All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1997

How Fishing Communities Protect Their Future

We Don't Need Government to Regulate Fishing

Donald R. Leal is a senior associate of PERC. More examples of community-run fisheries can be found in his paper Community-Run Fisheries: Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons (September 1996), published by PERC, 502 S. 19th Ave., Suite 211, Bozeman, MT 59718.)

At the beginning of this century, violence periodically erupted among the community of fishers of Valensa, Brazil. They fought over access to prime fishing spots on the adjacent estuary, and they fought when one type of gear became entangled in another. Fishers were spending more time fighting and untangling gear and fishing became a costly endeavor with little return. To solve this predicament, local fishers got together and worked out their own set of rules.

They assigned fishing spots and drew lots to determine the order in which each one could use a particular spot. And they divided the estuary into different fishing zones, with only one type of gear allowed in each zone. Fishing became a productive activity for local fishers.

The local fishery remained productive for decades. But in the middle of the century, the Brazilian government decided to modernize the fishery. The government made new nylon nets available to anyone who qualified for a bank loan arranged by the government through the Bank of Brazil.

Local fishers did not qualify for the loans and did not have enough capital to purchase the nets on their own. A few wealthy individuals around Valensa did qualify for the loans, and purchased the nylon nets. They hired men who had never fished the estuary before to use the new nets. The local fishers’ management system crumbled. Old and new fishers fought over fishing spots. Eventually, the fishery was overharvested and abandoned.[1]

The Valensa fishery illustrates what is missing in fishing policies around the world. Fishing communities can often establish rules and customs that avoid the tragedy of the commons. All too often, governments fail to support these arrangements and sometimes destroy them irrevocably.

In many coastal waters today, the tragedy of the commons is taking its toll. Severe overfishing is leading to economic ruin, in spite of years of governmental restrictions on gear, catch, and seasons.

Yet the experience of other communities shows that it is possible to avoid this situation through self-regulation that relies on common traditions and rules. Research by Elinor Ostrom has shown that self-regulation can occur where communities have strong local traditions, where boundaries are well defined, where rules are appropriate, and where sanctions are imposed when rules are violated.[2]

The Lobstermen of Matinicus, Maine

Indeed, there is a rich history of community-run fisheries that avoid the tragedy of the commons. Take, for example, lobster fishing off Matinicus Island, Maine, which has been studied by anthropologists Francis P. and Margaret C. Bowles. Fishers claim a well-defined area of approximately 77 square miles around the island.

The island’s lobster fishery has operated successfully for over a century despite many changes—including expansion into regional markets and dramatic improvements in boat style, fishing technology, and navigational equipment. While the number of fishers has deviated little from the original number of 36, fishers move in and out of the fishery. Over the 1970-1982 period, the Bowleses observed that 21 men entered or left the fishery.[3]

Island fishers strictly control who will be accepted into their fishery. One must either live on the island and have island kinship ties or purchase property from a local fisher, who then becomes an informal sponsor. In addition, one must demonstrate a willingness to cooperate with other fishermen and respect their fishing rights and equipment. An individual must also make the necessary investment of wharf access, boat, and traps, an investment that totaled roughly $125,000 in the 1980s.[4]

Fishers actively defend this territory through extralegal means. The Bowleses write that fishers will signal a territory violation by opening the door and tying a half hitch around the buoy of an outsider’s trap. If this signal is ignored, an island lobsterman may haul up the outsider’s traps and dump them together so that the buoys and warps become tangled.[5] If these don’t work, the fishers may cut traps.

James Acheson, who also studied lobster fisheries off Maine’s coast, points out that these arrangements lead to conservation as fishers limit the number of traps they use.[6] Acheson found that local incomes of fishers in the area are almost 40 percent higher than incomes of lobster fishers in the more open areas off Maine’s coast. And fishing is twice as productive.[7]

Self-imposed restrictions in lobstering have existed for over a century. Still, Acheson points out that the Maine government could stop the arrangement at any time by vigorous enforcement of laws affecting trap-cutting. The system exists only because of the benign neglect of the state, he writes.[8]

Scottish Salmon Fisheries

While the state of Maine has simply looked the other way, in a few instances governments actively support community-run management. One example is the management of salmon fisheries in Scotland.

Scotland has had private, transferable rights to salmon fishing for centuries, both in coastal and inland waters. The right to fish for salmon carries with it the right to exclude other fishers from a well-defined area of water.

In addition, Parliament has created 101 salmon fishery districts. Owners of fishing rights in each district form a District Salmon Fishery Board, which taxes its members and uses funds to protect and develop the fishery. Although the government sets some bounds, such as setting fishing dates, each owner is free to determine the level of fishing effort. There is no licensing of fishers or fishing gear and no restriction on the amount of fishing gear or the amount of fish that can be taken.

Despite the absence of extensive government controls, Scottish salmon stocks have not been overfished by commercial fishers. Indeed, the fisheries support a lucrative inland salmon sport fishery on famous rivers such as the lower Tay, Tweed, and the Spey. Recently, the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust (Scotland) Ltd. purchased commercial rights and retired them. The goal: to increase salmon returns for the upstream sport fishery.[9]

Scotland’s salmon fishery, based on private fishing rights, is a success story. However, it is not alone. Where communities can apply and enforce customary rights, they, too, can avoid the tragedy of the commons. Legal recognition of their informal rights would go a long way toward ensuring a productive future for community-run fisheries.

1. John Cordell, The Developmental Ecology of an Estuarine Canoe Fishing System in Northeastern Brazil, Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., 1972.

2. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 90-101.

3. Francis P. Bowles and Margaret C. Bowles, Holding the Line: Property Rights in the Lobster and Herring Fisheries of Matinicus Island, Maine, in A Sea of Small Boats, John Cordell, ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Cultural Survival, Inc., 1989), pp. 228-257, at 239.

4. Bowles and Bowles, p. 236.

5. Bowles and Bowles, p. 243.

6. James Acheson, Capturing the Commons: Legal and Illegal Strategies, in The Political Economy of Customs and Culture: Informal Solutions to the Commons Problem, Terry L. Anderson and Randy T. Simmons, eds. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1993), pp. 69-83, at 73.

7. Acheson, p. 74.

8. Acheson, p. 80.

9. Robert Williamson, Scottish Salmon Fishing Rights: A Transferable Property: The Consequences for Administration and Regulation. Paper presented at ICREI Colloquium, Paris, January 18, 1993, p. 6.