Salvadorean fishermen arrange their fishnets in Garita Palmera in El Salvador. (Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images)

With small-scale fisheries that feed many of the world’s poor under constant pressure from overfishing, a coalition of conservation groups has turned to one of the oldest ways of dividing the catch in an attempt to promote sustainability.

Instead of competing for the same populations and hauling in as many fish as fast as they can, participants in the Fish Forever project assign individuals, villages and cooperatives “rights” to areas known as TURFs — territorial user rights in fisheries.

The zones are paired with protected areas where no one is allowed to fish, providing adjacent parts of the ocean where fish populations replenish and spill into the TURFs. Local residents develop their own methods of monitoring and enforcing protections for both areas.

Parceling out rights to certain fish areas, or shares of a catch, has been practiced by small-scale fishermen for millennia, according to researchers.

“Fishermen have a vested interest in managing what is their own fish stock,” said Brett Jenks, president and chief executive of Rare, an Arlington, Va., nonprofit organization that is part of the program. “The fish have a value in the water,” instead of only when they are caught, he said. “And that is the game-changer.”

Vendors arrange fish in a crate at Kedonganan beach in Jimbaran, Bali, Indonesia. (SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Rare has teamed with the Environmental Defense Fund and scientists from the University of California at Santa Barbara to carry out the effort in five countries: Belize, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil and Mozambique. They have raised $27 million from organizations such as the Bloomberg Philanthropies and are furthest along in Belize, where they hope to have 3,000 square miles of ocean under the system by 2020.

Stocks around the world are declining, mostly because of overfishing. The Fish Forever project estimates that 64 percent of the world’s fisheries are overexploited. In poorer countries, where near-shore fish provide the most important source of protein for hundreds of millions of people, as well as a meager livelihood for many, the situation can have more critical consequences. Fisheries in those parts of the world are not usually managed by governments or other organizations.

Experts predict that the demand for fish protein will continue to escalate sharply. Even so, small-scale fisheries are producing only about half of what they could, said Steve Gaines, dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB and part of the Fish Forever effort.

“Small-scale fisheries are in substantially worse shape than large fisheries around the planet,” said Gaines, who was part of a research team that assessed fisheries for a 2012 study published in the journal Science.

The Environmental Defense Fund has spent decades working for change in the way fisheries are used, said Amanda Leland, the organization’s vice president for oceans. By teaming with Rare, which specializes in developing local community leadership, and UCSB, the group hopes to create a model that can be replicated in coastal communities around the world.

“It’s sort of the next step of where you want a market economy to go,” Leland said. “Individuals are rewarded, so they see the benefit of doing the right thing. Then they are more likely to engage in the community.”

The hope is that the idea will spread virally; even with major grants, there is not enough money for Fish Forever to advise even a small number of the communities that need help. The program has a goal of raising and spending $100 million in five years in the five countries, but pilots of different aspects of the program have been underway for several years.

In Ipil, a town of about 80,000 in the Philippines that has been testing fishery management with Rare, Mayor Eldwin Alibutdan said that the plan has helped sustain small fishers. Forty-one percent of the town’s residents live below the poverty line, he said.

The community set up a marine protected area and has developed enforcement mechanisms, he said. In addition to conflicts among fishermen, the program also faced long-standing tension between Christians and Muslims, he said. A Muslim volunteer is assigned to work with Muslim fishers, and a Christian volunteer works with that religious group, he said. The next step is to figure out a way of assigning rights to various fisheries.

“We need to protect our coastal resources,” Alibutdan said in a telephone interview. “This is the source of our protein. This is the source of our livelihood for one-third of my population.”

In Chile, the transformation to a rights-based system was enabled by “a preexisting social network of fishers that provided political leverage through a national confederation of artisanal fishing collectives,” according to a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Jenks said that many of these countries will have no choice but to change if they hope to survive overfishing and restore their fisheries. There is a “pernicious spiral downward in the race to catch the most fish,” he said. “You have to change the paradigm to get out of it.”