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A Social Wellbeing Approach to the Global Fisheries Crisis

August 3, 2011

Thanks to SeaWeb for highlighting a new paper on the human dimensions of (successful) fisheries management.  Quoting SeaWeb for the summary:

[A]ccording to a recent paper in Global Environmental Change, standard fisheries policy and management approaches continue to be dominated by biological and economic frameworks “whose main purpose is to reduce fishing effort and to remove fishers from those ecosystems perceived as under threat.”

The result, write the paper’s authors, led by Sarah Coulthard of the University of Ulster, is that the social and cultural dimensions of peoples’ lives and livelihoods are left as a “second order” concern; this can lead to rejection or disregard of various regulatory instruments (e.g., quotas, licensing, property rights, marine protected areas), social and economic marginalization and conflict, and even violent challenges to governance structures.

This fits nicely with my point made last week that economic approaches have dominated thinking on how to affect compliance. I suggested that we might get to better outcomes by considering personal/group moralities and issues of legitimacy in creating and implementing fisheries management policy.

I really like the points made in this paper. Here are my takeaways:

1. There are many assumptions about fishermen, and we ought to question them. The authors touch on several assumptions and conclude:

The assumptions that fisheries are open access and that fishers are uniformly poor and that their occupation is low status are not widely borne out.  A large literature has grown up since the 1980s showing the high prevalence of commons institutions in small scale fisheries for the regulation of access to fisheries resources.  Similarly, research has shown that fisher populations, or parts of fisher populations may be comparatively well off or comparable to other non-fisher groups…[t]he job satisfaction and overall wellbeing of fishers may be comparatively high.

 2. It is important to consider the heterogeneous characteristics of fishermen across and within fisheries.

[D]imensions of heterogeneity are seldom taken into account in mainstream fisheries policy analyses but there are good grounds to believe that they are important in how different fisheres will respond to management and policy regimes…[t]he consequences can be a sense of injustice that serves to reduce the legitimacy of indiscriminate policy approaches.

3. A Social Wellbeing framework can reorient policy-making to better consider fishermen, their needs and constraints.  This framework is explained in study, and would bring three categories of information into the fold of policy-making: wellbeing outcomes; the relationships and processes that people engage in their efforts to achieve wellbeing; and the social structures that enable or constrain them in their efforts.  As an example of this sort of information, the authors highlight that:

Amongst the members of small-scale fishing communities who fish as sea, there is usually a profound pride in their occupational identity as fishers and a correspondingly high devotion to the fishing way of life. [appears as a quote]

4. Considering fishermen’s wellbeing won’t make policy-making any easier, but it will make it more realistic.  And since the poor are usually the losers in fishery effort reductions, they finish with their consideration.  Pithy and to the point:

None of this analysis implies that hard choices in fisheries policy are made any easier by adopting a human wellbeing analysis, but it argues that realistic policy and governance processes which are also concerned with poverty reduction must find ways of handling these rather than assuming them away.


Coulthard, S., Johnson, D., & McGregor, J. (2011). Poverty, sustainability and human wellbeing: A social wellbeing approach to the global fisheries crisis Global Environmental Change, 21 (2), 453-463 DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.01.003

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