Institutional Innovation: Market Change and Policy Choice in Cooperative Fishery Governance

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Sustainable management of marine natural resources, and the social-ecological systems in which they are embedded, presents one of the most significant challenges in contemporary environmental policy. Despite improvement in the ecological sustainability and economic performance of fisheries in the United States, these trends are not universal and management remains highly contentious. With fisheries moving towards more collaborative and participatory policy processes, understanding how social and economic relations among stakeholders may influence institutional change is critical to supporting democratic and effective resource management. This dissertation builds on research from common-pool resource theory and political economy to explore the incentives and processes of self-governance in fisheries embedded in global commercial supply chains and state management institutions. It contributes to our understanding of participatory policy-making by addressing the research questions: Why and how do resource users self-govern through the policy process? How are policy preferences and negotiations shaped by market structures and social relations of production?

These questions are investigated empirically by tracing market and policy changes over time in a commercial, small-scale, U.S. fishery. This dissertation examines origins and evolution of regulations, cooperative management institutions, and commercialization processes in the California sea urchin fishery, where harvesters and processors have seen major shifts in market geography and structure, and have initiated self-governance through the state’s policy process. Using a multi-level governance framework and institutional analysis tools, this dissertation draws on document archives, interviews and participant observation of policy and commercial production processes to construct a detailed policy history. It incorporates micro- and macro-level trade data and employs global value chain analyses to examine shifting seafood market geographies over time, and uniquely synthesizes the parallel economic and political timelines to explore dynamic interactions between them, focusing on how markets and other social and ecological factors shaped motivations in crafting policy.

Overall, this research reveals a diverse set of values and incentives at the heart of policy choice and change in the fishery. Cooperative management can be a tool to meet the costs of regulating (time, money, information and political leverage), evolving as participants learn and build social capital through the collective action experience, and adjust collective goals in response social and ecological change. States can empower effective producer collective action through particularly forms of institutional support, such as oversight to hold leaders accountable to members. Findings also reveal complex dynamic linkages between markets, harvesting strategies, and policy choice. Regulations are crafted to match market conditions, equitably distribute costs among divers, processors, and the state, and achieve other social objectives such as intergenerational access and individual freedom. They are also adjusted in response to changing markets, outcomes of previous regulations, and state policy agendas. Together, these findings can inform ongoing efforts to move towards participatory and cooperative fisheries management, particularly in the U.S. and similar contexts, by revealing the specific ways that commercial seafood markets shape, and are shaped by, the policy process and regulatory outcomes.





Clark, Elizabeth C (2017). Institutional Innovation: Market Change and Policy Choice in Cooperative Fishery Governance. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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