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Should fishing communities play a greater role in managing fisheries?

By Robert Deacon

Marine fisheries around the world are in a state of decline. Each decade the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that a larger fraction of the world’s fisheries are overexploited or depleted. Historical trends in individual fisheries have led some scientists to predict all major fisheries will be collapsed by mid-century. The economic status of these resources is even more dismal. A recent World Bank study concluded that the world’s marine fisheries are capable of generating $80 billion per year in net economic benefits, but if fact generate losses on the order or $30 billion annually due to a combination of government subsidies and failed resource management.

Against this backdrop of doom and gloom, there is growing recognition that fishing communities and private fishermen’s organizations often can play an important role in management and conservation, giving reason for guarded optimism. Such groups have operated for decades, even centuries in some places, but their positive role as fishery managers is only recently being appreciated. Traditionally, scientists and policy specialists have considered fishery management to be the sole province of government regulators.

Fishing communities and organizations often play different roles in developed and developing countries. Governments in developing countries often fail to accomplish basic resource management functions due to corruption, lack of resources and poor organization. These failures can perpetuate open access and thwart even basic conservation norms, such as prohibitions on fishing with dynamite or cyanide. Organized groups of fishermen often can fill the resulting management gaps, by limiting access to the resource, monitoring and enforcing controls on fishing effort and acting collectively to conserve the resource.

Government can perform an important enabling function by recognizing the private group’s authority to exclude non-members. A group of nine fishing cooperatives in Baja California, Mexico is a well-known success story. These coops were granted exclusive rights to manage lobster and abalone in delimited areas in the 1930s and these rights have persisted to the present. The cooperatives now take responsibility for setting limits on the numbers of active fishermen, boats and traps. They also handle exclusion of non-members, control their own members’ actions and restrict the use of damaging fishing gear. These cooperatives have achieved impressive biological and economic success in managing lobster. In 2004 this fishery became one of the few in the developing world to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Less well-known is the case of community managed fresh water fisheries in Bangladesh. Over 12,000 of these fisheries exist and their potential biological productivity is remarkably high. Until recently management by government had been haphazard, with few limitations on access and little management of any kind. An experimental program in community based management placed roughly 80 of these fisheries under the control of local fishing communities. When compared to fisheries managed under business as usual, the community managed fisheries enjoyed substantially greater fish abundance and catches. Equally impressive were the stewardship actions these communities pursued; often, they established fish sanctuaries to protect breeding stocks, prohibited the use of destructive fishing methods and imposed season closures to limit catches.

Private fishery organizations generally play different roles in developed countries. In some cases they work to enhance stewardship actions that other forms of rights-based management, e.g., individual transferable catch quotas (ITQs), fail to achieve. New Zealand has gone further than other countries in assigning management responsibilities to user groups. The Challenger Scallop Enhancement Company, a cooperative of firms that hold ITQ rights, now takes responsibility for a range of stewardship actions, including spatial management of fishing effort to avoid local depletions, re-seeding of recently harvested areas to re-establish stocks and tightening size limits to conserve stocks. Challenger is also responsible for virtually all enforcement activities. Collectives of quota holders also manage New Zealand’s paua (abalone) fishery. As with Challenger, these cooperatives undertake spatial management and share information on stock abundance among members. They also take stewardship actions, including adoption of stringent size limits and rules on fishing methods that minimize incidental mortality.

In other cases developed country cooperatives can overcome political obstacles that government regulators find insurmountable. One such case occurred in the U.S. pollock fishery, where political difficulties made it impossible to manage with individual catch quotas. The solution was to assign management responsibility to groups of fishing firms organized as cooperatives. These cooperatives set up internal catch quotas for individual members to manage effort efficiently. They also slowed the rate of fishing, which improved the quality of the catch, improved product recovery and saved on processing capacity. These coops also fine-tuned the fishing practices to target the most valuable portions of the stock and to catch them at advantageous times.

There is now substantial evidence that privately organized fishing communities and groups of fishing firms can enhance fishery management, particularly in developing countries where government institutions are weak. Such groups can take collective actions to steward the resource, enforce restrictions on its use and coordinate the efforts of individual members. More generally, collective action in fishery management deserves more attention than it has received from researchers and policy makers. A fish population is a resource is shared by all users, and gains can be achieved by coordinating individual efforts in exploiting it. Even in well-designed individual rights systems such as ITQs, gains often can be achieved by allowing (even encouraging) rights holders to organize themselves to take collective action.

Robert Deacon is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara and an affiliated faculty member in UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. His research focuses on natural resource management and the interface between political systems, resource conservation and policy design.  His recent paper, Fishery Management by Harvester Cooperatives, has been made freely available for a limited time by the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy journal.

Review of Environmental Economics and Policy aims to fill the gap between traditional academic journals and the general interest press by providing a widely accessible yet scholarly source for the latest thinking on environmental economics and related policy. The Review publishes a range of material including symposia, articles, and regular features.

Image credit: Photograph of fishermen at work by piola666 via iStockphoto.

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