Marine reserves, co-managed by local communities, can help alleviate the impact of poverty, a study suggests.
Research into four successful schemes showed that getting villagers involved in protection projects reduced harmful overfishing and protected incomes.
Average incomes of people who had established no-fish zones were more than double those who did not have protected areas, the authors found.
The researchers produced the report for the Nature Conservancy, a US group.
They said the case studies provided a global blueprint for fishing villages.
Their report, Nature’s Investment Bank, examined four marine protection areas in Fiji, Indonesia, Philippines and the Solomon Islands, to assess what constituted a successful scheme.
“The key finding is that local communities have to be involved in the management of the fisheries,” said co-author Craig Leisher, a policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy.
“It lowers the enforcement costs dramatically, and it ensures locals benefit financially.”
Marine protection areas are designed to ensure fish stocks are maintained, while allowing locals to land catches. However, fishing is prohibited in certain key locations, such as spawning and nursery areas.
He said locals initially expressed concern about the idea of establishing so called “no-take zones”.
“Local fishers were quite reluctant, and worried that they were going to lose some of their prime fishing grounds.
“But what we saw in at least two of these sites was that within just two or three years, there was a dramatic increase in the number of fish that were spilling over from the no-take zones.
“It did not take long for the local communities to see the benefits and say ‘hey, this may work’.”
As well as money from fishing, Mr Leisher added that a healthy aquatic ecosystem had other financial incentives.
“When we looked at the new jobs that were created and which had the biggest benefit to local communities, they were all in tourism.
“There is tremendous potential, certainly within South-East Asia and what we call the coral triangle,” he told BBC News.
In some areas, the additional revenue helped fund improvements to villages’ infrastructure, such as water tanks and public toilets.
Mr Leisher said that fish also played a vital role in locals’ diets, especially children’s.
“In all four areas, fish was their primary source of protein and it is part of their staple diet so it could not be more important,” he observed.
Secrets of success
The report – co-funded by the Nature Conservancy, WWF Indonesia, the Australian government and Holland’s Vrije University – was based on more than 1,100 interviews with locals and opinion formers.
Mr Leisher said the researchers had deliberately chosen areas where the introduction of conservation schemes had been successful.
“The objective was to learn from the sites that had been successful and to discern why they were successful, and look for the common factors,” he explained.
“In all four cases, the local fisheries were in crisis before the establishment of the protected areas.
“The primary indicator was declining fish catch – what we called catch per unit of effort. People were having to go out for longer and fish in new places in order to catch the same amount of fish as a few years earlier.
“There has to be a sense of crisis before people are willing to change the status quo dramatically.”
But he said the main factor underpinning the successful schemes was convincing people that marine protection areas were more than a paper exercise.
“The key to the whole endeavour is education and awareness; they had to understand that it was something that could benefit them and that it was not an imposition.”