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Matching Social and Ecological Systems in Complex Ocean Fisheries

James A. Wilson, University of Maine

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Abstract

This paper considers ocean fisheries as complex adaptive systems and addresses the question of how human institutions might be best matched to their structure and function. Ocean ecosystems operate at multiple scales, but the management of fisheries tends to be aimed at a single species considered at a single broad scale. The paper argues that this mismatch of ecological and management scale makes it difficult to address the fine-scale aspects of ocean ecosystems, and leads to fishing rights and strategies that tend to erode the underlying structure of populations and the system itself. A successful transition to ecosystem-based management will require institutions better able to economize on the acquisition of feedback about the impact of human activities. This is likely to be achieved by multiscale institutions whose organization mirrors the spatial organization of the ecosystem and whose communications occur through a polycentric network. Better feedback will allow the exploration of fine-scale science and the employment of fine-scale fishing restraints, better adapted to the behavior of fish and habitat. The scale and scope of individual fishing rights also needs to be congruent with the spatial structure of the ecosystem. Place-based rights can be expected to create a longer private planning horizon as well as stronger incentives for the private and public acquisition of system relevant knowledge.

Key words

resource governance; fisheries; complex adaptive systems; scale; fishing effort; decentralization; governance institutions; incentives; multiscale governance; fishing rights; ecosystem management; ecosystem-based management; polycentric networks
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087