Traditional Fish Aggregation Devices

Fish sheltering below fish aggregating device. Photo by: Naturepl

Traditional FADs are used by small-scale, local and domestic fishing operations, to improve their catch rate in order to feed their families or sell fish at local markets (SPC, 2012). Fish aggregation devices (FADs) are floating or fixed structures that have been used for centuries in Oceanic cultures to aggregate (gather) schools of fish. They vary in design across cultures and uses. Generally, they have a floating object on the surface, which traditionally in the Pacific is made of natural materials that make up a raft. Modern FADs employ buoys or other means. Below the surface, differing designs of ropes and nets are employed. FADs have existed in many forms for centuries because fisherfolk have long recognised that fish tend to congregate under floating objects. 

Traditional FADs can be raft-like structures made of natural, locally sourced materials such as logs, or native trees. Historically, fish have also been aggregated with weirs and traps, where obstructions and paths are made in shallow waters to trap or channel fish. Different cultures across the Pacific use strategies passed down through generations to build and design FADs based on local knowledge. Traditional FADs have long been a useful method for small-scale fishing operations to maximise their catch. Given the nature of the traditional structures, they are employed closer to shore, in lagoons and at shallower depths. In open, deeper water, commercial fisheries operate modern FADs. These can have significant negative ecological impacts not typically associated with traditional methods. Traditional FADs help with food security in the islands of Te Moananui Oceania, where many people may be dependant on subsistence fishing.

Modern FADs are used by commercial fisheries operations, on massive scales. They attract large schools of fish, and then nets collect everything in their path. In the Pacific Ocean, this method is used to catch tuna for example. Modern FADs are problematic because as well as taking fish in large quantities, the unspecific nature of the nets means juvenile and ‘unwanted’ species are also captured. There are now specific regulations of best practice around FADs in the Pacific, set by the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation. Worldwide FADs account for nearly 40% of tuna catches, including 50% of skipjack catches (ISSF, 2024). 

As with all fishing methods, care must be taken to ensure FADs are used responsibly and within quota regulations.

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Name of NbS

Traditional Fish Aggregation Devices

Type of NbS

Engineered interventions (not using vegetation)

Location

Fish aggregation is an in-ocean technique used at small and large scales

Case Study

Māʻohii fish traps

Huahine Fish Trap. Photo by Anita363, Sea Garden Collective

Relationship to Indigenous knowledge

Traditional fish aggregation devices, and where, how, and when these are used are based on Indigenous knowledge of fish and the ocean. Fishing has long been an intrinsic part of Pacific culture and livelihood. Traditional indigenous fishing methods such as FADs have been orally transmitted through generations (Breckwoldt et al., 2021), and may be lost if they are not kept in practice. Indigenous fishing knowledge is threatened by commercialisation, the breakdown of traditional communal leadership and oral knowledge transmission systems, and the movement of the younger generations to urban areas (Breckwoldt et al., 2021). The use, support and education of traditional FAD methods has multiple benefits: it moves fishing away from harmful modern methods, supports Indigenous knowledge systems, and conserves Pacific cultural identities. 

Climate change benefits
  • Changes in phenology
  • loss of food production

As the climate changes, so do oceans. Changing ocean temperatures and marine heatwaves alter migration patterns of fish and destroy coral reefs and kelp forests. An international study (Adams et al., 2021) predicts that by 2050, key tuna species in the waters of ten Pacific SIDS could decline by an average of 13%, causing significant damage to local economies. Traditional fishing practices like the use of FADs must be supported and adapted in the Pacific if Island nations are to adapt to climate change. 

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Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • Empowerment / equality
  • Food security

Traditional FADs are a sustainable way to increase food production in Te Moananui Oceania communities, using regional knowledge and local, natural resources. Education and the preservation of traditional methods and knowledge ensures that future generations are able to have a reliable food resource, based on centuries of inherited knowledge of the natural world.  Fish make up 70% of the protein in Pacific Island diets (MFAT, 2024) and fishing has always been an intrinsic part of survival, community and culture for Pacific nations. Implementation of traditional FADs today can improve food security and support communities. 

As climate change continues, resilience can come in the form of empowerment. Where communities are able to be self-sufficient and manage their own resources, they will have increased resilience to the effects of climate change. FADs are a way for communities to use their inherited, traditional knowledge of their natural environment to catch fish. FADs can also provide alternate income for local communities, in tourism and small-scale sport fishing.

Today, traditional fishing practices and livelihoods are threatened by large-scale commercial fishing operations. The oceans of Pacific Island countries supply more than 30% of the global tuna market (Conservation International, 2024). Yet traditional fishers catch less than 5% of the tuna caught in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (SPC, 2012). 

The changing oceans and the impacts of commercial fishing are threats to livelihoods and cultural identities. Increasing the number of traditional FADs operating in Pacific waters will increase fish supply to local communities, rather than the international markets supported by commercial fishing. 

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Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Education and knowledge
  • Food production
  • Habitat provision
  • Mana (pride), whakamana (empowerment), tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty)
  • Species maintenance

The preservation of traditional knowledge systems can create a sense of mana (pride), whakamana (empowerment) and tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) in Pacific Island communities. Strategies and systems of traditional FADs have been passed down through generations of experience and observations of the natural world, of the ocean, the patterns of wildlife, and the climate. Education and knowledge can continue to keep these traditions alive, even as the climate changes.

Traditional FADs typically catch only the target species, and use natural materials, so that no pollutants enter the water. Modern FADs operate on such large scales that significant numbers of non-target species are caught and killed for no purpose at all. This is extremely damaging to ecologies and the biodiversity of the ocean. Traditional FADs are a way to catch only what is needed for the local community, ensuring there is no overfishing and species numbers can be maintained.

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A fisherman on a traditional FAD. Photo by Matthew Oldfield Travel Photography/Alamy.
A traditional fish drive in Malawai,Gau: Photo by Soeri Rokoiga.

Technical requirements

Traditional FADs vary in design, but should be able to be created from natural, local resources. As traditional methods have moved into the 21st century, they have adapted, using boats and new fishing technologies, however, they should remain made of non-toxic, biodegradable materials, and at scales suitable for sustainable management of fish stocks.

Issues and Barriers

The use of traditional FADs is threatened by commercial fishing operations (which may not be run by local people in Te Moananui Oceania), and by climate change that is changing the oceans and its fish. Fishers will need to adapt to new climate conditions, new weather patterns, and new ocean conditions. 

Education and training is needed to ensure that communities are aware of the benefits of traditional FADs, and to make sure that damaging materials like plastics are not being used. Larger-scale traditional FAD programmes will need funding and resources. Traditional FADs may have a shorter lifespan than modern FADs, and if untethered, may be lost. 

Opportunities

There is an opportunity to adapt traditional FADs to maximise their efficiency for local communities as a resource for increasing food security. Traditional methods can be adapted with modern materials and technologies, to increase effectiveness, ensure minimal impact on ecologies, create easy monitoring strategies, and ensure that tradition and cultural values and worldview are carried into future generations. 

Financial case

Traditional FADs generate income for local communities, both in the creation of a food source and also in tourism. Fishing and tourism are extremely important contributors to many Te Moananui Oceania economies, so there is a strong case for strengthening, protecting and educating communities about traditional FADs, or enabling people to continue with traditional practices. 

Natural FAD, anchored FAD, and drifting FAD techniques. Image from: Marine Stewardship Council
FADs in the Pacific: Industrial versus traditional. Image from: The Pacific Community (SPC)
References

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