Lobster Trap Limits: A Solution to a Communal Action Problem

Article excerpt

Most major fisheries of the world are becoming depleted, largely by human over-exploitation. The basic problem is that fishers cannot or will not generate rules to conserve the resources upon which their livelihood depends. They are unable to solve this communal action dilemma although all would gain. Some fisher groups have been able to establish conservation-oriented guidelines either by lobbying the state (a centralized solution) or by generating self-imposed rules (a decentralized solution). We analyze the factors that allow lobster fishers on four Maine islands to benefit from self-imposed trap limits while most other lobster fishers must await decisions of the state legislature. It is argued that Knight's bargaining theory of norm development explains the trap limit. At root, trap limit rules are the result of a distributional fight over the resource. However, a number of other factors are necessary for fishers to constrain themselves informally. This case modifies and extends the use of rational choice theory in understanding the generation of rules for conserving resources.

Key words: lobster industry, rational choice, local level management; US, Maine

One of the key issues facing resource management is the conditions under which people erect effective and workable rules to conserve the resources on which their livelihoods depend. All too often, natural resources are overexploited. Globally, forests, fish stocks, wildlife, air, soils, and water quality have all declined in recent decades in large part as a result of human abuse. However, resource degradation is not inevitable. Recently, a number of cases have come to light in which resource users have generated effective conservation rules informally at the local level or by approaching governmental authorities (e.g., Anderson and Simmons 1993; Berkes 1989; McCay and Acheson 1987; Pinkerton 1989; Ruddle and Akimichi 1984). What is unclear is why resource users select one strategy over the other, or indeed when they will generate rules at all. This article attempts to address these questions by analyzing the efforts of the Maine lobster fishery to impose a trap limit. The conditions under which fishermen will support efforts to generate conservation rules is an important question in a time when many of the world's major fisheries are in a state of crisis (Acheson and Wilson 1996; McGoodwin 1990).

The Maine lobster fishery has had unusual success in developing conservation rules. Most notably, in the 1870s and 1880s it lobbied successfully for size limitations and a ban on taking egged females; in 1933, it played an important role in getting the Maine Legislature to pass the "double gauge law" specifying a minimum and maximum size limit (Acheson 1996). In 1948, the "V-Notch" law was passed allowing all fishermen to voluntarily mark egged females with a notch in the tail. These females may never be taken. In 1978, the Maine Lobstermen's Association was instrumental in getting an escape vent law passed. These conservation laws have contributed to maintaining high, stable catch levels since 1947 (Acheson 1996).1

However, since the 1950s the lobster industry has run into substantial obstacles in its repeated attempts to get a trap limit through legislation.2 All bills have been defeated except for one bill passed in 1995 limiting a license holder to a maximum of 1200 traps. However, in earlier decades the fishermen of four Maine island communities developed trap limits for themselves. In two cases these limits have been completely informal "gentlemen's agreements." Two other island communities have agreed on trap limits and have had them formalized by the State of Maine.3 The question these cases raise is: Why have the four island communities been able to provide themselves with trap limit regulations when the vast majority of Maine communities have had no recourse but to endure the frustrating process of repeatedly approaching the Legislature? …