Local Fishing Groups Hold the Tools for Sustainable Fishing, but Need the Strength of Property Rights

If fishers don't have property rights to fisheries, what's to stop someone else from overharvesting the resource? One solution is fisheries cooperatives. But are they working?

When you own something you have an incentive to take care of it. That’s the idea behind property rights for fisheries and other natural resources.

The collapse of fisheries worldwide is in part due to the fact that fishermen rarely have property rights to fisheries. Without property rights, if a fisherman leaves some fish in the sea to fish in the future, he has no way to prevent the next fisherman from catching the fish.

It only makes sense for him to catch as much fish as he can today. This tragedy of the commons — and the solution of property rights — is well known by researchers and policymakers.

In practice, however, properties rights for fisheries have been challenging and there is little empirical evidence of success. Common property rights schemes such as tradable quotas (i.e., a right to fish that can be sold) require costly monitoring and enforcement by governments.

The high cost makes these schemes especially difficult for countries that already have limited capacity to manage natural resources. These are often the countries where healthy fisheries matter the most for people’s livelihoods and for biodiversity.

One solution that has been considered in Mexico and elsewhere is to assign property rights to fishing cooperatives. We — a team of researchers from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Brown University, University of Maine, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography — studied whether or not this solution was working in Baja, Mexico.

We examined three years of environmental data and daily logbook data that was shared with us by leaders of three fishing cooperatives. We recently published our findings in the World Bank Economic Review.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Sheila Walsh Reddy)
Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Sheila Walsh Reddy)

First, why fishing cooperatives? Fishing cooperatives are local organizations of fishermen that work together to fish by sharing equipment, information, and sometimes profits. Fishing cooperatives already have the tools to control who fishes and how much. They can control membership, enforce territory, and change the price they pay to members for fish.

The strength of the fishing cooperatives’ incentives to control fishing, however, may depend on how likely they are to see a pay-back from controlling fishing. And, this payback depends on ecology and property rights. If fish are wide-ranging, the fish that a fisherman saves for the future could just swim into another fisherman’s territory. If competition is fierce because a cooperative does not have property rights, it will be more costly to keep other fishermen out of their territory.

Said another way, the incentives for sustainability may be strongest when fish species are local and property rights reduce competition.

To test these predictions, we looked at how fishing cooperatives control fishing and respond to declines in the fisheries that signal to the fishermen that they need to reduce fishing. We compared the responses of fishing cooperatives with and without formal property rights. We also compared the fishing cooperatives’ responses for local and wide-ranging species.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Sheila Walsh Reddy)
Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Sheila Walsh Reddy)

We found that the fishing cooperative with formal property rights paid the lowest price for fish — especially local species — and it further reduced its prices when the species were in decline. This behavior is consistent with long-run sustainability because lower prices can reduce overfishing today, while ensuring sustainable fish populations and livelihoods in the future.

Given that these results are only from three fishing cooperatives, an important next step would be to see whether the results hold for more a representative set of fishing cooperatives. This could be done as part of a pilot program or in other places where fishing groups have property rights, such as Maine and Chile.

The results of this study suggest that giving fishing cooperatives property rights could be a solution to manage local fish species sustainably. Fishing cooperatives could fill an important gap in fisheries governance capacity in some countries. However, national or regional fisheries management would still be needed for more wide-ranging species.

A more general lesson of the study is that the success of conservation solutions depends critically on ecological and human factors. This means that we need an evidence base for human behavior and well-being that is as robust as our ecological evidence base. It echoes the call for a new and growing evidence base to support TNC and other conservation organization as we update our conservation approaches.

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  1. Layla Osman says:

    This is a great article Sheila! congratulations!!!

  2. Steve Scott says:

    I’ve spent over 30yrs. vacationing on the Pacific side of Baja on surfing trips, where I’ve become friends with many of the local fishermen and their “co-ops”. I fish myself, from the beach, bluffs and a small inflatable boat. I know their struggle, to deal with the dangerous conditions, the fish populations and the price of fish on the co-op’s market. It has improved their lives over the decades, in most areas I’ve visited.
    Still, it’s a hard life to make a living for their families. Especially, when the “traveling fishermen” from the bigger towns like Ensenada, El Rosario/San Quintin and Constitution travel to the smaller coastal towns and over-fish these “non-home” localities. The locals don’t like it. They do their best to regulate and control their areas, but the backdoor payoffs to officials is what is ruining it for these locals. It took nearly 15yrs. for Baja to recover from the Japanese trawlers that raped their coasts back in the 80’s. Hopefully, the government officials won’t contribute to a similar catastrophe in these remote areas with their questionable practices. But, from what I’ve seen, the cooperatives have helped sustainable fisheries.