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Gammage, L. C., A. Jarre, and C. Mather. 2021. Failing to plan is planning to fail: lessons learned from a small-scale scenario planning process with marginalized fishers from South Africa’s southern Cape. Ecology and Society 26(4):32.

Failing to plan is planning to fail: lessons learned from a small-scale scenario planning process with marginalized fishers from South Africa’s southern Cape

1Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa, 2Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John's, Canada


Scenario-planning, a management tool used for addressing challenges in complex and uncertain social-ecological systems (SES), offers a helpful way to facilitate responses to complex change by stakeholders at all scales of the SES. This is facilitated through imagining possible futures in pursuit of a pre-determined and common goal. Environmental variability, together with a failure to recognize the integrated nature of marine SES, are two drivers of change that have contributed to the depletion of ocean resources and stressed fishing communities, including in the southern Benguela system off South Africa’s west and south coasts. Here, we present a scenario planning process, informed by transformative scenario planning, conducted with the community of fishers from the town of Melkhoutfontein in the southern Cape region. Together with the fishers, we developed four stories of the future of Melkhoutfontein within the context of an overarching theoretical approach to support the implementation of an ecosystem approach to fisheries management (EAF). These stories incorporate scenarios on key driving forces identified by participants, complemented by key driving forces identified through a related process using problem structuring tools. The stories contrast situations with (no) access to fishing rights and (un-)favorable economics. They are backdropped by two potential future ecosystem types (warm temperate versus subtropical) and knowledge acquired from strategic planning at the national scale. We discuss the insights gained from the scenario-building process, emphasizing lessons learned from this small-scale process with marginalized fishers and how this may contribute to the over-arching scenario-based approach.
Key words: adaptive capacity; decision making; ecosystem approaches to fisheries management; marine social-ecological systems; scenario planning; small-scale fisheries


Scenario planning, a well-established tool used in various applications, can address challenges that arise from the effects of long-term system change, uncertainty, and complexity (e.g., Amer et al. 2013, Jarre et al. 2013, IPCC 2014, IPBES 2016, Maury et al. 2017). Scenario-based approaches offer a helpful way to respond to change by allowing stakeholders to envisage possible futures in pursuing a pre-determined and common goal. Scenarios also provide a valuable alternative to predictions and forecasts, letting stakeholders consider the type of future they want (Haward et al. 2013). In addition, scenario planning stimulates strategic thinking through the process of creating multiple potential futures (Amer et al. 2013). When used as a method of decision support in policy making, the focus is placed on the ideas about the future instead of the actual direction the future may or may not take (Tiller et al. 2013). At the same time, the development process can be helpful to resource users as they are considering permutations of, and possible pathways to, those futures (Daw et al. 2015).

Scenario planning can positively support marine-dependent communities to improve their resilience, particularly given increasing environmental variability and change. Amongst other drivers, environmental variability and change, and a failure to recognize the integrated nature of marine ecosystems have resulted in pressures of overfishing and have contributed to the state of depleted ocean resources, negatively affecting resource-dependent communities globally, including in South Africa (Van Sittert 2002, Ommer et al. 2012, Jarre et al. 2013). This has resulted in marine social-ecological systems (SESs) becoming increasingly vulnerable to uncertainty and change (Perry et al. 2011). Previous research in South Africa’s southern Benguela (Gammage et al. 2017a, 2019, Gammage 2019, Martins et al. 2019) described localized drivers of change in the coupled SES from the perspective of southern Cape handline fishers. The research exposed drivers of change and resulting uncertainty. Varying change response strategies implemented by these fishers (coping, reacting, adapting) highlight the effect of increasing variability and ensuing uncertainty in their decision making (Gammage et al. 2017b) while showing how difficult it is to proactively respond to variability and change.

In this paper we present scenario planning stories conducted with the community of fishers from the town of Melkhoutfontein in South Africa’s southern Cape region as an initial step in a transformative scenario planning process. This research, conducted at the small scale as a case study, explores a possible tool to support implementing an ecosystem approach to fisheries management in South Africa (Jarre et al. 2018, Gammage and Jarre 2021). It is characterized by an interactive and iterative process that is inductive. This scenario planning component presented a group of marginalized fishers with the chance to engage in a process that was not only important for improving their adaptive capacity but also began to capacitate them to meaningfully engage in more formalized structured decision-making processes in the future (Gammage and Jarre 2020, 2021). In convening a small-scale scenario-planning exercise in Melkhoutfontein, we developed, together with fishers, four stories of what the future may hold for Melkhoutfontein’s fishing community, considering the impact of four drivers of change: political, economic, (ocean) climatic, and ecological.

The ecosystem approach to fisheries management and participatory scenario planning

Fisheries are widely recognized as part of marine social-ecological systems (e.g., Ostrom 2009). Schoon and van der Leeuw (2015) distinguish three integral aspects of an SES: integrating social and ecological perspectives into a coupled system; the assumption that SESs are dynamic with a high degree of uncertainty; and an inter/transdisciplinary perspective to account for complexity and dynamics. Interactions in SESs evolve in an iterative relationship (Ommer and Team 2007, Park et al. 2012, Binder et al. 2013) with interactions within the system encompassing multiple internal scales (Perry and Ommer 2003, Ommer and Team 2007). In essence, all planetary resources utilized by humans form part of complex SESs comprising multiple, interacting subsystems, including biophysical and social (including cultural) systems (Norberg and Cumming 2008, Ostrom 2009). SESs can self-organize and adapt based on past experiences (Folke 2016) and are characterized by emergent non-linear behavior and stochasticity (Collie et al. 2004, Norberg and Cumming 2008). Described in the context of fisheries, such complex SESs comprise subsystems such as a resource system (e.g., communities of fish); a user system (e.g., communities of fishers); and a governance system (organizations and rules that govern fishing). Importantly, all these elements are separable, but through their interactions, they produce outcomes at the SES level and feed back into one another (Perry and Ommer 2003, Ostrom 2009). SES lenses are widely applied, including in the evaluation of community-based systems such as conflict and collaboration situations, comprising irrigation systems (Hoogesteger 2015, McCord et al. 2017), small scale fisheries (Blythe et al. 2017, Partelow 2018), agriculture, and forestry (Fleischman et al. 2010, Oberlack et al. 2015, Ward 2018).

The ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) is a management approach that is fully inclusive of ecological, social, economic, and governance considerations and inherently recognizes the coupled SES with stakeholders in an integrated and adaptive management process (FAO 2003, Stephenson et al. 2021). It is the preferred fisheries management approach to which South Africa ascribed in 2002 (WSSD 2002). In South Africa, the concept of an EAF is espoused in the Marine Living Resources Act (MLRA, No. 18 of 1998), albeit with significant gaps and weaknesses. Although our understanding of the ecological components of the SESs are well developed, it has been more challenging to integrate social components (Shannon et al. 2010, Sowman 2011), but some progress has been made in recent years. However, to implement an EAF, decision makers must balance multiple, often conflicting objectives in a multiple stakeholder context (FAO 1999, Garcia 2000, Degnbol and Jarre 2004, Garcia and Cochrane 2005), highlighting the need for the integration for system-wide multi-scalar decision making.

Implementing an effective EAF remains a challenge: managers need to contend with the inherent complexities of marine social-ecological systems, limited knowledge, and uncertainties in projections, while at the same time identifying and prioritizing management objectives (e.g., Paterson and Petersen 2010, Jennings et al. 2014, Cochrane et al. 2015). Instead of completely changing management approaches, EAF is often treated and implemented as an extension of traditional fisheries management approaches (Berkes 2012). Berkes (2012) suggests a more revolutionary approach is required, considering the multiplicity of challenges and fisheries-associated complexities. This highlights the need to develop and implement multi-user methodologies that can simultaneously address multi-scalar challenges and includes implementing approaches where we build capacity at small scales while potentially informing EAF implementation and sustainable development at larger scales. However, a reinvention of the proverbial wheel is not required; existing methods can also be applied in new ways to address EAF implementation challenges (Gammage et al. 2019, Gammage and Jarre 2020, 2021).

Participative scenario planning (PSP) is solution-oriented and not only aids in increasing adaptive capacity (Kahane and Van Der Heijden 2012, Carlsen et al. 2013) but also in identifying policy recommendations for sustainable development (Bohensky et al. 2011, Palomo et al. 2011) and adaptation pathways (Butler et al. 2014a). In addition, PSP can produce information on how stakeholders may respond to future challenges, contributing to management decision making through a process that also leads to a better understanding of complexity in SESs. Furthermore, PSP can mobilize stakeholders to respond to new threats or opportunities and supports and encourages complex thinking, an essential aspect of resilience (Biggs et al. 2015). Notably, using such approaches, stakeholders as lead users (see Morrison et al. 2004, Jeppesen and Laursen 2009, Ozer 2009) can influence the scenarios and potentially policy in a process characterized by co-design.

PSP has proven to be a tool that can facilitate the interaction of multiple knowledge systems leading to the co-creation of new understandings of the present while building shared visions of the future (e.g., Daw et al. 2015). This is useful in achieving an improved and holistic understanding of current and possible future system conditions and dynamics at various local, regional and political scales (Butler et al. 2014b). Transformative scenario planning (TSP), a form of PSP, uses backcasting techniques to create normative scenarios that explore possible futures. Normative scenarios are distinctive in the portrayal of the future as “it should be”; they can inform policies by providing images of “landscapes” (system states) that would be able to meet societal goals (Nassauer and Corry 2004). These scenarios start with specific normative starting points and the focus of interest is placed on certain future situations or objectives and how they could be realized/reached. These scenarios are exploratory and speculative (Wiebe et al. 2018) and are designed for all participants (or actors in the system) to work cooperatively and creatively to get a complex problem untangled and moved forward (Kahane 2012).

The motivation to use scenarios in this fishery was borne out of the realization that fishers in the region are generally not well equipped to proactively deal with future change, based on previous research that found fishers’ responses to change to be primarily reactive (Gammage 2015, Gammage et al. 2017b). Proactively responding to change is necessary if future livelihoods and well-being of fishers and their communities are to be secured (e.g., Hjerpe and Glaas 2012). This is not only crucial for fishers but also for long-term ecosystem sustainability. Interconnected challenges of poverty alleviation and ecosystem sustainability span multiple scales and are arguably rooted in how societies understand their world and interact with natural systems (Folke et al. 2011). To achieve sustainability, the transformation of systems at various scales is required (Olsson et al. 2014, Pelling et al. 2015a, Galafassi et al. 2018). To this end, not only is the construction of scenarios a process that can assist fishers in dealing with system uncertainty, it can ultimately be the catalyst for changes in mindset, attitudes, and beliefs at the personal and household scales that are required for system transformation (Folke et al. 2010, Pelling and Manuel-Navarrete 2011, Béné et al. 2012, Pelling et al. 2015b, Armitage et al. 2017).

Drawing on experience from previous research, the requirements for an EAF and the principles of TSP, we developed scenario stories within the context of an over-arching prototype iterative and interactive scenario-based approach using structured decision-making tools (SDMTs; Fig. 1; see Gammage and Jarre 2020, 2021) with marginalized, disenfranchised stakeholders in a small-scale fishery in South Africa’s southern Cape. We present and discuss possible futures for developing their hometown, Melkhoutfontein, within the context of key drivers of change identified by the research participants. We also reflect on whether these scenario stories’ development helped promote mutual learning as a first, important step toward building adaptive capacity at the small scale and empowering them to participate meaningfully and confidently in larger scale scenario planning and governance processes.

In this process-focused contribution, we describe the case study and the methods used to build the scenario stories and the results from the underlying workshops as they relate to the scenario stories. We present the final stories as results and then discuss what we learned from both the product (the stories) and the process and their contributions in scenario-building approaches as tools for implementing an EAF in South Africa.


A case study in the southern Cape linefishery

Within the general study area between Mossel Bay and Witsand, we focus on the historically marginalized fisher community of Melkhoutfontein (Fig. 2). These small-scale fishers act as crew[1] in the small-scale commercial linefishery of the southern Cape and are vulnerable to global change (Gammage et al. 2017a, 2019, Martins et al. 2019). However, because of their marginalization under South African Apartheid laws, this group of fishers is characterized by low levels of formal education, elevated poverty levels, and live in a town situated off the coast because of Apartheid spatial planning. Moreover, small-scale fishers remain excluded from formal decision-making processes, often because of their perceived inability to participate (also see Isaacs 2006, Sowman 2006, Sowman et al. 2014).

The southern Cape linefishery operates in the coastal waters in the inshore area of the western Agulhas Bank, located in the southernmost of four sub-(eco)systems of the highly productive Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem (BCLME), which sustains important fisheries for Angola, Namibia, and South Africa (Hutchings et al. 2009, BCC 2013). Natural and anthropogenic drivers result in various multi-scalar spatial and temporal changes in the southern Benguela (Jarre et al. 2013, Blamey et al. 2015, Lyttle et al. 2021), making it difficult to establish the exact nature of the resulting stressors and their interactions (Moloney et al. 2013). Determining long-term trends in ocean environmental change is also complicated by inherently high interannual, as well as decadal-scale variability (Blamey et al. 2015, Jarre et al. 2015). However, long-term impacts of climate change are inevitable. They will add to the inherent complexity of this marine SES, posing challenges for both fishery resources and resource users (Jarre et al. 2013, Gammage et al. 2017a, b). This fishery is boat-based, multi-user, multi-area, and multi-species conducting day trips, ranging from six to eight hours. It primarily targets silver kob (Argyrosomus inodorus; Griffiths 2000, Blamey et al. 2015); in its absence, silvers/carpenter (Argyrozona argyrozona), redfish (like red roman, Chrysoblephus laticeps), and various species of shark (Chondrichthyes spp.) are targeted. It has in recent years been plagued by resource scarcity and increasing variability in the bio-physical system, in addition to the said policy uncertainty (Gammage 2015, Gammage et al. 2017a).

Previous research carried out in the context of the Southern Cape Interdisciplinary Fisheries Research (SCIFR) project (Jarre et al. 2018, SCIFR 2019) described the drivers of change and fishers’ responses to the resulting pressures (Gammage et al. 2017a, 2017b). Major stressors comprised policy and regulation, climate variation, and other fishing sectors; mid-range stressors comprise policy enforcement, economics (capital), political issues, and socioeconomic issues. Minor stressors comprise the area’s geography, infrastructure, social factors, and lack of knowledge. Although drivers of change are consistent throughout the area, the research showed that more impoverished fishing communities tend to cope and react rather than adapt proactively, with often haphazard decision making (Gammage et al. 2017b). For fishers to develop sustainable livelihoods in the future, these communities will need to respond to change more proactively, engaging in activities that are based on informed decisions (Gammage 2015, Gammage et al. 2017b).

The marginalization of small-scale fisheries and the role of such fisheries in poverty alleviation and food security are well recognized (e.g., FAO 2012, 2016, 2018). In May 2007, the South African government was ordered to provide access to marine resources to disenfranchised traditional small-scale fishers by making regulatory provisions for relief until a formal policy could be put in place. This interim relief policy granted individual temporary rights for a basket of species for subsistence purposes to traditional small-scale fishers (Sowman 2011). Subsequently, the Small-Scale Fisheries Policy (SSFP; Act No. 474 of 2012; DAFF 2012) was promulgated in 2012. This policy grants community-based rights to qualifying traditional small-scale fishers and actively addresses management and regulatory concerns. By adopting a people-centered approach to management, the policy explicitly addresses sustainable development, empowerment, and inequality for small-scale fishers, recognizing the vital role of marine resources in poverty alleviation (Sowman et al. 2014). However, plagued with delays, the policy has, to date, not been fully implemented. This continued failure to grant access to fishery rights is a source of discontent among small-scale fishers. It often prevents them from considering the impact of other pressures on their catches (Gammage et al. 2017a, 2019). At the same time, poorly defined bottom-up management mechanisms limit their involvement in formal management processes.

Constructing the scenario stories


The scenario-story development took place in conjunction with a Bayesian belief network (BBN) development process (Gammage and Jarre 2020), where three workshops were convened with the fishers from Melkhoutfontein (further referred to as participants). Workshops One and Two directly contributed to the scenario story construction process and are discussed in further detail; Workshop Three was exclusively related to the BBN process and is not relevant here. Before the first workshops, all participants were invited to an informal dinner, which served as a general icebreaker. Figure 3 outlines the various steps in the scenario story construction process.

Although primarily focused on the BBN construction (Gammage and Jarre 2020), the first workshop was an essential first step in the scenario construction process. Here, the day’s discussion focused on identifying a central theme for both the BBN and the scenarios in defining principal drivers, influencing factors, and a weighted hierarchy. These principal drivers, framed as key driving forces (KDFs), would be central to the scenario stories. Unfortunately, the planned full-day program was shortened because of participants’ fatigue, with the workshop ending just after lunch. In addition, various activities planned as part of the program needed to be amended because participants were uncomfortable with some of them. Nevertheless, participants identified their key (central) concept and four KDFs they regarded as central to the central concept for the scenario stories. Next, participants were asked to vote to determine the two KDFs around which they would build the scenario spaces, which were then explored in visioning exercises in Workshop Two.

Workshop Two was a one-day workshop with the same participants. It aimed to construct potential future stories around the scenario spaces created by the two drivers selected in Workshop One (Fig. 4), aiming 30 years—at a bit more than one generation—into the future. As with Workshop One, some adjustments to the pre-planned program were made to ensure that the concept of participant-led and inductive research was upheld. This day also had to be shortened to ensure the participants would stay engaged. Pre-planned exercises such as the building of future Melkhoutfontein using Lego and newspaper headline exercises were replaced with full-group discussions at the request of the participants. This resulted in data that were not as detailed as anticipated. Notably, the planned backcasting exercises, where crucial inflection points or interventions required to realize the future are identified, could not occur. This was due to the participants’ struggling with some of the more abstract concepts around the scenario planning process and their reticence to engage with the planned activities designed as part of the backcasting exercise. We partially mitigated this shortcoming by supplementing workshop data with other knowledge: own prior research on stressors, the outcomes from other, pertinent South African scenarios, modelled projections for fisheries and climate, research literature, and expert knowledge.

Desktop work

Figure 4 summarizes the process used to construct the final scenario stories and points to the data sources. In constructing the final scenario stories, the information from the fishers (of Workshop Two) was collated into four broad scenarios. Research knowledge and expert opinion of two KDFs (climate change and changes in resource status) that had not been included in the workshop discussion (see Appendix 1) was added. This was done based on their importance to the functioning of the fishery, as identified by the outcomes of the BBN sensitivity analyses (Gammage and Jarre 2020). Finally, they were synthesized with the fishers’ stories to arrive at the final scenario stories.

Feedback to participants and further work

Initially, a fourth “feedback” workshop had been planned to present the completed stories and allow refinement and changes based on participants’ inputs. In addition, a short evaluation (anonymous survey) of the usefulness of the tools and overall approach had been planned as an ending to the final workshop. Through this evaluation, we planned to gain insights from participants on their experiences of the process, how they experienced using the tools, what they saw as the benefits and pitfalls, and seek suggestions on how future processes could be improved upon. However, this plan had to be adjusted as fishers were increasingly going to sea as the fishing season had commenced and/or were engaging in alternative livelihood activities. Therefore, in keeping with the inductive nature of the research, it was decided to change the feedback format. The four final stories were included in a pamphlet designed as a feedback resource. The purpose was to present the fishers with the product emanating from the workshopping process whilst presenting an opportunity to further engage and reflect on the workshops and scenarios. The format of the feedback was designed to be informal and took place in one-on-one contact sessions. When fishers were not available, a personally addressed letter with a pamphlet was hand-delivered.

Following this initial feedback to research participants, and given the challenges encountered with the feedback process plus additional challenges imposed by the Covid-2019 pandemic, the scenario stories were also developed into a booklet for middle school (grades 7–9) learners and produced in English and Afrikaans, the principal languages of the schools in the area. The research team partnered with a non-profit artistic company to develop the stories into a musical theatre production. The purpose of the production was to communicate the essence of the stories as told by the fishers while emphasizing the message that the community members have the power to shape their future. Fishers from Melkhoutfontein were again engaged in the script-writing process. The production was first staged in Melkhoutfontein, with a cast that included community actors (A. Jarre and Team, unpublished data). The pamphlet and booklet were used as resources for the audiences, who were also invited to provide their immediate feedback (oral or written) to the research team. In this way, the staging of the creative production provided a different format for providing feedback to the fishers, introduced the process to their wider communities, and facilitated further interactions and conversations about the stories.


Because of the iterative nature of the research, the methods and results are very closely related because the unfolding process is a result in itself. Here we present the results in two parts: first, we reflect on the development process (workshop outcomes and some reflections on the workshopping process) before presenting the results as they relate to the product, i.e., the scenario stories.

The process of constructing the stories

In the first workshop, the central theme for the scenario stories was agreed to be to “earn a sustainable fishery-derived livelihood.” The four KDFs identified by participants were climate change (variability), changes to the biophysical system, sufficient disposable income, and access to marine resources. The two core KDFs for the scenario stories (determined by an individual, open voting process) were “Disposable income” and “Access to marine resources” (Fig. 5). It was somewhat surprising that the participants settled on these two drivers, given that they had earlier emphasized the role of changes in weather patterns (specifically wind) as a more direct threat to their ability to fish (Gammage 2019, Gammage and Jarre 2020). Ideally, the two core drivers should not be related to each other in any way. However, after much discussion within the workshop setting, these drivers were retained, keeping with the principles of participant-led research.

In the second (visioning) workshop, participants outlined the possibilities for the future of Melkhoutfontein under conditions set by the two core KDFs. Participants were initially reluctant to engage with the process because this was their first experience of a “forward-thinking” approach. Likewise, at the start of the scenario workshop, participants initially did not “dare to dream” because they did not believe they had the agency to bring about changes. Moreover, they appeared uncertain and defaulted to describing their current circumstances but became more comfortable and engaged, increasing confidence as the discussions progressed.

The participants engaged more freely with the more optimistic scenario spaces (notably those where disposable income was not a problem). In the scenario spaces where disposable income was low, there was parity between current and future livelihood activities. Although the development trajectory for infrastructure development in the town was the same for all four scenarios, the pace and scope of the development varied, with the high-income scenarios showing the most significant improvement over the shortest period. Themes/drivers included in the general discussions of the four scenarios include the biophysical environment (fish abundance and climate), other fishery sectors (inshore trawl), policy and regulation (small-scale fishing policy; linefishery), and socioeconomic considerations (local and national economy). Table 1 highlights the key activities undertaken in each scenario, while the complete participant-derived scenario spaces are provided in Appendix 2. Because the backcasting activities did not occur as planned, these stories do not contain any vital inflection points or decisions that need to be integrated into the story’s timeline.

As previously noted, the program for both workshops had to be shortened as participants grew fatigued, and it was increasingly difficult to facilitate the workshops as the day progressed. At the same time, it was also a challenge to facilitate the discussions beyond those “top of mind” issues that often preoccupy this group of participants. The continual changes to the program and planned activities show the importance of being reflexive in one’s facilitation approach. At the same time, as with the BBN process (see Gammage and Jarre 2020), the participants did grow more confident and comfortable across the series of workshops, displaying better insight and understanding of the complexity of the issues at hand.

The fishers’ scenario stories were subsequently “backdropped” with scenarios regarding fish stock availability and changes as well as general climate predictions (see Fig. 4). The decision to include these two drivers was based on the BBN modeling process, together with discussions within both workshops, where the importance of climate variability and change was highlighted. Participants extensively discussed the impact of resource scarcity, so including the resource drivers was essential. The exclusion of the backcasting resulted in stories that could not function as a roadmap for decision making. However, by including the climate and resource drivers, we could create final stories that serve as a communication tool instead, as demonstrated by the resources developed and subsequent creative production. They also provide the platform for the future development of this PSP process.

The final scenario stories as product

Although there are distinct differences among the scenario stories developed by the participants on the first two dimensions, access to rights and availability of funding, there was also a fair amount of repetition between them, specifically with conditions they felt would not change much (Appendix 2). We then drew on various sources that examine the current system state, including predictions. Finally, the results of other large-scale scenarios, including the long-term adaptation scenarios for South Africa (LTAS), the Indlulamithi South African scenarios ( and the Vumalena land scenarios (; see Appendix 1) were consulted to add climate and resource drivers to the narratives. This allowed us to create final scenario stories centered on future small-scale fishing in the southern Cape. These four scenarios, “Nothing much has changed,’ “We will get there...eventually,” ‘The going is good,’ and “The future is bright,” are set 30 years in the future and highlight potential future trajectories for the town under contrasting conditions specified from the main dimensions: political (access to rights), economic (access to financial capital), and environmental (changes in sea surface temperature and ensuing changes in fish assemblages on the Agulhas Bank). These stories outline the end-point state of the town under the various sets of conditions. Figure 6 presents a schematic of the broad “starting point” conditions (see Appendix 3 for the full starting point stories). Figure 7a–d are graphic representations of the key elements of the final stories (Appendix 3).

Feedback to and from participants

Although prescribed by project conditions, there was thus limited opportunity to present feedback within the project’s time frame. When meeting with the fishers one-on-one, they did not immediately engage with the material in the pamphlet (see Appendix 4). Instead, they preferred to speak to the researcher about other current issues. Because of the length of the stories, it was expected that they would engage with the stories, reflecting on them, in their own time. Notably, the musical theatre production presented another opportunity to engage with fishers and the broader community on the stories in formal (a workshop, rehearsals) and informal settings (conversations in the wings of rehearsals and performances). Feedback from the audiences was overwhelmingly positive, and it included general appreciation for the effort taken to stage the production in the community and compliments on the realism achieved. Unfortunately, the roll-out to the other fishing communities in the area (see Fig. 2) has been delayed by Covid-19 related lockdowns.


These scenario stories have been designed and constructed as part of a prototype over-arching scenario-based approach to change, developed in support of improving the implementation of an EAF in South African fisheries (Gammage 2019, Gammage and Jarre 2021). The use of scenarios has provided insights that emanate from using the tool in terms of the process and the product. We discuss thematically on fostering a systems view, mutual learning, trust-building, and the need for flexibility. We highlight the ability for scenarios to bridge scales, the role of agency and the need to build capacity for it, and the need for proper groundwork to carry out such approaches.

Facilitating the development of social-ecological system views

The final scenario stories are not as all-encompassing as one would want such stories to be. In their discussions, participants tended to focus on the same topics they usually talk about (policy and regulatory challenges), with future solutions very much coupled to these present problems. This led to fisher scenario stories which, while crucial to the process and the construction of the final stories, lacked the level of detail required. This is consistent with findings from related work undertaken as part of the same over-arching scenario-based approach. When comparing the weighted hierarchy and the BBN analysis (Gammage 2019, Gammage and Jarre 2020) it was revealed that although “top of mind” drivers were regarded as the most important drivers in the weighted hierarchy, the same drivers were ranked to be less critical when reframed through the BBN. Notwithstanding the limitation in the fishers’ initial stories, the scenario workshopping process created the space for participants to explore and develop more systematic views of their fisheries system. This allowed them to reflect on interactions in the marine SES and the possibilities that the future may hold under different conditions. Considering the consequences of drivers and their interactions woven into understandable, realistic narratives may prompt fishers (and their wider communities) to consider different, less top-of-mind drivers in their understanding of the system and, eventually, decision making

Participatory processes stimulate mutual learning

The most significant value these stories hold is for the fishers of Melkhoutfontein. This is associated with mutual learning that occurs throughout such participatory research processes, a benefit outlined extensively by various authors, including van den Belt (2004), Gregory et al. (2012), and Tuler et al. (2017). They all use perspectives from mutual learning and participatory modeling contexts. Feedback from participants and observations made by the facilitator and research assistants all point to some form of mutual learning having taken place across the series of workshops, also demonstrated with the increasing ease with which participants engaged with the contents. Such facilitated learning can create a situation/space where knowledge, values, action, and competencies can be developed in harmony to increase the capacity to build resilience to change. Learning amongst peers is believed to facilitate faster and deeper learning when compared to that received by top-down dissemination of information (Pelling et al. 2015a).

Importantly, this learning should also be viewed as a start to the process of building and fostering agency on a personal or household level. For this group of fishers, being able to engage with each other in a relaxed group setting offered the opportunity to exchange ideas and thoughts with each other in ways they usually are not able to do, either because of time constraints or lack of opportunities (“spaces”) to have these discussions.

Scenario planning to build trust

Transformative scenarios are intended to be convened at large scales with a heterogeneous stakeholder group with diverse and opposing views, allowing for common ground to be identified and expanded (Kahane 2012). Therefore, it was valuable and necessary to first convene the scenario at the small scale with a homogenous group. The reason for this was twofold: not only were we testing the use of the tool as part of an overarching scenario-based approach to change management (Gammage and Jarre 2021), but it also created a safe space for these disenfranchised fishers to discuss and grapple with unfamiliar concepts. Should the scenarios have been convened at a larger scale, this group of fishers would highly likely not have had the confidence to voice their opinions on contentious issues. This is due to existing power dynamics within and between fishing sectors (see Isaacs 2006, Sowman 2011, Sowman et al. 2014, Duggan et al. 2020; Sunde 2004, unpublished report).

Previous research by Duggan (2012, 2018) documented a high distrust between fishers and the distrust fishers hold of outsiders, specifically scientists and government officials. Such mistrust can hamper collaborative processes, an integral part of any scenario planning (and EAF implementation) process. The approach followed here can help to create the spaces required for incremental trust building. Notably, many participants initially attended the workshops because they recognized the value of the process within the context of implementing the SSFP. At the same time, many leaders in the group recognized the use of the process in exploring ideas for livelihood activities that could also be undertaken in the context of the planned community co-operatives. However, as soon as it became clear that the SSFP implementation was not unfolding as promised by the government, an additional challenge was that fishers steadily grew more cynical, some losing motivation to further engage with the scenario planning. This was specifically evident when trying to prepare the feedback (fourth) workshop.

The need for flexibility and reflexivity in participatory research processes

The participants’ difficulty with engaging with the future was further compounded by their unwillingness to engage with techniques/methods designed to stimulate creative thinking about the future (specifically those related to the backcasting, i.e., the Lego building and newspaper headline exercises). In contrast, such techniques were successfully used with similarly disenfranchised stakeholders (for example, the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions project, In our case, to build more vibrant and more complete scenarios, it became necessary to mitigate the resulting lack of detail in the fisher stories by adding predictions and research knowledge to the stories. This underscores the need for flexibility in the planning and implementing workshop programs to ensure participants remain engaged and comfortable. This is not only in keeping with the principles of inductive research (Newing and Contributors 2011) but also because fishers must have the opportunity to influence the participatory research process in a learning setting or process (Muro and Jeffrey 2008).

Reflexivity proved crucial in the process of communicating around the final stories. Providing feedback in the context of participatory approaches is crucial, as highlighted by authors such as Oteros-Rozas et al. (2015) in their review of 23 PSP papers. Providing feedback is also a form of trust-building because fishers appreciate the effort to produce a pamphlet and provide individual feedback. However, providing feedback to participants is often difficult because of practical challenges. Here we diversified the feedback format (face-to-face, the production of reference resources, and a creative production). By diversifying how feedback is provided and using the opportunities presented by social media and other media formats, the communication of research findings among participants and other relevant stakeholders can be improved upon in the future. It does, however, require dedicated effort and resources.

Directly engaging on the final stories in a workshop setting would have provided an opportunity for participants to provide their opinions and further inputs on the stories allowing for further refinements and adjustments. This would also have provided another opportunity to attempt the backcasting and firmly gauge the research process’s immediate impact through a survey evaluation. We do not, however, view this as a failure. Instead, it highlights the need to be reflexive and change plans at short notice to ensure that participants remain comfortable in the research process and further support the gradual trust-building that is already taking place. Specifically, we could use existing relationships of trust in staging the musical theatre production. Again, this underlines the necessity of long-term engagement with stakeholders (and the benefits of funding that supports it). Notably, the application of these scenario stories developed here demonstrates the versatility of the tool. Although these stories are a vital component of the overarching approach (Gammage and Jarre 2021), they have value as a stand-alone product.

Notwithstanding the positive outcomes that we have achieved, it remains essential to reflect on how the process could be improved, especially regarding the necessary changes to the workshopping process. Participants were not able to critically review the stories for the reasons provided. As a result, the stories were not refined further, nor was it initially clear whether participants identified with the stories. Not being able to evaluate as planned impeded our ability to measure the impact of using the tools and the over-arching approach. The participant attrition throughout the process may have been due to a lack of investment in the process. Possible approaches to mitigate such challenges include recommending that a diverse, established team of transdisciplinary researchers working in parallel would result in a research process with shorter feedback loops. It would likely be easier to keep the participants engaged, counteracting research fatigue and allowing for faster scaling-up of the process. Importantly, co-design principles should continue to be employed from the onset to create and maximize buy-in whilst ensuring the needs of the participants are considered and met. Taken together with shorter iteration periods, this would likely result in participants who would be more deeply invested in the outcome of the process. Last, a continuous monitoring and reflective/evaluative component should be implemented at every step instead of including it just at the end. The diversity of the feedback (pamphlets, theatre production) we eventually used was effective and provided a platform for further engagements; diversified feedback in such a manner should also be included in the planning of future projects.

Scenarios can contribute to EAF by simultaneous multi-scalar planning processes

The scenario stories’ value lies in knowledge co-creation and system view development (Peterson et al. 2003, Oteros-Rozas et al. 2015) and their potential contribution to informing policy and management when carried out at a larger scale (Carpenter et al. 2006, Oteros-Rozas et al. 2015). Scenarios convened at different scales would have different purposes; although able to inform policy processes, larger scale regional scenarios will not deal with fine-scale interactions in the same way that the final scenario stories have been able to do. As such, convening scenario planning exercises at various scales of operation and involving overlapping stakeholders may provide an exciting opportunity to understand better (and eventually address) scale challenges experienced when dealing with change in marine SESs. This is important because there should be a more significant chance of success in addressing such challenges when research/interventions are carried out simultaneously at various scales of operation. This is not a new insight. Authors such as Biggs et al. (2007) provide an extensive overview of methodology that could, in principle, be implemented to deal with multiscale scenario planning. In our case, the multi-scalar role of the scenarios played out within the community. During the development process, individuals engaged with the workshops and stories, while the stories were impactful at the community scale when undertaking the creative production project. The interactive script-writing process also allowed the fishers to provide inputs, reinforcing the iterative process in a multi-scalar (community) setting. These interactions, albeit minor, reinforce the tool’s ability to transition between scales and potentially foster engagement between scales. Gammage and Jarre (2021) further explore how a multi-scalar scenario-based management approach, which makes use of scenario stories as a tool, could be used to promote EAF implementation.

Policy frameworks are not enough: disenfranchised communities need support to foster the agency and capacity communities need

When considering the possible pathways for responding to future change and the demands set by the EAF for bottom-up, interactive management of fisheries, it is necessary to consider the role of capacity building and agency in the practical implementation of such strategies. For marginalized small-scale fishers, it may remain difficult to bring about the required shift in thinking without outside support. Therefore, other parallel, often policy-driven processes, need to occur to develop adaptive capacity and build agency within disenfranchised (South African) communities. An example of this is the SSFP: although the SSFP removes a significant barrier regarding access to resources, without added support from government departments such as the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), fishers will struggle to capitalize on opportunities. In our case study, these fishers lack the resources to bring about change themselves, also demonstrated by the responses to change within the community (see Gammage 2015 and Gammage et al. 2017a). Here, a lack of agency, associated with the socioeconomic conditions the fishers find themselves in, is aggravated by low formal education (Duggan et al. 2021).

For any grassroots “social movement” to succeed, a sufficient base of motivation, human resources, solidarity networks, and (often) external agitators are required (Ballard et al. 2005). Considering the general lack of adaptive capacity and agency within the southern Cape linefishery (Gammage et al. 2017b), strategic future planning may only become viable if external agitators (which include champions within the state and key NGOs who have networks and resources to draw on) are willing and able to actively move the processes of capacity building and planning along.

Scenario development processes can play a vital role in the development of agency in communities. It was apparent that there was a disconnect between what fishers believed they could do and what the process requested of them. However, as the process advanced, the participants became more engaged with the concept of future casting, and there was enthusiastic engagement with future business ideas and possibilities. To foster agency, community developers/facilitators who work with communities over the long term must plant the seeds and guide them toward making changes in their communities (Pereira et al. 2018a, b); the scenario stories here have been demonstrated to be a stepping stone.

Proper “groundwork” must be done before multi-stakeholder decision-making processes can take place

Last, for diverse stakeholders in the fisheries of an SES to get to the point where they are willing to engage in larger scale decision-making processes such as transformative scenario planning, a significant amount of groundwork must be completed before the actual workshopping takes place. Although in the general context of EAF implementation and not explicitly referring to scenario planning, Paterson and Petersen (2010) and McGregor et al. (2016) emphasize the importance of carrying out the proper groundwork in multi-stakeholder processes in Benguela fisheries. This groundwork involves articulating the problem (or theme), mapping the system stakeholders and enrolling a diverse and representative team of people from across the systems who want to and can influence the system’s future (Kahane and Van Der Heijden 2012). Should this scenario-planning process be scaled up to include, for example, all small-scale fishers in the southern Cape, a significant amount of time and resources will have to be spent on laying the required groundwork. Getting buy-in from decision makers will be the most challenging aspect. This is especially true for government, where political will and sufficient management capacity are essential to bringing about change by creating a favorable governance and management environment that favors implementing and using approaches such as scenario planning. In the context of a weak state, other stakeholders such as fishers themselves, NGOs, and other actors have started to formulate and implement proactive, adaptive strategies within the realm of current South African legislation to develop marginalized coastal communities on a path toward improved resilience.


The scenario-planning process strived to highlight possible pathways for the potential development of Melkhoutfontein by using an iterative and participatory research approach while at the same time building capacity among disenfranchised fishers. The stories co-developed here represent scenarios on key driving forces identified by participants, complemented by driving forces identified through a related process using problem structuring tools from decision science, demonstrating the value of incorporating such tools in a scenario planning process. Promoting learning and capacity building is essential to individuals’ adaptive capacity and building capacity to engage in larger scale scenario planning processes meaningfully. Although it is always difficult to formally evaluate mutual learning, the development of some skills and learning was evident when considering the engagements with the participants throughout the workshopping process. Through engaging with the feedback resources and a creative production, fishers were presented with another opportunity to reflect on their experience of the process. Importantly, developing the scenarios in this iterative and interactive process has presented the small-scale fishers of Melkhoutfontein with a unique opportunity to engage with challenging (and often emotive) concepts related to the town’s future and their and their families’ potential future pathways. It moved them from a state of “merely coping” into space where they dared to dream. The research presented here has demonstrated the value of engaging these disenfranchised fishers in planning for a complex and highly uncertain future. The realism and community-oriented results in the form of stories provide the basis for a new, larger scale multi-stakeholder process. Given the marginalization of handline fishers and the high level of conflict, the next step should scale up in the same biogeographical region, but stepwise, including more stakeholders from this fishery before branching out to other fisheries sectors.


[1]Although most of the fishers currently act as crew on line fish boats, many of these fishers have been identified as small-scale fishers who will benefit from a community right that will be allocated under the Small Scale Fisheries Policy (SSFP, Act No 474 of 2012; Sowman 2011, DAFF 2012). Some of the fishers have in the past been holders of “Interim Relief” permits that were first granted in 2009 pending the finalization of the SSFP and its implementation.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


LCG conceptualized the research, carried out the fieldwork, and authored the paper, which formed part of her PhD research. AJ was the primary supervisor of the research, while CM was the co-supervisor. All authors contributed to the article and approved the submission.


Our sincere thanks to all research participants for offering up their time to participate in this project, Dr Marcus Haward from the University of Tasmania, Australia, for his kind assistance with conceptualizing the scenario planning process, Lee-Anne Gammage and Cara Pratten for assistance with notes at the workshops, Jack Andrew for illustrations of final stories, and the three anonymous reviewers for comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.


The study involving human participants was reviewed and approved by the University of Cape Town - Faculty of Science Research Ethics Committee (FSREC 03 - 2016). The participants provided informed consent to participate in this study in writing. The datasets generated for this study cannot be publicly available because of restrictions imposed by ethics requirements and agreements with research participants [providing such data would compromise the participants]. Selected data that does not breach any ethics requirements are available on request from the corresponding author [LCG].


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Correspondent author:
Louise C. Gammage
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