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Closing fishing areas and regulating the use of fishing gear can result in more profitable catches that boost fishermen's incomes, according to a study.

The conclusion has emerged from a long-term investigation in Kenya on the effects of fishery closures on fishermen's profits. The study, published today in Conservation Biology, used data on 27,000 fish caught in three locations off the Kenyan coast over a period of 12 years.

One location was next to a closed fishing area, one far from the closed area but with restrictions on vertically hanging fishing nets (seine nets), and one far from any fishing restrictions.

Fishing close to an area with fishery closures led to larger catches of fish with a higher market value. And the ban on seine nets also increased fishermen's income, the study found.

"Resistance to closures and to gear restrictions from fishermen and the fishing industry is based largely on the perception that these options are a threat to profits," said Tim McClanahan, a senior conservationist at the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which conducted the study. "These findings challenge those perceptions."

"By showing that prized species and larger fish are entering fisheries indirectly through the closures, we see that closures are a direct benefit to the fishermen," he said.

Craig Leisher, senior social science adviser at The Nature Conservancy, a conservation organisation also based in United States, told SciDev.Net: "It helps the fishermen when you close an area because the fish then have a chance to grow bigger, and we know that bigger fish have many more offspring."

He added that the study was unusual because it differentiated the effects of fishery closures from those of other initiatives.

Leisher said that resistance to fishery closures was partly an issue of semantics. "We call them regeneration zones. Because then it's clear what the purpose is, and it's not just about saying 'you can't fish here'. In these cases you get much better local government support."

"The next step for policymakers is to think about where else they can use what is a proven tool in Kenya — and very likely in the other coastal countries of East Africa," Leisher said. "[They] need to start looking around to identify the locations where more of these closures can be established."

Steve Hall, director-general of the WorldFish Center, a non-profit organisation for reducing poverty by improving fisheries, based in Penang, Malaysia, said that while the long-term benefits of fishery closures are now clear (see also Study pinpoints whether conservation can fight poverty), the key issue for many developing countries is who gets to reap such benefits, and how long fishermen must wait to see them.

Link to abstract in Conservation Biology