Proceedings of the Third World Fisheries Congress: Feeding the World with Fish in the Next Millenium—The Balance between Production and Environment

How Can We Create New Management Paradigms to Resolve Conflicts of Interest in Fisheries?

Paul J. B. Hart


The problem of conserving natural resources is above all else a behavioural one: to induce or enforce society to cooperate, in conserving resources, when there coexists a temptation for individuals to profit by depleting them.

—Mesterton-Gibbons 1992

Throughout the fisheries science community, there is a well recognized sense that fisheries management has failed to regulate fisheries (Pitcher et al. 1998). In all the world’s oceans, fish stocks are close to overexploitation, and many are in danger of extinction. Some have already reached the point of commercial extinction; the most famous example is the Atlantic cod Gadus morhua of Newfoundland (Hutchings and Myers 1994). Confident scientists believe that the problem can be solved through better understanding of the dynamics of fish stocks and of the workings of ecosystems. Other scientists, more pessimistic in their outlook, consider that the system to be managed is characterized by uncertainty that can never be resolved, so that in the end, fisheries will never be managed with precision (Ludwig et al. 1993).

Regardless of who is right, new ways must be found to manage fisheries resources. It would be arrogant of me to claim that I have the answer, but in this paper I demonstrate that the fishery science armory misses out on an essential part of the system: fisher behavior. Many might claim that of course fishers’ behavior is taken into account. However, very often, this “behavior” is supposed rather than actual; the methods that ethologists use to study animal behavior must be adopted to obtain the missing data.

The focus of my discussion is how conflicts of interest should be resolved, because this issue lies at the heart of the fisheries management problem. Three different aspects of exploitation can lead to conflicts of interest: appropriation, assignment, and technology (Ostrom et al. 1994). To an economist, each of these aspects causes externalities in a fishery. Conflicts of interest over appropriation are disputes about how much fish should be taken—probably the most intractable problem. When fishers dispute over assignment, they are in conflict over who should fish where. Technological conflicts arise when fishers using different types of gear interact (e.g., crabbers set fixed gear on the bottom that can be damaged by mobile trawls).

A characterization of the fishery system is helpful as part of this discussion; my version is illustrated in Figure 1. From early in the history of fishery science, biologists have been in the vanguard of scientists studying fisheries management (Lee 1992). The study of fisheries by sociologists and economists has a long history, but these practitioners have never become embedded into the system used to develop management strategies in the way that biologists have, largely because fisheries management was regarded first as a problem of determining the limits of biological productivity (Smith 1994):

• how much fish can be taken from the stock?
• can a fishery alter the abundance of a stock?
• how variable will catches be over time? and
• what is the optimal yield from a stock?

Things have changed dramatically since T. H. Huxley’s (1884) famous statement, “the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible: that is to say, nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently from the nature of the case to be useless.”