Property as a Social Relation: Rights of "Kindness" and the Social Organization of Lobster Fishing among Northeastern Nova Scotian Scottish Gaels

By Wagner, John; Davis, Anthony | Human Organization, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Property as a Social Relation: Rights of "Kindness" and the Social Organization of Lobster Fishing among Northeastern Nova Scotian Scottish Gaels


Wagner, John, Davis, Anthony, Human Organization


This paper describes the informal system of property rights that characterizes the commercially valuable lobster fishery pursued in St. George's Bay, northeastern Nova Scotia, by the descendents of Scottish Gaels. In this setting, discrete familydefined but individually "owned" lobster fishing berths coexist cheek by jowl with a "common ground" fishery. The principles governing the berth system derive, in part, from a land-based system of usufruct rights termed "kindnesses" in 18th century Scotland. The historical, familial, and community attributes of the berth system are outlined, as are the characteristics of the coexistent common ground fishery. Lobster harvesters with berth rights and many without argue that the berth system, in and of itself, is an effective conservation mechanism. This contention is described and discussed in relation to historical evidence respecting local lobster landings and recruitment characteristics. The paper concludes by arguing, first of all, that regulatory authorities should pay far more attention to the role played by informal property rights systems in accomplishing the goals of conservation and good management. While fisheries of this type are typically described in the literature as common property systems, we argue that they are, in fact, mixed property systems-a fact not adequately accounted for by existing regulatory policy or common property theory.

Key words: property, social history, fisheries management, Nova Scotia

In the St. George's Bay region of northeastern Nova Scotia, lobsters are the mainstay of the small-boat fishing economy. This is particularly true along the western side of the bay (see Figure 1) where, since 1985, lobster landings and values have steadily increased, recently reaching their highest levels in over a century. This increase in both landings and values has been a godsend for fish harvesters struggling to survive in the face of the recent, devastating collapse of groundfish populations and declarations by government of groundfishing moratoria. (Groundfish are demersal fish species; such as cod, halibut, haddock, and pollock, that feed at or near the ocean floor.) During the 1990s, income from lobster fishing rose to just over 80 percent of all small-boat fishing income in this area (DFO 2000). Snow crab, herring, and tuna fisheries are next in economic importance, with modest contributions from black back (flounder), mackerel, and scallop fisheries.

The rise in lobster landings over the past decade and a half can be attributed partly to ecological factors-warmer than usual water temperatures, in particular, which result in faster growth and a more active breeding cycle for Atlantic lobster (Homarus americanus). Since several species of groundfish are also known to feed on juvenile lobster, at least opportunistically if not as a first preference (Davis et al. 2004), it is likely that the collapse of groundfish populations has also contributed to the increase in lobster populations. But local management practices themselves are also one of the key factors leading to the current robust state of the fishery in this corner of Nova Scotia.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is the government agency formally responsible for regulating the lobster industry. Its current approach is to limit the number of fishing licenses within each of 41 numbered lobster fishing areas (LFAs) within the Atlantic region; to limit the number of traps each licensed fish harvesters can use; to restrict fishing to a particular season; and to disallow the capture of egg-bearing females, immature lobsters, and, in some fishing areas, lobsters that fall above or within a specified size threshold. This regulatory approach has developed gradually over a period of about 130 years. Though local fish harvesters have no real authority when it comes to setting regulations, many regulations either have been introduced or modified through harvester interventions (Davis and Maclnnes 1996; DeWolf 1974). …

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