A new study argues that the quality rather than quantity commitment to fisheries regulations is important to look at for successful ecosystem management. Photo: I. Pettersson/Azote

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fisheries management

Bending rules or grudgingly accepting them

New study looks at commitment to fisheries regulations and why it is a matter of quality rather than quantity

Story highlights

  • Current studies of compliance in natural resource use often fail to account for the diverse human motivations that underpin compliance.
  • New conceptual tools to help understand and recognize different human responses towards regulation and authorities.
  • Understanding the quality and resilience of compliance can help anticipate potential shifts from compliant to non- compliance.

Without rules, people tend to overfish. Because of this danger of ‘open access’ fisheries we have regulation. But unfortunately rule breaking comes with rule making: Catches of global fisheries are 50% higher than what is reported. Non-compliance in fisheries – the violation of fishery regulations – remains one of the most tenacious problems standing in the way of the sustainable use of marine ecosystems.

Improving and securing compliance are therefore key objectives of national and international fishery policies. Why, how and when fishers violate rules are crucial questions to consider when the objective is to reduce overfishing.

So far, studies of compliance in fisheries have focused much on explaining why fishers do not follow rules. Much less attention has been paid to the group of fishers that do follow rules, as they are not considered the root of the noncompliance problem. The idea is that if fishers behave according to the stipulated rules, we don’t need to bother any further. The authors of the publication disagree and think we do in fact need to engage more with this group of fishers.

Assessing the quality of compliance and its underlying motivations can help to scrutinize and evaluate the stability of regulations and to adapt management regimes for continued relevance and effectiveness,”

- Wijnand Boonstra

Acknowledging that it is the effectiveness of policy that counts in the end, this new publication pays attention to the ways in which fishers stick to the rules. Centre researchers Wijnand Boonstra and Emma Björkvik, together with Simon Birnbaum from the department of Political Sciences at Stockholm University, assumed that looking at fishers’ perception and attitude towards regulation and authority can tell us something about the strength of compliance in fisheries.

Using social science theory, they identified four possible attitudes that fishers can have in relation to regulation and authority: commitment; resistance; reluctance; and creativity. These attitudes show different degrees of approval towards regulation and authority. They also reflect how removed the fishers feel from authorities, in other words the degree to which fishers pay attention to a set of regulations, ignore or reject it.

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Anecdotal evidence
The quality of compliance cannot be easily measured or observed, because perceptions and attitudes ‘hide’ under compliant fishing practices and a public image of conformity. The methods that are conventionally used in studies of fishers’ compliance, such as modelling and statistical analysis, typically limit the analysis to behaviour only, and are for this reason not well equipped to say something about the quality of compliance.

“This research is based on qualitative interviews with Swedish Baltic Sea fishers, paying special notice to anecdotes that included grievances, cynicism, fantasy thinking, and joking,” explains Björkvik. “Through these anecdotes fishers verbalized and highlighted their attitudes toward regulation and authorities.”

Empirical illustrations from Swedish Baltic fisheries
In Swedish fisheries there are clear examples of fishers who ‘creatively’ comply through for example the ‘flagging out’ of ships by registering them in countries with more lenient fishery regulations, discarding bycatch illegally, or even cutting the stern of boats to remain under a certain vessel size.

The authors also found evidence of reluctant compliance, which refers to an attitude whereby Fishers do not necessarily reject the goals and objectives of regulation out of hand, but rather find issue with the manner in which authorities develop and enforce regulation. For this reason, they try to keep state interventions at bay, and socially distance themselves from authorities.

“When coding and analysing the jokes and anecdotes it was striking how fishers connected fisheries regulation and authorities with a range of other issues, such as the validity of scientific research; the increase in seal and cormorant populations; the negative portrayal of fisheries and fisheries in public and media discourse; and the lack of possibilities for succession and apprenticeship,” says Birnbaum.

“We believe that the feeling of general discontent that was expressed through these grievances indicate how fishers perceive a great social distance between their everyday livelihood and work and how this is understood and evaluated by managers, politicians, media, and the wider Swedish society.”

Why look at the quality of compliance?
Quantitative data measures what you can see. Compliance doesn’t say anything about the level of commitment that fishers feel towards regulation, or their conception about fairness of rules. Knowledge about the quality of compliance, however, can help policymakers and fisheries managers to assess how committed fishers are to follow rules when social or ecological conditions change.

It has happened that a fishery that looked outwardly stable and compliant quickly changed into a noncompliant, unsustainable one. These changes often seem unexpected, sudden and chaotic because not enough attention is paid to structural grievances, attitudes and perceptions. These aspects tend to be considered only in the wake of unrest; when it’s already too late.

Fisheries regulation aiming for social-ecological resilience should find ways to detect and prevent such shifts. When people do not feel a deeper allegiance to or confidence and trust in a management regime, they are much more likely to resist cooperation and straightforward communication, thereby making monitoring for achieving a given level of compliance costlier and far more difficult.

“Assessing the quality of compliance and its underlying motivations can help to scrutinize and evaluate the stability of regulations and to adapt management regimes for continued relevance and effectiveness,” Boonstra concludes.

“Just as marine ecologists do yearly fish stock assessments, social scientists could monitor changes and development of fisher practices and perceptions. As we hope to have shown in this article, there is a packed arsenal of theory and methods in the social sciences that can be used for such an endeavour.”

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The authors conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with 35 Swedish Baltic Sea fishers. The interviews were coded and analysed using social science concepts including social distance acceptance and defiance. Four different kinds of attitudes towards regulations were identified.

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Published: 2016-12-09


Boonstra, W., S. Birnbaum, E. Björkvik. 2016. The quality of compliance: investigating fishers’ responses towards regulation and authorities. Fish and Fisheries.

Wijnand Boonstra is particularly interested in understanding how individual use of ecosystems aggregates to form so-called regimes of ecosystem use. Describing and explaining the complex set of social and ecological conditions and their interaction at micro and macro scales that cause these regimes to shift, is a key research objective.

Emma Björkvik is a PhD student at the centre. Her research focuses on the continuously decline in Nordic coastal fishing, consequences of such decline and if and how these consequences can be avoided. She is particularly interested in understanding how fishers’ working knowledge can be identified and visualized in ways that can contribute to sustainable management and use of marine resources.

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