Thursday, January 24, 2013

Does it take a dictator to manage a fishery?

Last week, I wrote about successful and sustainable fisheries management as conducted by indigenous tribes in the Lower Klamath River basin in northern California. The evidence suggests that these groups maintained sustainable salmon catches and a stable human population by limiting their consumption of salmon. From a societal perspective, there was most likely a positive feedback loop at play. Stable catches led to predictable food sources and trade goods, which in turn allowed people to plan for and develop strong and stable institutions. At the same time, strong and stable institutions must have been necessary to enforce fishing practices that to the self-discipline that let so many salmon escape. I didn’t mention this last week, but these tribes believed that the giant redwood trees in the area were embodiments of their ancestors’ spirits and kept an eye on them to make sure they behaved well. Enforcement was also severe. In the same way that stable catches promoted the development of strong institutions, strong institutions promoted stable catches.

King Kamehameha of Hawaii
The situation was similar in pre-European-contact Hawaii. Complex regulations were made by rulers and their spiritually-associated fisheries managers, called konohiki. Regulations limited catches in certain areas or closed certain fisheries based on a wide range of rationales, including: early indications of a developing shortage, an approaching feast and its food requirements, and access by the powerful to rich fishing grounds. In concert, these regulations aided sustainability through responsiveness to early signs of depletion and by limiting consumption, the two paths to sustainability discussed last week. Like the California tribes and their salmon fishery, Hawaiians bolstered the fisheries rules through regulations and strict enforcement (a common punishment for fisheries violations was being thrown off a cliff to one’s death). Once again, stable fisheries promoted strong social institutions and those strong institutions promoted stable fisheries.

Cuba serves as a modern example. Strong institutions there have led to unusually healthy marine environments (although not without ongoing problems), a phenomenon described by Jaws author Peter Benchley. Religion is not a part of their system, but an authoritarian government surely has contributed.

San hunter
This brings up the fascinating question: do we need authoritarian rule to have a sustainable environment? There are examples of people who managed natural resources without social hierarchies. The San (Bushmen) of the Kalahari Desert and aborigines of Australia both have classless societies without the concepts of ownership, and have lived in balance with their natural environments for millennia. However, they are not necessarily good examples for us to follow. Both societies are severely limited by water supply and many of their cultural practices are centered around finding and sharing water during droughts. Their social systems, including clan-based matching for marriages, promotes reliance on each other for support when scarcity hits one area but not another. Trade already promotes the spread of risk across areas in our modern society, plus our environmental issues are increasingly global and so not ones we can address by making the world more interconnected.

I leave this blog with a question to you, interested reader (or two): can we address the environmental challenges of our time with our modern institutions? On a global level, the United Nations lacks much authority. In an increasing number of countries, governments are turning to democracy, which usually lacks the sort of authoritarian structure that was used to good effect in northern California, Hawaii, and Cuba. Nevertheless, I hold hopes in two somewhat conflicting directions. I have faith in the ability for resource users to grasp the challenges we face and embrace proactive solutions. This is a major emphasis of our work at Bridge Environment. I also believe we could move in a direction of stronger environmental institutions. It seems to me there would be significant costs of doing so, but that environmental crises may prompt us to move in this more authoritarian direction. I would rather see us move towards co-management with involved resource users, but recognize that the second would be preferable to devastation. I hope to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Thoughtfully yours,

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