Reflections on “Overfishing, free-riders and reinventing collective action” (September 25 2009): in defense of community-based fisheries management

The first of the 2009-10 MSE speakers series, September 25, explored problems and possible solutions in an open access fishery in eastern Africa. Profs Vaccaro, Chapman and Chapman have based their study around Nabugabo Lake, a satellite lake of Lake Victoria. The management problem at hand: how to regulate an inland fishery in which there are no clear boundaries of ownership, and “traditional” methods of enforcing fishing limits (such as quotas) do not appear to work. The tool already in place: beach management units (BMUs). This tool is designed to control access to fishing by controlling access to boat launching areas. It fails because it cannot control where boats go once they are in the water, and therefore cannot control where people are fishing. The aim of the presented project is to develop ecologically relevant, enforceable fishing boundaries within the lake which correspond with the BMUs already in place. In the best case scenario, they will find that there are discreet habitats within the lake that correspond with fish populations, which can then be divided into manageable units. This creates the necessary conditions for incentives to limit access to a particular part of the fishery, and to manage well that part, because these conditions of territoriality allow a link between management and benefits incurred by good management. This link is what is lacking when access is open.

This point about incentives is something that came up often during the talk and ensuing discussion period, as a key to the success or failure of the management program. There was debate from members of the audience over whether BMUs were the best way to manage this fishery. It was suggested that something simpler, such as limiting the number of boats on the lake, might be an easier way to manage it. However, a problem with this method of management is that it externalizes responsibility for enforcing the rules, rewarding those who break them by launching their boat from a hidden beach, or taking and hiding more than their share of the quota. In the worst case, it turns the fishery into a cat-and-mouse game between the people fishing and the people employed to enforce fisheries laws. Off the east coast of Canada, when the DFO tried to limit fish takes by limiting the length of fishing boats, people simply changed the design of their boats, building them deeper (in some cases resulting in maladaptive designs that led to accidents). When fisheries management depends solely on external enforcement, success depends on resources available (manpower and money) to enforce, resources that may not always be there. A community-based approach, on the other hand, seeks to internalize enforcement through creation of incentives for proper management within the management unit, elimination of free-riders, and enforcement of institutionalized boundaries. It links the task of managing a particular unit well with the benefits incurred by good management: ultimately, the users become the enforcers. 

Certainly, there are other aspects of community-based management that are necessary for success. Elinor Ostrom,  in “Designing complexity to govern complexity” (in Hanna and Munasinghe, Property Rights and the Environment, 1995), suggests that success depends also on methods of collective decision making, monitoring, graduated sanctions against members of the community who break the rules, mechanisms to resolve conflicts within the community of users, and recognition of the right of the community to manage the resource by the larger community (state), which is aided by a nesting of enterprises: management units within networks of management units, ultimately within the state or region.

The current study on Nabugabo Lake is intended as a case study. What is unclear to me is whether what is learned in this exercise can be scaled up to the much larger Lake Victoria, which is the ultimate ambition of this project. The question of scale is important in this case, because according to collective action theory, such management programs require that management units be small, and tend to fall apart when groups grow too large. And in the case of Lake Victoria, the problem is not simply that of size, but also international jurisdiction. The lake is shared by three countries, which may make enforcement of territories within the lake much more complex. However, success in managing Lake Nabugabo may go a long way toward building the case for international cooperation in implementing a similar management strategy in Lake Victoria.

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