Subsistence harvesting by a small community does not substantially compromise coral reef fish assemblages
Fisheries usually first remove large predators before switching to smaller species, causing lasting changes to fish community structure. Reef fish provide essential protein and income for many people, and the impacts of commercial and high-intensity subsistence fishing on reef fish are well documented. However, how fish communities respond to low levels of subsistence fishing using traditional techniques (fishing for food, few fishers) is less well understood. We use three atolls in the Marshall Islands as a model system to quantify effects of commercial and subsistence fishing on reef fish communities, compared to a near-pristine baseline. Unexpectedly, fish biomass was highest on the commercially-fished atoll where the assemblage was dominated by herbivores (50% higher than other atolls) and contained few top predators (70% lower than other atolls). By contrast, fish biomass and trophic composition did not differ between pristine and subsistence-fished atolls – top predators were abundant on both. We show that in some cases, reefs can support fishing by small communities to provide food but still retain intact fish assemblages. Low-intensity subsistence fishing may not always harm marine food webs, and we suggest that its effects depend on the style and intensity of fishing practised and the type of organisms targeted.