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This article takes the existence of power networks of local elites as a social fact of fundamental importance and the starting point for the study of patronage in the governance of the coastal waters of East Kalimantan. We address the question of how to capture the elites for project implementation, rather than assuming the inevitability of elite capture of project funds. We analyze the multiple-scale networks of local power holders (punggawa) and the collaboration and friction between the political-economic interests and historical values of local actors and the scientific motivations of international environmental organizations. We describe how collaboration and friction between members of the elite challenge models that categorically exclude or co-opt local elites in foreign projects. In-depth ethnographic study of these networks shows their resilience through flows of knowledge and power in a highly volatile coastal environment. Results indicate the need for inclusion in decision making of local entrepreneurs, and – indirectly - their dependents in decentralized coastal governance.