Academic journal article Human Organization

Lobster and Groundfish Management in the Gulf of Maine: A Rational Choice Perspective

Academic journal article Human Organization

Lobster and Groundfish Management in the Gulf of Maine: A Rational Choice Perspective

Article excerpt

Many of the world's most important fisheries are in a state of crisis. The Maine lobster industry is one of the very few exceptions, with catches at an all time high. Much of the success of this fishery stems from effective conservation legislation, passed largely through the long-term lobbying activities of powerful factions within the industry itself. In stark contrast is the Maine groundfishery, where stocks and catches have never been so low. This industry has had to deal with a top-down management system that has given it little incentive to conserve and has made it virtually impossible to get rules the industry considers effective. They have responded by using a roving bandit strategy. From the perspective of rational choice theory, the basic difference is that the lobster industry has been able to organize politically to get legislation to solve its communal action dilemma, while the groundfishing industry, like most fishing industries, has not. This paper explores the biological, technical, economic, social, and political factors underlying the differential ability of these two industries to develop effective conservation legislation. These data contribute to answering one of the most important questions facing resource management at present-namely, under what conditions will resource users develop rules to sustain the resources on which their livelihood depends?

Key words: rational choice, fisheries management, lobster industry, groundfish industry, Maine


In worldwide perspective, efforts to manage marine fisheries have not been notably successful. At present, some 70 percent of marine fisheries are in a state of crisis or clearly over-exploited. Many of these fisheries have been under scientific management by governments for decades. A few fisheries have been quite successful. In this article I compare two Gulf of Maine fisheries, the lobster fishery, where stocks and catches are at historic highs, and the groundfishery where stocks are currently at 500-year lows. The key question is: Why has one industry been able to develop more effective management rules then the other? In this paper, I argue that the characteristics of the groundfishing industry, in combination with the top-down nature of federal management, have impeded the development of "effective" management plans. The groundfishery has responded to this regulatory environment by resisting management efforts and by using a roving bandit strategy-focusing on one stock offish until it is depleted and then moving on to another (Wilson 2006). In the lobster fishery, there is a strong sense of stewardship, political support for conservation, and fisheries conservation legislation that appears to be effective. Comparing these two cases allows us come to some practical conclusions about the conditions under which effective conservation rules are generated.

Factors Influencing Catches

Fish catches and stocks typically vary-sometimes radically-over the course of time. Given the present state of knowledge, it is very difficult to pinpoint with great certainty what causes these fluctuations. The problem is that oceans are large, complex systems, and so many interactive factors influence fish stocks that it is virtually impossible to say for certain what has caused a change in stock sizes in open ocean fisheries. The size offish stocks can be influenced by food supply, disease, changes in habitat, pollution, community predation, and water temperature, along with human predation and a variety of regulations designed to limit the amount of fish taken and how fishing is done (e.g., restrictions on gear, restrictions on time and place fishing is permitted, etc.). As a result, it is virtually impossible to ascertain how well any management rule is working or if it is having any effect at all. A decline in stock size does not always indicate a failure of management, and an increase in stock size is not always indicative of regulatory success. …

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