Artisanal fish fences pose broad and unexpected threats to the tropical coastal seascape
Gear restrictions are an important management tool in small-scale tropical fisheries, improving sustainability and building resilience to climate change. Yet to identify the management challenges and complete footprint of individual gears, a broader systems approach is required that integrates ecological, economic and social sciences. Here we apply this approach to artisanal fish fences, intensively used across three oceans, to identify a previously underrecognized gear requiring urgent management attention. A longitudinal case study shows increased effort matched with large declines in catch success and corresponding reef fish abundance. We find fish fences to disrupt vital ecological connectivity, exploit > 500 species with high juvenile removal, and directly damage seagrass ecosystems with cascading impacts on connected coral reefs and mangroves. As semi-permanent structures in otherwise open-access fisheries, they create social conflict by assuming unofficial and unregulated property rights, while their unique high-investment-low-effort nature removes traditional economic and social barriers to overfishing.