. The feeling of staying in a maneaba is like being hosted by an entire community. I’m ever grateful to Kiribati communal hospitality. 

sleeping structure with pandanus mats surrounded by mosquito netting
Caption: Morning in a maneaba. We slept on pandanus mats surrounded by mosquito netting.

Building Partnerships

Hiring Josephine Katovai, a Marine Management and Public Administration graduate at the University of the South Pacific, as co-researcher and translator for the project, has been vital to making our findings more locally relevant and impactful. For Josephine, this has been an opportunity to return to Kiribati, her mother’s birth country, to hone new research skills with an international team, and to reinvigorate her contagious love for fisheries and the marine environment. I, in turn, have gained invaluable insight from Josephine’s knowledge of regional marine management, her ingenuity, and interpretation of often subtle cultural meaning during our fieldwork. Together, we have shared cross-cultural curiosity, laughs, and learning towards our field research and results.

I also sought out a Fisheries Officer from the Kiribati Ministry of Fisheries & Marine Resources to be part of our research team. This Kiribati government partnership strengthened our reef-fisheries ecological knowledge and our emphasis on practical, policy-facing results.

I wouldn’t be able to do this research without partnerships. I am grateful to my advisor, Dr. Katherine Seto, and her co-PIs on the Pacific Planetary Health Initiative. Their insight and groundwork meant that we were entering a landscape with existing regional and national connections. I have also benefited from support from my academic committee, my labmates, and from grants, such as the Fisheries Opportunity Fund, which is hosting this blog.

These partnerships help me continue to reflect upon and counter my own biases as a white, western researcher in a Pacific Island study system. My role and training is to convey our findings and community recommendations from our research methods to practitioners at the Kiribati Ministry of Fisheries & Marine Resources and to the respective Island Councils. I will also communicate the broader implications of our work at scientific meetings and in publications.

descaling fish
Caption: Descaling and salting fish
two men walk with nets for net fishing on open dirt road
Caption: Going out net fishing

Showing Curiosity and Openness

I love listening to people, being respectful, and following my curiosity. These are traits that I think lend themselves to good social science. The research methods in our last trip included participant observation and key-informant interviews.

Dedicated unstructured time allows for opportunities for fishers to show us relevant aspects of fisheries management and the CBFM program in their own words. By building trust, we hopefully reduce the tendency for fishers to say what they think we want to hear. As observing researchers, we also try to practice self-reflexivity, documenting how we may be influencing our observations.

Participant observation adds embodied experience to what is merely described to us in interviews. For instance, one morning we followed experienced female gleaners on a narrow path through pandanas trees and then mangroves before arriving at the large expanse of white sand revealed by low tide. We crouched and used a sweeping motion with a spoon in the wet sand to reveal the katura below, a greenish white shell called Striate Beach Clam in English. Katura, we learned, are a healthy and tasty shellfish, but only produce a small amount of meat. Therefore, it is only harvested for specific purposes, such as for young kids or, in this case, for a sick father. We were instructed to only collect the larger sized shells and to just gather enough (a small bowl’s worth). We also learned to look for different mollusks in different patches of the lagoon. Katura are in the sand flats whereas the larger koikoi, or Pacific Clam Shell, are found in the upper intertidal zone near the mangroves. Some gleaners are so skillful that they can glance down looking for the “eyes” or holes made by koikoi, and swiftly dig for a large-sized shell, minimizing disturbance. These shells all ended up in an empty rice bag that we slung over our shoulders. In addition to following a mindset of just collecting enough, the heaviness of the bag, below a baking sun, also limited our catch.

four individuals search the sand on the beach
Caption: Gleaning, or hand-collecting marine organisms, at low-tide with instruction from Butaritari Island residents.

Lastly, we conducted key-informant interviews with four sub-groups of fishers in each village (men, women, leaders, and youth). We chose this structure because these identity groups appeared to have diverging perspectives in our initial 2022 fieldwork interviews. Thus, our latest fieldwork trip was an opportunity to confirm our results were accurate as well as co-produced with fishing communities. We asked “how” and “why” questions that augmented our preliminary findings. The specific topics we focussed on related to Community-Based Fisheries Management (CBFM) were participation and decision-making in the programs, fisher understandings of why different outcomes happen, customary fisheries management strategies, and fisher values and hopes for the future. Insight into these areas will help us understand how CBFM stated goals and outcomes relate to fisher responses.

There is currently a deficit of local and indigenous knowledge being incorporated into fisheries studies. Through our interviews, we ask diverse fishers about their habits and perceptions. We prompt conversation, but avoid leading questions. Half of our interviewees are female fishers and gleaners. This helps to better account for womens’ vital and often underreported contribution to fisheries in the Pacific, such as in invertebrate collecting.

Two women sit cross legged next to each other
Caption: Me, Indy Reid-Shaw, and my co-researcher, Josephine Katovai, conducting a semi-structured interview 

It is our goal that this research provides a local layer to understanding Community-Based Fisheries Management outcomes in Kiribati that will complement findings at the National and program level.

I have gained rich experience studying the linkages between human relationships and ecological change in Kiribati, which will inform effective fisheries management in Kiribati, and my future pursuits in natural resource management. Just as importantly, I will continue to try to center humility and openness when working with local communities and prioritize co-beneficial partnerships.