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Weak feedbacks, governance mismatches, and the robustness of social-ecological systems: an analysis of the Southwest Nova Scotia lobster fishery with comparison to Maine

Allain J. Barnett, Arizona State University
John M Anderies, Arizona State University


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The insights in Governing the Commons have provided foundational ideas for commons research in the past 23 years. However, the cases that Elinor Ostrom analyzed have been exposed to new social, economic, and ecological disturbances. What has happened to these cases since the 1980s? We reevaluated one of Ostrom’s case studies, the lobster and groundfishery of Port Lameron, Southwest Nova Scotia (SWNS). Ostrom suggested that the self-governance of this fishery was fragile because the government did not recognize the rights of resource users to organize their own rules. In the Maine lobster fishery, however, the government formalized customary rules and decentralized power to fishing ports. We applied the concepts of feedback, governance mismatches, and the robustness of social-ecological systems to understand the pathway of institutional change in Port Lameron. We revisited the case of Port Lameron using marine harvesters’ accounts collected from participant observation, informal interviews and surveys, and literature on fisheries policy and ecology in SWNS and Maine. We found that the government’s failure to recognize the customary rights of harvesters to organize has weakened feedback between the operational level, where resource users interact with the resource, and the collective-choice level, where agents develop rules to influence the behavior of resource users. This has precipitated governance mismatches, which have led harvesters to believe that the decision-making process is detrimental to their livelihoods. Thus, harvesters rarely participate in decision making and resist regulatory change. In Maine, harvesters can influence decisions through participation, but there is a trade-off. With higher influence in decisions, captains have co-opted the decision-making process. Nevertheless, we suggest that the fisheries of SWNS are more vulnerable to social-ecological change because of weaker feedbacks than in Maine. Finally, we have discussed the potential benefits of polycentricity to both fisheries.

Key words

Atlantic Canada; collective choice; institutional analysis; lobster; Maine; polycentricity; robustness

Copyright © 2014 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087