While representing the model of integrative research in both natural and social sciences, the McGill School of the Environment Speaker Series seminar : Like herding fish: overfishing, free riders and reinventing collective action in Eastern Africa’s lakes, raises questions regarding the implementation of foreign ideologies towards resource management.
The seminar focused on the complexity of the social and ecological crisis of overfishing in the lakes of East Africa. From a biological perspective, humans have a massive impact on fish species populations, and the health of the lake ecosystems. Socially, many drivers including the political structure of the region, the economically lucrative export market and the nutritional needs of the local populations affect overfishing. This complex relationship of biological and social processes is unique to human ecology, and merits a multidisciplinary study. The research methods described by the speakers, including the collection of biologically relevant data on fish species abundance, population structure and habitat use, as well as the analysis of trade networks and interviews of fishermen about the size of their catches and their knowledge of the lakes, provides a framework for other human ecological studies.
The researchers asserted that the depletion of fish stocks in East African Lakes is a result of an open access resource system, in which no property rights are assigned. Because there is no harvest limit or territorial boundaries, these systems are susceptible to overuse, as in the classic case of the Tragedy of the Commons. The current inland fisheries management system in East Africa is organized into small Beach Management Units (BMUs), which regulate the number of fishermen and the type of gear, but possess little authoritative power.
The speakers assumed that assigning exclusive fishing rights on sections of the lake to the BMUs would promote conservation and diminish over exploitation of the resource. Their assumption, which is founded upon the economic theories on property rights and collective action, yields the conclusion that the introduction of legal jurisdiction over an area of the lake will provide the incentive for the BMUs to actively patrol their boundary and punish the offenders.
What concerns me about this approach is the lack of cultural sensitivity. The concept of property rights and exclusive use is imbedded in Western ideology and culture. The speakers were unconvincing with regards to whether such a system would be accepted by the people of the region. I also question whether the transfer of this ideology to regulate fishing could have cultural ramifications in other aspects of East African society. Introducing territoriality could disrupt the social, political and economic relationships beyond the realm of fishing. Instead of solutions to overfishing being developed by foreign researchers, who adhere to a particular ideology, perhaps they should evolve from community-based initiatives within the affected region, such as brainstorming sessions of possible solutions between the fishermen and policy-makers. Because it would be designed by the creativity and experiences of local people, this type of solution is may be more likely to produce a sustainable and achievable outcome.