‘Roving bandits' threaten marine resources

Local fishing industries fall victim to commercial marine trading indifference

Unsustainable fishing practices by roving bandits can overwhelm governance systems causing local damage to fisheries. Photo: S. Zeff/Azote
- Overfishing increasingly threatens the world's marine ecosystems and relatively little attention is paid to the expanding depletion of harvested resources. Marine areas rich in valuable fish stocks are not being sufficiently protected either by local government or by international regulations.

These are the key findings from research conducted by centre researchers Henrik Österblom and Beatrice Crona, with colleagues. In their Science article Globalisation — Roving bandits and Marine Resources, they describe how market demands put a growing strain on local marine resources.

Now The Swedish FAO committee have taken an interest in the issue.
- It is uplifting that the Swedish FAO committee follows up on this. There is a growing awareness that illegal fisheries and roving bandits are important barriers to sustainability. It is very interesting to note that our efforts as scientists to map these phenomenon only a few years ago, is already making its way into this discussion paper primarily aimed to policy makers, which we hope can influence the priorities of the Swedish FAO committee, says Henrik Österblom.
Rapidly changing market demands
In their report to the Swedish FAO committee, Österblom and Crona describe how mobile traders, better know as ‘roving bandits´, take advantage of slack trade rules and ruthlessly harvest from unprotected marine resources in order to feed the growing market demands. The result is a depletion of local fish stocks that literally pushes the boundaries for what is sustainable exploitation.
In scientific circles, the effect of roving bandits have been coined as 'the tragedy of commons', whereby a freely accessible resource is competently depleted. Whatever is not taken by one harvester, will be taken by the next.
The unregulated harvest for green sea urchins in Maine during the mid-1980s is an example of this. Following the depletion of its main predator, cod, green sea urchins grew so rapidly in numbers that it drew the attention of the Japanese sushi market, which is known for its dependence on sea urchins.
Spurred by Japanese market demand, an unregulated harvest began in 1987. Within ten years, the green sea urchin population had almost become extinct.
- This is the result of market dynamics developing so fast that local institutions fail to delay the exploitation of the resources available, says Beatrice Crona.

Increasing ecological vulnerability
Furthermore, the change of food webs and decreasing biodiversity erodes the resilience of marine ecosystems and renders them vulnerable to environmental changes.
- The increasing fishing pressure on coral reefs is a result of increasing market demands from areas such as restaurants and aquariums. This has led to overfished reefs left increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes and mortality caused by global warning, Crona says.
Multilevel problem solving necessary
So far, Österblom and Crona say, attempts to halt the rapid exploitation have proven inefficient, mainly because present regulations fail to be enacted in time. Once the regulations have been put in place, the resources have already been harvested close to the point of extinction, in many cases.
Together with fellow author Beatrice Crona, Österblom recommends specific action to be taken in order to reverse the expanding depletion of harvested species:
- Appropriate restraining institutions must be put in place before the supply is at risk

- Global, regional and national bodies must monitor trade and resource trends and disseminate problem-solving information

- Harvesting permits, certification and control over delivery of products must be implemented in order to slow down the commercial demand

- Property rights and co-management regimes must encourage local protection
Furthermore, multilevel governance institutions operating on both a local and international level are necessary in order to help any initiatives to succeed.

Source: Crona, B. and Österblom, H., 2008,  Swedish FAO Committee Publication series 5 ISSN: 1652-9316

The figure shows the spatially expanding depletion of sea urchins between 1945 and 1995. Graphics: David Bellwood, James Cook University, Australia.



Crona, B. and Österblom, H., 2008,  Swedish FAO Committee Publication series 5 ISSN: 1652-9316
Beatrice Crona started her Assistant Professorship at the centre in May 2008. Her work at the center has several strands: One is focused on different knowledge systems used for management of natural resources as well as the factors that affects how resource users (and managers) build their knowledge of the resource.
Henrik Österblom is a joint theme leader for Governance and ecosystem management of coastal and marine systems. Henrik has a PhD in marine ecology from Stockholm University and his thesis work was mainly focused on the effects of fisheries and fish stock dynamics on marine birds, and interest he gained from Triangle Island field station in the North East Pacific.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University, Kräftriket 2B
Phone: +46 8 674 70 70

Organisation number: 202100-3062
VAT No: SE202100306201