Zanzibar fishers with net and drags the catch of the day up in the boat. A recent study interviewed 240 fishers from Tanzanian coastal communities and asked how they would respond to an hypothetical decline in the fish stocks. The majority of the fishers said they would respond to the decline by fishing even harder and invest in better equipment to catch what is available. Photo: M. Rust/Azote

The flipside of adaptation

Negative long-term effects of adaptation can outweigh positive short-term gains. Scenario planning can help strike a balance.

When talking about environmental change, adaptation and adaptive capacity are generally considered to be desirable and something positive. However, when looking at problems through a broader social-ecological lens, responses that appear desirable in the short term may actually be undesirable in the long term.
Certain responses, which from a social perspective can be viewed as positive in the short term, may feedback into the ecological system, eroding the resilience of the wider social-ecological system.
In a recent study conducted by science director Carl Folke together with researchers in Australia and the UK, 240 fishers from nine Tanzanian coastal communities were asked how they would respond to an hypothetical decline in the fish stocks.
Adaptation not a straighforward thing
The study revealed that the majority of the fishers said they would respond to the decline by fishing even harder and invest in better equipment to catch what is available rather than reducing their fishing or stop fishing entirely in order to reduce the pressure on the fish stock.
The fishers' response to the scenario of a decline in the fish catch shows that adaptation to change is not a straightforward positive thing.
For example, the fishers' responses to declining stocks by increasing their efforts, fishing further afield or changing gear, all have the potential to sequentially deplete fish and amplify marine resource depletion at a larger scale.
"Ultimately, and somewhat ironically, the fishermens' short-term positive adaptation to depleting fish stocks may in the end force them out of business", Carl Folke says.
Less could be more in the long run
An increasingly used approach in adaptation thinking is the resilience-based adaptation model which simultaneously considers social and ecologial aspects together as a linked social-ecological system.
The focus of this approach is on building sources of resilience and adaptive capacity which enable adaptations to change that do not further degrade environmental resources.
In the study of fishermen in Tanzania, scenarios were used to understand how fishers in Tanzania would respond to severe decline in their average catch. Centre researchers have previously shown how scenario-planning can help small-scale farmers in dryland areas make the right decisions when investing in water management technologies.
Visualising the future
This methodology, the researchers say, gives stakeholders a better way to visualise future pathways and at an early stage develop strategies that in the longer term are more sustainable.
"Our findings suggest that by including scenarios, it may be possible to tailor development or capacity building strategies to favour more long-term sustainable responses to environmental change rather than focusing on the immediate short-term gains", Carl Folke says.
He argues that the challenge for policy makers, managers and governance is to create incentives that support fishers who are willing to reduce their fishing rather than increasing it in times of low productivity.

See video interview with centre researcher Garry Peterson explaining the benefits of scenario-planning:

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Cinner, J. E., et al., Responding to change: Using scenarios to understand how socioeconomic factors may influence amplifying or dampening exploitation feedbacks amongTanzanian fishers. Global Environ.Change (2010), doi:10.1016/ j.gloenvcha.2010.09.001

About the centre author:

Carl Folke is Science Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He has extensive experience in transdisciplinary collaboration between natural and social scientists, and has worked with ecosystem dynamics and services as well as the social and economic dimension of ecosystem management and proactive measures to manage resilience.


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

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