A spark for collective action: Challenges and opportunities for self-governance in temporary fisher-designed Fish Refuges in Mexico

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Despite decades of study, the question of how to achieve sustainable small-scale fisheries is unresolved. Because small-scale fishing is diverse and hard to control, one management approach places fishers at the center of decision-making. Common-pool resource theory has assembled a large body of evidence that resource users, without top-down state control, are able to devise and enforce rules that lead to long-term sustainable resource harvest. The social and ecological characteristics (“design principles”) are well known for systems where this collective action is predicted to spontaneously emerge. However, it is poorly known what precipitates collective action when these design principles are absent. This dissertation draws insights about this question from a seemingly successful case from Baja California Sur, Mexico, where fishers have voluntarily created no-fishing areas (“Fish Refuges” or “Zonas de Refugio Pesquero”) in collaboration with the government fisheries agency and a non-governmental organization, Niparajá, in the absence of the design principles. This work is based on an in-depth study of these Fish Refuges including 180 days in the field from 2016-2018, participant observation, informal interviews, journaling, and semi-structured interviews (n=66). First, I found that collective action was possible because stakeholders had three competing visions about what the Fish Refuges were, each associated with criteria and evidence of whether the Fish Refuges were effective. This implies that policy flexibility to accommodate competing goals and evaluation criteria could facilitate collaboration for fisheries management. Second, I found that fishers’ knowledge was integrated in a process that did not recognize its legitimacy though what I call “ping-pong hybridization”, where the locus of decision making moved between stakeholders who could draw on their own knowledge systems. This implies that policies may be able to integrate multiple knowledge systems if the locus of decision-making moves back and forth. Third, I found that the property rights regime change away from de facto open access was possible because fishers were able to trade formal fishing rights for informal management rights, closing a fishing area to gain government trust and partnership. This work implies that insecure, unofficial, and tenuous property rights may be a first step of property rights regime change to achieve sustainable fisheries. In conclusion, bottom-up approaches to fisheries management may benefit from processes where different stakeholders can define the goals and methods used, and draw on their own knowledge systems to assess success. Shifts away from open access may be precipitated when fishers demand decision-making rights, even if these rights are tenuous.





Quintana, Anastasia Compton Eluned (2020). A spark for collective action: Challenges and opportunities for self-governance in temporary fisher-designed Fish Refuges in Mexico. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20865.


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