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World Oceans Day: Diving into global fishery resources

Multi-level conflicts and the protection of collective goods:

Diving into global fishery resources


While exploring the biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands in 1835, Charles Darwin has found the basilar insights for his later coined evolution theory. Notwithstanding its huge impact, something fascinated Darwin, which his theory could not fully grasp: the evolution of cooperation. Because natural selection favors those who achieve the greatest reproductive success while cooperative behavior often decreases the reproductive success of the actor (the individual performing the cooperative behavior), cooperation seemed to pose a challenging problem to the theory of natural selection, which rests on the assumption that individuals compete to survive and maximize their reproductive successes.[1]

Almost a century passed until other evolutionary biologists would ease the Darwinian skepticism on cooperation, enlarging the evolutionary theoretical frame towards complexity, coining the inclusive fitness theory[2], and concepts such as reciprocal altruism and sociobiology.

The example above depicts the importance of interdisciplinary and complexity approaches, as prescribed by Elinor Ostrom: “We should continue to use simple models where they capture enough of the core underlying structure and incentives that they usefully predict outcomes. When the world we are trying to explain and improve, however, is not well described by a simple model, we must continue to improve our frameworks and theories so as to be able to understand complexity and not simply reject it.”[3]

Therefore, it seems most appropriate to use such complexity approach when exploring how is the protection of collective goods shaped by the presence of different collectivities at multiple levels.

Natural resources such as land, fisheries, forests and water are examples of goods used collectively as commons. They withhold social and spiritual value to many communities and provide essential environmental services at both local and global levels.

These collective goods are in principle common-pool resources, defined as non-excludable and rival. The access and quality to such goods constitute a fundament of social sustainability[4], conceived as that set of circumstances in which large asymmetries of human freedoms[5] and opportunities within and across generations are being avoided (Chiappero-Martinetti et. Von Jacobi, 2015).

The deterioration of the quality or the unequal access and distribution of the collective goods can largely increase the asymmetries of such human freedoms, justifying the importance of inclusively addressing the multi-layered dynamics of protection of such goods, and the collectivities involved and affected by it.

I – The tip of the iceberg and tipping-points

In order to understand how multiple collectivities affect the protection of these commons, we move back to the same Galapagos archipelago of the first example, this time not alongside Darwin and the Beagle expedition in the 19th century but with the Ecuadorian navy in July of 2020. When headlines across the world broadcasted Ecuador’s alarming discovery of a vast Chinese fishing armada with more than 340 vessels, just outside of the biodiversity sanctuary of the Galapagos, global outrage sparked about environmental damage and a future clash[6] over world’s common fisheries.

The Chinese fleet was located around 200 miles from the archipelago, cramped at the strait of international waters between Galapagos Islands and Ecuador’s mainland. While the location was outside its national jurisdiction, Ecuador’s navy commander[7] alerted that over half of those vessels had intermittently switched off their satellite communications – stopping their traceability against the rules of the regional fisheries management organization.

China has promised a “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal fishing, and it has authorized Ecuador to supervise the vessels[8]. It turns out to be very difficult for small states to deploy resources and surveillance over China’s huge fleets, and to stand against Chinese interests and investments.

Specialists worldwide alerted that the fleet’s size and aggressiveness against marine species posed a big threat to the balance of Galapagos unique ecosystem[9], an UNESCO world heritage site since 1978. Ecuador’s government stated that it would seek to enforce international agreements that protect migratory species and that “unchecked Chinese fishing just on the edge of the protected zone is ruining Ecuador’s efforts to protect marine life in the Galápagos”[10].

This incident exposes much more complex and systemic problems concerning the protection of the world’s common fisheries. Chinese distant-waters fishing fleet is the world’s largest, composed by a vast and complex network of thousands of vessels, hugely underreported[11]. Many of those vessels are camouflaged or unregistered boats that spend long periods at sea where shocking human rights violations have been reported[12].

Estimative is that Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing costs U$23 billion[13]. These fishing fleets operate in a global scale, from West Africa to the Korean peninsula (they move into national waters while switching off transponders to avoid detection) depleting fish stocks and posing a threat to food security for poor coastal communities.

What lies in the horizon?

At first glance, the current global fisheries situation seems to perfectly depict a tragedy of the commons setting. As described by Buchanan, the net value of the commonly used resource is related to the level of complementary inputs applied. If these inputs are separately controlled by choosing-acting agents, persons, or firms, the value potential of the resource in question may, for example, be wasted or dissipated in part or in total, by excessive usage.[14]

Accordingly to FAO latest assessment[15], the fraction of fish stocks that are within biologically sustainable levels decreased from 90 percent in 1974 to 65.8 percent in 2017. The perpetuation of such trend could mean we reach tipping-points where the growing rate of stocks over seasons cannot overcome overfishing rates, leading to a depletion of stocks and consequent irreparable ecological harm.

China, the largest fisher and consumer, signed a key UN fish stocks agreement in 1996 but never ratified it. It is a member of seven regional fishery management organizations, or RFMOs, but its offshore fleet operates outside of those frameworks. Most recently, in 2017, as part of its five-year plan for fisheries, China announced plans to cap the size of the fleet to 3,000 vessels by 2020, but research shows that underreporting hides a fleet almost five times bigger[16].

For reasons alike, some institutions defend that without wholescale structural change by China and the system of global governance of the ocean to make sure the Chinese do abide by the law, the world’s fish stocks would continue their precipitous decline.[17]

However, in order to define what kind of institutional innovations could address this complex phenomenon most effectively, pointing towards a top-bottom imposition of legal compliance at China seems insufficient. Hargrave and Van De Ven define institutional change as a difference in form, quality, or state over time in an institution. Major references, such differentiation focuses on the nature of this difference, how it was produced, and its consequences. [18]

In this sense, socioeconomic development policies must face the interrelations of the institutions from a multi-level perspective, from the SDGs and international law to domestic and local policies. Global social sustainability will require development, redistribution and protection of collective goods – by actively involving different actors.

II – Challenges to the collective protection of fishery resources

Message in a bottle and fish stories

One of the main barriers to a comprehensive and holistic approach to the protection of collective goods when dealing with multi-level collectives is the assumption that individuals have complete information about all actions available to them. Such assumption should be applied solely in very simple repeated games (Ostrom, 2010), as highly complex common-pool resource environments, however, approach mathematical chaos (J. Wilson et al. 1994) in which resource users cannot gain complete information about all likely combinations of future events.

Particularly, the interactions relate to the maritime environment, which is by itself a highly mutant, fuzzy and fluid environment, where conveyance of information is historically restricted, be it by the unnatural fitness of humans for such habitat or by the extensive deserted distances, posing innumerous physical and technological barriers.

Interesting examples of how the maritime environment restricts information conveyance and trust are rooted in popular culture. In many languages expressions as “a fish story”, refer to an improbable, boastful tale[19]. Documented since the early 1800’s, this expression alludes to the tendency of fishermen to exaggerate the size of their catch[20] as information could hardly be assessed or confirmed.

In this sense, individuals also learn norms, internal valuations that are negative or positive related to specific actions such as lying or being brave in particular situations (Crawford and E. Ostrom 2005). As remarked by Amartya Sen, the strength of an internal commitment may be represented in the size of the internal weight that an individual assigns to actions and outcomes in a particular setting. (Amartya K. Sen 1977).

An example of this concept is beautifully depicted by Nobel prize Ernst Hemingway’s Pulitzer awarded novel “The Old Man and the Sea”[21], where strong cultural and social institutions pertain to the fishing communities relatively to how information and trust games operate with restrictions and particularities in such settings.  Even with strong preferences to follow norms, “observed behavior may vary by context because the perception of the ‘right thing’ would change” (Angela de Oliveira, Rachel Croson, and Eckel 2009: 19).

Therefore, against the presumptions of a top-bottom one-size-fits all solution to marine resource conservation, simply assuming that humans adopt norms is not sufficient to predict behavior in a social dilemma, especially in very large groups with no arrangements for communication such as the multi-layered fishing collectivities.

Changing tides and heuristics

Another remarkable aspect of information effects on the protection of common fishery resources regards the rapid changes that global warming is imposing particularly to the marine environment, and how those changes could compromise heuristics and fishing effectiveness.

When individuals do interact repeatedly, it is possible to learn heuristics that approach “best response” strategies and achieve close to local optima (Gerd Gigerenzer and Selten 2001). As described by E. Ostrom[22]: “Fishers end up “fishing for knowledge” (J. Wilson 1990) where using heuristics over time enables them to recognize diverse clues of environmental processes that they need to take into account when making their own decisions.”  However, “in eras of rapid change or sudden shocks, heuristics may not enable individuals to achieve high payoffs”.

Marine environments are being highly disrupted by climate change, once 93% of heat accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans. Shifting ocean currents, acidification and warming waters are substantially changing the distribution of fish stocks and altering the structure of ecosystems.[23]

This could have a particular negative effect on traditional fishing communities with less access to technological developments such as satellite information. Whereas this communities still rely on traditional knowledge on their natural environment accumulated throughout the centuries, decision making processes are highly impacted by the rapid changes caused by climate change to the marine ecosystems.

III – Opportunities

Inventing a pirate’s spyglass

As described above, many of the challenges of collective protection of fishery resources relate to information. In this sense, institutional changes that are bringing forward innovative ways to increase communication and transparency can represent a much welcome opportunity to the protection of commons.

Organizations as the Global Fishing Watch are increasing transparency. Originally set up through a collaboration between three partners: Oceana, an international ocean conservation organisation; SkyTruth, experts in using satellite technology to protect the environment; and Google, who provide the tools for processing big data.[24]

In the case analyzed in this paper, NGO’s as Global Fishing Watch and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) have used cutting-edge technology and data analysis to reveal that the size and scope of China’s distant-water fleet has been hugely underreported.

Such innovations generate incremental transparency levels that allows trust to fulfill its central role in coping with social dilemmas. Empirical studies, confirm the important role of trust in overcoming social dilemmas (Bo Rothstein 2005).

Minimum levels of trust allow the emergence of norm-complying individuals that may gain increased levels of trust in others, leading to more cooperation and higher benefits with feedback mechanisms that reinforce positive or negative learning. Thus, it is not only that individuals adopt norms but also that the structure of the situation generates sufficient information about the likely behavior of others to be trust worthy reciprocators who will bear their share of the costs of overcoming a dilemma.

Creating micro-contexts

Further on, it is very common that when dealing with collective fishing resources, a single policy prescription such as Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) is recommended for all resources of a particular type, such as all fisheries[25]. However, new studies evidence the importance of creating adequate micro-contexts that can foster attributes that affect the level of cooperation that participants achieve in social dilemma settings (Poteete, Janssen, and E. Ostrom 2010)[26].

Amongst these attributes: face-to-face communication, reputation systems, high margin per capita return, entry or exit capabilities, longer time horizon and agreed-upon sanctioning capabilities have proven to be extremely effective in making individuals more prone to cooperation.

In addition, secure tenure rights to commons are crucial for indigenous peoples and local communities, including farmers, fisher folk, pastoralists, the landless and the most vulnerable, food insecure and marginalized people. Ensuring that legitimate tenure rights to commons are real in practice is a cornerstone of achieving sustainable development and the realization of the right to their livelihood. [27]

Social Innovation cases: Locally Managed Marine Areas

Aligned with these concepts, policy makers, social innovators and social entrepreneurs are successfully managing to create models that support coastal communities to establish dynamic and locally appropriate fisheries management strategies and governance systems that help rebuild fisheries and safeguard threatened marine biodiversity.[28]

From as far afield as Fiji, Kenya and Costa Rica, and encompassing diverse approaches to management and governance, LMMAs vary widely but all share the common theme of placing local communities at the heart of management. LMMAs have proven highly effective in reducing local conflicts over fisheries, conserving marine biodiversity and improving catches.

Blue Ventures[29] is a successful example of social innovation implementing locally managed marine areas (LMMAs) managed by coastal communities – often in collaboration with partner organizations – to help protect fisheries and safeguard marine biodiversity.

In Madagascar, the organization joined grassroots movements establishing an LMMA network that covers over 17% of one of Africa’s longest coastlines. Inspired by this movement, the Government of Madagascar has committed to triple the extent of the country’s marine protected areas, with a special emphasis on local management.

Through the use of dina – customary laws that are recognised by the government – many of the partner communities have designed effective rules that can be enforced locally to ban destructive fishing practices, protect endangered species and designate priority marine areas for protection. To ensure the long-term financial sustainability of these LMMAs, a variety of funding mechanisms were developed including marine ecotourism programmes, eco-certifications for sustainable fisheries, and blue carbon.

This evidences that through the careful theoretical design and the persistent entrepreneurial activity of social innovators and communities, extremely successful models of collective management of the commons arise.

IV- Conclusion

Collective goods play a fundamental role towards cultural identity, livelihood and well-being of millions of people around the world, especially the most vulnerable, representing a source of food, shelter and income and providing an important safety net

The deterioration of the quality or the unequal access and distribution of the collective goods can largely increase the asymmetries of such human freedoms, justifying the importance of inclusively addressing the multi-layered dynamics of protection of such goods, and the collectivities involved and affected by it.

Marine ecosystems and fisheries represent an important global collective resource, threatened by competing multinational interests, climate change and overexploitation, related to a multi-level extremely complex network of rules, actors and institutions.

Experience from around the world shows that managing fisheries and marine resources achieve better results when responsibility is placed in the hands of local communities and empirical research is improving our theories, evidencing that humans have a more complex motivational structure and more capability to solve social dilemmas than posited in earlier rational-choice theory. [30]

Communities and entrepreneurs bring forth social innovations that seize the opportunities for institutional change and set the ground to public policies allowing them to further facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans, creating sustainable outcomes at multiple scales and allowing us to possibly overcome the pressing challenges of our time.[31]

V – Bibliography

  • Beckh, C.; Gärtner, E.; Rauch, T.; Bleeser, I.; Weigelt, J.; Müller (2016). Governance of Tenure Technical Guides. FAO, Rome.

  • Buchanan and Yoon. (2000). Commons and Anticommons. Journal of Law and Economics, 43(1): 1-14.

  • Chiappero-Martinetti, E., von Jacobi, N. and Fabbri, M. (2015), Pillars of Social Sustainability, Annale della Fondazione Feltrinelli 49, pp. 93-119.

  • Clutton-Brock, T (5 November 2009). “Cooperation between non-kin in animal societies”. Nature. 462 (7269): 51–57

  • Global Trends In The State Of The World’s Marine Fish Stocks 1974-2017. The state of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (2020). FAO

  • Gutierrez, M. Daniels, A. Jobbins, G. Gutierrez Almazor, G. and Montenegro, C. (2020) China’s distant-water fishing fleet: Scale, impact and governance. Overseas Development Institute – ODI

  • Hargrave, T. J., & Van de Ven, A. H. (2006). A collective action model of institutional innovation. Academy of management review, 31(4), 864-888.

  • Nobel Prize in Literature to Hemingway in 1954. The Nobel Foundation, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1954/summary/.

  • Alarm over discovery of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels near Galápagos Islands. The Guardian, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/27/chinese-fishing-vessels-galapagos-islands

  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessible at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fish%20story

  • Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. The American Economic Review, 100(3): 641-672

  • Sen, A. (2013). The Ends and Means of Sustainability. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 2013, vol. 14, issue 1, 6-20

  • Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. FAO, 2020. Accessible at: http://www.fao.org/iuu-fishing/en/

  • Toonen, T. Resilience in Public Administration: The Work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom from a Public Administration Perspective. (2010) Public Administration Review.

  • Trent, S. Environmental Justice Foundation in “Can anyone stop China’s vast armada of fishing boats?”. The Guardian, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/25/can-anyone-stop-china-vast-armada-of-fishing-boats-galapagos-ecuador


[1] Clutton-Brock, T (5 November 2009). “Cooperation between non-kin in animal societies”. Nature. 462 (7269): 51–57

[2] Inclusive fitness is one of two metrics of evolutionary success as defined by W. D. Hamilton in 1964

[3] Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. The American Economic Review, 100(3): 641-672

[4] Chiappero-Martinetti, E., von Jacobi, N. and Fabbri, M. (2015), Pillars of Social Sustainability, Annale della Fondazione Feltrinelli 49, pp. 93-119.

[5] Sen, A. (2013). The Ends and Means of Sustainability. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 2013, vol. 14, issue 1, 6-20

[6] “Hundreds of Chinese fishing boats lurking off South America add to fears about a future war for fish”. Business Insider, August 2020. Accessible at: https://www.businessinsider.com/chinese-fishing-boats-near-galapagos-sign-of-competition-for-fish-2020-8

[7] Jarrin, D. in “Alarm over discovery of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels near Galápagos Islands”. The Guardian, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/27/chinese-fishing-vessels-galapagos-islands

[8] Ecuador says Chinese fishing fleet off Galapogos has gone dark. August 2020. Aljazeera. Accessible at: https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2020/8/19/ecuador-says-chinese-fishing-fleet-off-galapogos-has-gone-dark

[9] Kakabadse, Y. in “Alarm over discovery of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels near Galápagos Islands”. The Guardian, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/27/chinese-fishing-vessels-galapagos-islands

[10] Sevilla, R. in “Alarm over discovery of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels near Galápagos Islands”. The Guardian, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/27/chinese-fishing-vessels-galapagos-islands.

[11] The ODI found the fleet had 16,966 vessels, five times more than previous estimates. By contrast, the US distant-water fleet comprises 300 boats.

[12] Gutierrez, M. Daniels, A. Jobbins, G. Gutierrez Almazor, G. and Montenegro, C. (2020) China’s distant-water fishing fleet: Scale, impact and governance. Overseas Development Institute – ODI.

[13][13] The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that illegal fishing has an annual cost of up to $23bn. The FAO also calculates that nearly 60 million people worked in fishing or aquaculture in 2016, 85% of them in Asia. Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. FAO, 2020. Accessible at: http://www.fao.org/iuu-fishing/en/

[14] Buchanan and Yoon. (2000). Commons and Anticommons. Journal of Law and Economics, 43(1): 1-14.

[15] Global Trends In The State Of The World’s Marine Fish Stocks 1974-2017. The state of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (2020). FAO

[16] Gutierrez, M. Daniels, A. Jobbins, G. Gutierrez Almazor, G. and Montenegro, C. (2020) China’s distant-water fishing fleet: Scale, impact and governance. Overseas Development Institute – ODI

[17] Trent, S. Environmental Justice Foundation in “Can anyone stop China’s vast armada of fishing boats?”. The Guardian, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/25/can-anyone-stop-china-vast-armada-of-fishing-boats-galapagos-ecuador

[18] Hargrave, T. J., & Van de Ven, A. H. (2006). A collective action model of institutional innovation. Academy of management review, 31(4), 864-888.

[19] Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessible at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fish%20story

[20] The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary. Accessible at: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/fish-story#:~:text=with%20fish%20story-,fish%20story,the%20size%20of%20their%20catch.%20%5B

[21] In 1953, The Old Man and the Sea was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it was cited by the Nobel Committee as contributing to their awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Hemingway in 1954. The Nobel Foundation, 2020. Accessible at: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1954/summary/.

[22] Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. The American Economic Review, 100(3): 641-672

[23] In the past 30 years, marine heatwaves are estimated to have increased by more than 50%. Globally, ocean temperatures are predicted to increase by 1-4°C by 2100. These changes are impacting marine life. Sudden rises in temperature and acidification can lead to the loss of marine habitats and species. (2019) Climate Change and Fishing. Marine Stewardship Council.

[24] Global Fish Watch. Accessible at: https://globalfishingwatch.org/about-us/

[25] While several ITQ systems are working successfully, the time and effort needed to tailor the broad theoretical concept of an ITQ system into an operational system in a particular location involves multiple years of hard work by the fishers involved as well as the government officials (see Clark 2006; Tracy Yandle 2007; Yandle and Christopher Dewees 2003; Thrinn Eggertsson 1990).

[26] (i)         Communication is feasible with the full set of participants. When face-to-face communication is possible, participants use facial expressions, physical actions, and the way that words are expressed to judge the trustworthiness of the others involved.

(ii)           Reputations of participants are known. Knowing the past history of other participants, who may not be personally known prior to interaction, increases the likelihood of cooperation.

(iii)          High marginal per capita return (MPCR). When MPCR is high, each participant can know that their own contributions make a bigger difference than with low MPCR, and that others are more likely to recognize this relationship.

(iv)          Entry or exit capabilities. If participants can exit a situation at low cost, this gives them an opportunity not to be a sucker, and others can recognize that cooperators may leave (and enter other situations) if their cooperation is not reciprocated.

(v)           Longer time horizon. Participants can anticipate that more could be earned through cooperation over a long time period versus a short time.

(vi)          Agreed-upon sanctioning capabilities. While external sanctions or imposed sanctioning systems may reduce cooperation, when participants themselves agree to a sanctioning system they frequently do not need to use sanctions at a high volume, and net benefits can be improved substantially.

[27] Beckh, C.; Gärtner, E.; Rauch, T.; Bleeser, I.; Weigelt, J.; Müller (2016). Governance of Tenure Technical Guides. FAO, Rome.

[28] Blue Ventures has successfully implemented the creation of the Barren Isles protected area; the largest LMMA in the Indian Ocean Creation of Velondriake; the first LMMA in Madagascar to embark on registration as a nationally recognised protected area Expansion of the LMMA model to communities beyond Velondriake inspiring and guiding the creation of  large-scale LMMAs throughout Madagascar; Over 350 community-managed temporary fishing closures have been conducted around Madagascar, based on a model for community-based fisheries management first developed in Velondriake; Development of the largest community-based monitoring programme for artisanal sea turtle and shark fisheries in the western Indian Ocean;

[29] Blue Ventures: Locally led marine conservation. Accessible at: https://blueventures.org/

[30] Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex

Economic Systems. The American Economic Review, 100(3): 641-672

[31] Toonen, T. Resilience in Public Administration: The Work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom from a Public Administration Perspective. (2010) Public Administration Review.

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