Co-management holds promise of sustainable fisheries worldwide

January 5, 2011, University of Washington
Fishing boats line the beach at Punta del Diablo, a seaside community in Uruguay where the 600 year-round inhabitants are mainly fishers and artisans. Fishers, managers and scientists are cooperating in the multi-species fishery there to improve management and reduce discards and incidental catches of the endangered Franciscana dolphin (Pontoporia Blainvillei). Credit: Nicolas Gutiérrez/U of Washington

Encouraging new evidence suggests that the bulk of the world's fisheries – including small-scale, often non-industrialized fisheries on which millions of people depend for food – could be sustained using community-based co-management.

"The majority of the world's are not – and never will be – managed by strong centralized governments with top-down rules and the means to enforce them," according to Nicolas Gutiérrez, a University of Washington doctoral student in aquatic and fishery sciences who is lead author of a paper that goes online Jan. 5 in the journal Nature. "Our findings show that many community-based co-managed fisheries around the world are well managed under limited central government structure, provided communities of fishers are proactively engaged.

"Community-based co-management is the only realistic solution for the majority of the world's fisheries and is an effective way to sustain aquatic resources and the livelihoods of communities depending on them."

Under such a management system, responsibility for resources is shared between the government and users. On the smallest scale, this might involve mayors and fishers from different villages agreeing to avoid fishing in each other's waters. Examples on a larger scale include Chile's most valuable fishery – the snail called "loco," also known as Chilean abalone – that started in 1988 with local fishers in a single community cooperating along a 2-mile (4-km) stretch of the coastline and today involves 700 co-managed areas with 20,000 artisanal fishers along 2,500 miles (4,000 km) of coastline.

While case studies of individual co-managed fisheries exist, this new work used data on 130 fisheries in 44 developed and developing nations and included such things as marine and freshwater ecosystems as well as diverse fishing gears and targeted species.

The larger the circle, the more important the attribute for the success of community-based co-managed fisheries. Topping the list -- for small-scale as well as industrial fisheries -- were the presence of community leaders, strong social cohesion, individual or community quotas and community-based protected areas, provided the protected area is proposed and monitored by local communities. Credit: Nicolas Gutiérrez/U of Washington

Statistical analysis shows co-management typically fails without such keys things as:

  • Prominent community leadership and social cohesion
  • Clear incentives that, for example, give fishers security over the amount they can catch or the area in which they can fish
  • Protected areas, especially when combined with regulated harvest inside or outside the area, and when the protected area is proposed and monitored by local communities
"Our results show that additional resources should be spent on efforts to identify community leaders and build social capital rather than only imposing management tactics without user involvement," says Gutiérrez.

The new study further confirms the theories of Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for challenging the conventional wisdom that common property is always poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement, she said, to handle conflicts of interest.

"Elinor Ostrom was right," says Omar Defeo, University of Uruguay professor, scientific coordinator of Uruguay's national fishery management program and co-author on the paper. "With community-based co-management, fishers are capable of self organizing, maintaining their resources and achieving sustainable fisheries."

After reading the paper in advance of publication, Ostrom called the work "fabulous" and said, "It was very exciting to see the findings about community cohesion founded on norms, trust, communication, commitment and respect for leaders being the most important attributes leading to successful fisheries co-management."

Researchers scored 130 community-based co-managed fisheries on eight outcomes ranging from community empowerment to increases in fish abundance around the world, with Europe and Southeast Asia broken out in the lower panels. Forty percent of fisheries scored positively on 6, 7 or all 8 outcomes, represented with dark- and light-green circles. Another 25 percent scored positively on 4 to 5 outcomes, represented in yellow; 18 percent scored 2 to 3, in orange; and 17 percent scored zero to 1, in red. Credit: Nicolas Gutiérrez/U of Washington

For the Nature paper, Gutiérrez assembled data from scientific literature, government and non-government reports and personal interviews for 130 co-managed fisheries looking to score them on eight outcomes – ranging from community empowerment to sustainable catches to increases in abundance of fish and prices of what was caught.

With 40 percent of the fisheries scoring positively on 6, 7 or all 8 outcomes, and another 25 percent scoring positively on 4 or 5 of the outcomes, the co-authors write that community-based co-management "holds great promise for successful and sustainable fisheries worldwide."

Ray Hilborn, UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences and a co-author on the Nature paper, was also co-author of a paper in Science in 2009 that found that many of the major industrial fisheries and fishery ecosystems were becoming more sustainable.

"This new paper further illustrates the world's growing ability to manage fisheries sustainably and that the tools appropriate for industrial fisheries in countries with strong central governments are quite different from those in small-scale fisheries or countries without strong central governments," he says.

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright-Organization of American States Ecology Program and Pew Charitable Trusts.

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5 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2011
This is excellent news, the age-old debate of private control vs. government control was going nowhere dispite fervent advocates on both sides; both have their flaws, and many combinations of the two are even worse.

It's great that there are alternatives, there's no silver-bullet but at least we can try to go in that direction.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 06, 2011
Some management is better than no, or ineffective management. Of course all management is dependent on the quality of information being analyzed to provide the basis of management. After many years in the field observing relatively remote fishing communities I have to conclude that not all communities have quality information on their local fisheries, or the basic education to use it if they have it. In which case "community empowerment" is rather meaningless. Not knowing the term of the study and given the cyclical nature of most fisheries - it's also difficult to determine the significance and accuracy of this one.
not rated yet Jan 06, 2011
That's a good point, some education/information might be needed, like the Grameen Bank does. It lends small amounts of money for people to start their businesses with no collateral, but people have to attend seminars, and basically keep in touch and discuss things. A radically different approach from our own banks and government!

They already have privileged information from being part of the local community, their experience and ability to respond quickly are a big advantage, by adding expert information you're maximizing their chance of success :)

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