Case Study

Moorea Reef Fish Fishery

Author: Lily Zhao


This case study examines the resilience of Moorea nearshore coral reef fisheries to increased intensity of cyclones, increased frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves in the context of increasing development. In Moorea high ecosystem connectivity and species diversity have previously buffered to some degree low just governance attributes. However low just governance do impede ecological resilience. Moreover, climate change stressors in the context of increasing coastal development are further reducing the ability of strong intrinsic ecological assets to be sustainability converted into socio-economic assets. Increasing tourism and coastal development have led to increasing tension over management of lagoon space in relation to fishing access. Additionally explanations for the underlying tensions between community members and scientists center on unfair broader contexts and past inequities. Colonialism and its effect on agency and bridging social capital impact current resilience. After past losses of trust, trust-building between diverse stakeholders is a slow process.


More than 40 genera are fished including soldierfish (Myripristis spp.), parrotfish (Scarus spp., Chlorurus spp.), and unicornfish (Naso spp.) Offshore fisheries and tourist preferences limit tourist consumption of reef fish and prevent intense overfishing of reef fish species. Moreover, with steep ravines, porous bedrock and numerous inlets, the land and sea of Moorea are intimately connected. Moorea’s population has doubled since the 1980s and the island is a top destination for travelers in Polynesia. In Moorea coastal development, lack of wastewater infrastructure, increasing tourism and changes in agriculture have degraded buffer zones between land and sea and increased nutrient pollution and sedimentation. These stressors can interact synergistically with climate change hazards to reduce coral health, ultimately impacting the reef fishery and culture of Moorea. Many local associations exist for preserving the culture and environment of the island.

Climate Impacts

Scientists perceive climate change related/ acute disturbances as greater risks than Moorea’s residents who have longer temporal perspectives of the reef and recovery. Moorea residents note the diminishing size of many reef fish caught as compared to their parent’s generation and perceived localized chronic stressors to be greater risks. Climate change is also affecting the accuracy of some traditional ecological approaches however older fishers are able to adapt traditional approaches to modern contexts.


Resilience of Moorea’s coral reef fishery is a composite of the three interconnected resilience dimensions. Ecological attributes represent the capacity of Moorea’s lagoon to resist a disturbance and the speed at which it recovers in terms of coral cover and fish abundance, such that the ecosystem maintains its essential function and structure and continues to provide ecosystem services for Moorea’s population. Social-economic attributes represent the capacity of each of Moorea’s residents to cope with and adapt to stressors and disturbances including marine heatwaves while maintaining the capacity to alter personal livelihoods, asset configurations and social relations and derive benefit from ecosystem services. The governance attributes represent the capacity of the marine resource governance systems to manage the relationship between the lagoon and Moorea’s residents such that the lagoon continue to provide ecological services for all of Moorea’s population and future generations in the face of social and environmental stressors and that both the institutions and processes can adapt, learn, and maintain the ability to transform in both response and anticipation of change.

Ecological Resilience

The Moorea multi-species reef fishery in French Polynesia shows resilience in the ecological dimension to marine heatwaves and ocean acidification where ecosystem connectivity, and larval dispersal. Simultaneously colonial legacy and contextual equity is to be a major constraint to the resilience of coral reefs in Moorea . Bridging social capital can be built through attempts to build trust and outline pathways towards reconciliation for groups with multiple perspectives. Additionally, there is high species diversity within the fishery (multi-species), which provides increased flexibility (including differences in depth and spatial ranges, life history traits, and spawning seasons). However, local chronic stressors including nutrient pollution and sedimentation threaten the ability of coral reefs.

Socio-Economic Resilience

Social diversity without bridging and linking social capital reduces resilience of Moorea’s fisheries to climate change due to evidence of lack of trust between some managers, fishers, other sectors and scientists. Social diversity also leads to diversity of priorities with regards to climate change research. Western researchers are more interested in studying topics related to global climate change while residents are more likely to consider local chronic stressors in addition to climate change as important issues to focus attention on. Extensive fishing and traditional knowledge combined with extensive Western scientific monitoring has been conducted by the two research stations on the island meaning that there is high knowledge diversity in the fishery system. However a lack of incorporation of diversity of knowledge sources in marine spatial planning and low access to knowledge in terms of dissemination of marine research related findings also affect the ability of the current management system to be effective.

Governance Resilience

The way in which people experience marine management plays a crucial role in whether they follow the management plan. In Moorea perceptions of unjust resource governance and distribution (including low equitable and inclusive governance, accountability and transparency) lead to low compliance with marine management. Some fishers also perceive that the locations of the marine protected areas were designated to benefit local tourism causing tension between sectors. Low compliance (i.e. less effective and efficient governance) can reduce ecological assets including fish population abundance. In this manner low just governance attributes in Moorea have impacted ecological resilience as well as linking and bridging social capital through reduced trust in other actors. However, very low perceptions of governance can lead to a more social capital through the need for collective action and unifying around a goal of fair resource management. In Moorea, low governance attributes led to more bonding social capital of fishing associations and community organizations such that the marine management plan has been restructured and governance resilience of fishery increases. However increasing communication and participation on its own is not a cure-all. If these engagement practices are perceived as unfair processes it can lead to reduced trust and in what is known as the “participation paradox”. Although marine management is participatory (e.g. people were surveyed regarding marine spatial planning): lack of legitimacy based on perceived lack of transparency in how marine protected areas are designated, as well as perceptions of hypocrisy regarding the research institution associated with marine management means that marine protected area regulations are not followed. A lack of perceived legitimacy by fishers and municipal level managers ultimately stems from the legacy of a historical lack of broader equitable and inclusive governance (i.e. contextual inequity related to colonialism). There is also limited polycentric governance and some confusion regarding which levels of governance have the ability to make marine spatial planning policies relating to unharmonized laws. The resilience of the fishery moving forward will depend on the success of the governance system (whether it be a reiteration of the current form or transition to a revisioning of historical management regimes (i.e. rahui). Namely the extent to which participatory processes are perceived as equitable and effective governance and final decision making processes are transparent are exceedingly important in this fishery.

Photo: Fishing in Moorea. Credit: Pascale Gueret/Shutterstock