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Social-Ecological Scale Mismatches and the Collapse of the Sea Urchin Fishery in Maine, USA

Teresa R. Johnson, School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine
James A. Wilson, School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine
Caitlin Cleaver, School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine
Robert L. Vadas, School of Biology and Ecology, University of Maine; School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine


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Scale mismatches result in incomplete or ambiguous feedback that impairs the ability to learn and adapt and, ultimately, to sustain natural resources. Our aim is to examine the sea urchin fishery in Maine, USA to better understand the multiscale, social, and biophysical conditions that are important for the design of institutions that might be able to sustain the resource. During the late 1980s and 1990s, the Maine sea urchin fishery was a classic gold rush fishery. In the beginning, the fishery was characterized by an abundant resource with little to no harvesting activity, followed by a period of rapid increase in landings and effort that led to a subsequent and persistent decline in the sea urchin population and a significant reduction in effort. We conducted semistructured interviews with scientists and experienced fishermen to understand the multiscale, social, and biophysical conditions that influence fishermen’s harvesting strategies, and the implications of this for the design of institutions for successful resource management. The current co-management system includes an advisory body made up of industry members and scientists it also includes limited entry, and additional input control mechanisms. Many of these measures are implemented at a very broad scale; however, we find that the ecological conditions relevant to the sustainable processes occur at the scale of individual fishing sites or ledges, which is a much finer scale than current management. Therefore, the co-management system maintains an open access system and leaves few incentives for the development of sustainable harvesting strategies among fishermen. The clear suggestion is that the appropriate management system would be one that directly addresses the fine scale ecological and social dynamics within this fishery and gives fishermen property rights over individual ledges (for example, leases). After having briefly reviewed experiences in Canada and Chile, we found that knowledge of the coupled natural and human system at the fine scale is necessary if we are to assess the feasibility of area management in this fishery, because what works in one fishery does not necessarily work in another.

Key words

collective action; co-management; fisheries management; kelp; Maine, USA; ocean fisheries; scale mismatches; sea urchin fishery

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087