Commentary on “Like herding fish: overfishing, free riders and reinventing collective action in Eastern Africa’s lakes” (Friday, September 25, 2009)

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. 

2 Responses to “Commentary on “Like herding fish: overfishing, free riders and reinventing collective action in Eastern Africa’s lakes” (Friday, September 25, 2009)”

  1. Raquel says:

    Hi Natalie,
    I think our concerns are somehow related. You´ve mentioned ‘cultural sensitivity’ and the will of people of the region. As I see it, countries and politics are socially and culturally constructed. The community´s behavior, interests and ideas pretty much shape States. Therefore, disregarding local people´s preferences and knowledge means, to a certain extent, disregarding National States and their policies.

    On the other hand, I would argue that even tough local fishermen may not be aware of the western notion of exclusive rights, they are represented by countries that are fully conscious and informed about such a concept. So much so that they´ve been fighting for property rights over an island in Lake Victoria. An island that has much to do with fishing. I know that this may be interpreted as a contradiction to my previous comment, but that´s how I see things right now. Cheers! = )

  2. rachel says:

    I agree with you, Natalie, that the parachuting in of foreign “experts” can lead to problems, and is at its worst a new kind of imperialism. I’m not convince, however, that this is what is going on here. In response to a question over why they were focusing on BMUs as a unit of management, Prof Lauren Chapman said that they were continuing to use this tool because this is what the local community has put in place and what their local collaborators would like to continue using, not because they necessarily think it is the best tool. This suggests to me that they are collaborators invited to take part in this project, not the instigators of it. As for the question of creating exclusive property rights, presumably these already exist: I assume people own their own fishing boats and equipment. And the institutionalization of BMUs and lake access does not actually create individual rights, but community rights. It is then the role of the community to distribute to individuals access to the shared resource. This method of resource access is not inherently western: it is used by Japanese inshore fisheries cooperatives and Canadian west coast First Nations management systems, among others. The research presented in this talk is not the end of the line, it only provides the data that is necessary for setting up this kind of management system; ultimately this information needs to be taken up by the local community to devise its own system of management.