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The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Song, A. M., S. D. Bower, P. Onyango, S. J. Cooke, S. L. Akintola, J. Baer, T. B. Gurung, M. Hettiarachchi, M. Islam, W. Mhlanga, F. Nunan, P. Salmi, V. Singh, X. Tezzo, S. J. Funge-Smith, P. K. Nayak and R. Chuenpagdee. 2018. Intersectorality in the governance of inland fisheries. Ecology and Society 23(2):17.

Intersectorality in the governance of inland fisheries

1ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Australia, 2WorldFish, Solomon Islands, 3Carleton University, Canada, 4University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 5Lagos State University, Nigeria, 6Fisheries Research Station of Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 7Nepal Agricultural Research Council, Kathmandu, Nepal, 8School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Queensland, Australia, 9Department of Coastal and Marine Fisheries, Sylhet Agricultural University, Bangladesh, 10Bindura University of Science Education, Zimbabwe, 11International Development Department, University of Birmingham, UK, 12Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), Finland, 13University of Delhi, India, 14WorldFish, Myanmar, 15Wageningen University, The Netherlands, 16Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy, 17School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, Environmental Change and Governance Group, Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo, Canada, 18Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada


One of the defining characteristics of inland fisheries is that they are closely impacted by other essential human activities that rely on the same fresh or brackish water ecosystems, such as hydroelectricity generation and irrigated agriculture. Starting with the premise that an understanding of fisheries' interactions with these external sectors is in itself critical for achieving sustainability of the fisheries, this paper explores the topic of intersectoral governance and outlines an approach to analyzing the intricate and often challenging sector relationships. By drawing on examples of inland fisheries from around the world, the paper proposes four broad discursive mechanisms that can structure the study of the intersectoral dynamics, i.e., system characterization, valuation, power relations, and vertical policy interaction. A synthesis model then demonstrates their interwoven nature, revealing the way each mechanism influences one another as together they shape overall outcomes. It is apparent that analyses often need to be combined to advance more rigorous (and transdisciplinary) science and also inform appropriate courses for the governance of inland fisheries. Given the typically marginal position of fisheries in inland water-use discussions, we call for a more systematic understanding of intersectoral interactions to enhance the sector's resilience within the wider society and subsequently contribute to integrated governance of waterbodies.
Key words: cross-sectoral relationships; inland fisheries; integrative environmental governance; valuation; water-energy-food nexus


Inland fisheries (fresh and brackish water) distributed across the globe generate many ecosystem services, including provision of benefits to human wellbeing (Dugan et al. 2010, Lynch et al. 2016b). Inland fish tend to be widespread and accessible due to the numerous and dispersed locations of fish-bearing inland waterbodies in diverse natural and manmade landscapes (Welcomme et al. 2010). The public ownership and typically open-access nature of many such waterbodies, low entry costs, and relatively simple gear technology required to engage in inland fisheries have allowed them to be a historical source of livelihood and food production. Inland fish can offer an affordable form of animal protein and essential micronutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin A, iron, and zinc (Craviari et al. 2008, Youn et al. 2014). This food and nutritional function of inland fish is particularly crucial to those who have limited options, e.g., the rural poor in developing and net food-importing countries and other vulnerable groups such as young children, pregnant women, and the sick and elderly who often rely on fish for subsistence and cash income. The inland fishery sector through its harvest and postharvest activities also employs about 61 million people around the globe, of which 50% are women (Bartley et al. 2015), making it an economically significant industry. At a regional scale, the annual total inland fish production in the Lower Mekong Basin in 2008 was estimated at about 3.9 million tonnes and valued at U.S.$7 billion (Mekong River Commission (MRC) 2010). Similarly, the annual net value of the recreational fishing sector in the Laurentian Great Lakes and European freshwater bodies is estimated to be U.S.$1.5 billion and U.S.33 billion, respectively, while also generating about $70 billion to the global GDP annually (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2010, World Bank 2012, Poe et al. 2013).

In recent decades, the sustainability of inland fisheries is said to be under severe threat (Welcomme et al. 2010, Cooke et al. 2016). Overexploitation, the decline of fish biomass, particularly on sensitive stocks, and the decreasing viability of commercial and recreational fishing enterprises are all common concerns (Cooke and Cowx 2004, Allan et al. 2005, Cowx et al. 2010). It is presumed that most inland fisheries are fished close to their biological limits. Although tropical inland fisheries and floodplain fisheries are known to be surprisingly resilient, sustained or increased fishing pressure would eventually impact biodiversity with the loss of larger long-lived species (Dugan et al. 2010). The dispersed and small-scale nature of inland fisheries, combined with the shortage of financial and technical resources faced by many governments, especially in the developing world, to monitor the harvest and stock trends, makes it challenging to obtain accurate information on the status of fisheries, further complicating management effectiveness (Bartley et al. 2015, Lorenzen et al. 2016).

The need for greater attention on intersectoral linkages

Arguably, the greatest risks to the sustainability and resilience of inland fisheries originate from outside the fishery sector (and beyond fishing activities) (FAO 1997, Cowx 2002, Cowx et al. 2010, Beard et al. 2011). Important societal needs such as drinking water, irrigation for agriculture, power generation, navigation, and effluent disposal all rely on the waterbodies in which inland fisheries are also based. Associated impacts from these activities, including habitat degradation, water pollution, and flow modification, are considered the major constraints to the sustainable development of lake and river fisheries, and to a greater degree, to the protection of aquatic biodiversity (Cowx 2002). Indepth accounts of these nonfishing-induced effects have been documented elsewhere, thus are not detailed in this article (e.g., see Dugan et al. 2010; also, dam construction: Orr et al. 2012, Winemiller et al. 2016; water pollution: Adeyemo 2003, Vörösmarty et al. 2010; irrigation: Craig et al. 2004, Nguyen-Khoa and Smith 2004; climate change: Ficke et al. 2007, Lynch et al. 2016c). In sum, surrounded by these external pressures, managing inland fisheries has been a challenging and frustrating, and sometimes even a futile, endeavor. Coupled with the relatively little attention paid to the long-term integrity of inland waterbodies, inland fish are considered one of the most endangered groups of species in the world (Jenkins 2003, Dudgeon et al. 2006), and freshwater habitats (including brackish environments) among the most altered and threatened ecosystems (Brönmark and Hansson 2002, Malmqvist and Rundle 2002), with many experiencing a critical transition or a regime shift (Nayak et al. 2016).

In light of the multiuse patterns of inland waters, these fisheries have usually been given lower priority and relegated to a peripheral position (Arlinghaus et al. 2002, Cowx 2002), whose ensuing marginalization has succinctly been summarized as a case of “forgotten fisheries” (Cooke et al. 2016). This marginal recognition has meant that there is often a lack of coordination and little structured communication between fisheries management authorities and other sectoral institutions, effectively insulating fisheries concerns in the resource allocation and decision-making processes (Arlinghaus et al. 2002, Cowx et al. 2010). Low political power is also reflected in the absence of separate legislative treatment of inland fisheries in many countries (Welcomme 2001). It follows that the priorities and perspectives of fishing industry and communities are often sidelined as those of other sectoral developments are favored. So why are fisheries receiving insufficient attention in this debate? The prevailing explanation indicates an economic rationale, as stated by Cowx et al. (2010: 2203), “water resource development schemes are a particular problem because the economic value of such schemes outweighs the presumed fisheries, biodiversity and conservation values of the aquatic ecosystem...” In this logic, decision makers (including government regulators) would align with the sector that promises the highest perceived economic value to society, hence supporting options that often generate the biggest short-term payoffs (Brummett et al. 2013). This uneven status is exacerbated by the perceived differences in the scale to which sectoral benefits accrue. Watershed developments are typically reported to provide benefits relevant at the national level (e.g., electrical grid expansion or large-scale food production from irrigated agriculture) whereas most inland fisheries products are predominately traded regionally, locally, or used for household consumption in the absence of formal structured markets. Cooke et al. (2014: 1598) admit that “the locality-based focus of fisheries creates inherent limits because it is difficult to get the wider society to care about places that are not part of their daily lives.”

Ultimately, whether the interests of inland fisheries are recognized in watershed utilization dialog depends on their societal status, that is, how they are seen in the public eye (Arlinghaus et al. 2002). Notable challenges exist in elevating public admiration. Fishers have been often categorized as the “poorest of the poor” by the political elite (Béné 2003). In many places, the public also seems unaware of the links between fish production, food security, aquatic biodiversity, and habitat change for proximate waterbodies, let alone for distant locations (Cooke et al. 2014). Vaidyanathan (2011: 306) in referring to the Mekong River has noted that “it is hard for people in Europe or North America to imagine the role that freshwater capture plays in terms of food security, economically and even culturally...” In developing countries, too, maintaining strong connections to fish and fisheries is a challenge, as the rate of urbanization and modernization accelerates (Cooke et al. 2013). Lastly, the societal response to climate change with predicted increased incidence of drought and flooding has almost always been to build more dams and increase control of water for agriculture and domestic use. In the face of more extreme weather events, with damming and irrigation taking greater precedence, the visibility of fisheries would further fade away in the public mind (Brummett et al. 2013).

The lack of coordination between fisheries and other sectors reflects wider concerns within literature and practice on environmental governance. Although the governance of many natural resources is led by a specific sector, such as energy, tourism, or agriculture, interactions across sectors are recognized as frequent, resulting from the multiple uses of the resources and occurring at several administrative levels (Lubell 2013, Visseren-Hamakers 2015). Many studies have over time examined resource interactions and environmental externalities. However, not much is written specifically about the governance aspect of the “intersectorality.” Visseren-Hamakers (2015: 141) observes that “little attention has been paid to the relationships between governance systems” and advocates for a shift to “integrative environmental governance” where focus is not on the design, development, and implementation of an individual new policy per se, but more on the relationships between different sectors as a whole, taking into account power imbalances, political struggles, and win–lose situations that are commonly observed. Recent writing on this issue from a theoretical angle has begun to elaborate on the coordination difficulties that policy makers might face (or end up ignoring) in attaining a coherent water–energy–food nexus (see Weitz et al. 2017). In complementing this conceptual expansion, this paper from the perspective of inland fisheries contributes to an applied understanding of the challenges of, and potential for, achieving a more comprehensive and fair representation of the diverse sectors involved in the governance processes with an ultimate aim of striving for more balanced sectoral coordination.

An inductive understanding of intersectoral interactions

Despite availability of much case study information, research on inland fisheries has been mainly “parochial, with a strong national orientation and few theoretical frameworks guiding empirical research” (Arlinghaus 2005: 145). There remain few systematic investigations that synthesize the details of fisheries’ external conflicts, whose formation and impact are often poorly understood (Bennett et al. 2001). Intersectoral linkages have thus lacked dedicated research attention (for exceptions, see Arlinghaus 2005, Ratner et al. 2013, Lynch et al. 2016a, Nguyen et al. 2016). It forms a significant knowledge gap in the literature about the governance and use of fresh and brackish water fisheries resources.

Drawing from the authors’ first-hand knowledge of various inland fishery settings around the globe presented in case study writing (see below) and in the wider literature, this article identifies four broad discursive mechanisms that can help reveal how policy decisions and practices are influenced in an intersectoral setting, i.e., system characterization, valuation, power relations, and vertical policy interaction (see below). These discursive mechanisms, which we define as the systems of thoughts that enable, construct, and direct human action and the worlds of which we come to know, are arrived at through an inductive, or a “bottom-up,” approach rather than a deductive, prescription-based process (for examples of the latter approach, see Visseren-Hamakers 2015, Weitz et al. 2017). Our method of synthesis is most akin to grounded theory originally formulated by Glaser and Strauss, which can also offer a potentially suitable approach to the synthesis of secondary as well as primary data (Dixon et al. 2005). Through this, we were able to focus on generating a middle-range theoretical structure that can assist with explanations applying in a specified domain—in this instance, intersectoral interactions in fisheries (Noblit and Hare 1988). This process encouraged reflexivity and interpretation on the part of the researchers, and offered a means of limiting the number of cases to be included by way of theoretical saturation with emphasis being on conceptual robustness (Dixon et al. 2005). Logistically, participation of all authors in an e-book compilation on the same theme and their case-study chapters (see Song et al. 2017) provided an instrument through which to pool collective insights and synthesize lessons (see Appendix for a chapter summary). The compiled cases are by no means exhaustive, but are in sufficient number to be geographically and culturally diverse. They comprise 11 examples from three regions (six from South and Southeast Asia, three from Africa, and two from Europe) (see Fig. 1). They also feature a wide range of inland water settings, with four illustrating lake fisheries, three showcasing the river environment, two focusing on deltaic/coastal brackish waters, and two describing wetland/floodplain fisheries. We believe these cases collectively provide an adequate basis for developing an initial analytical model of intersectoral interactions concerning inland fisheries. A 2-day meeting attended by a subset of the authors was held in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, in August 2016, to consolidate the ideas (a report of the meeting is available at:

Although each of the four mechanisms covers a key aspect of intersectoral relationships, this paper goes on to present them in a synthetic fashion to form an analytical model (see “Toward a synthesized understanding” below), which can guide exploration of the joined effects of intersectoral dynamics. In connection with The Rome declaration: ten steps to responsible inland fisheries (FAO and Michigan State University (MSU) 2016), the four aspects identified in this paper would thus form a research proposition that expands on the seventh step titled “Develop collaborative approaches to cross-sectoral integration in development agendas.” Overall, the synthesis model provides a way of enhancing the governance of inland fisheries by explicitly recognizing and accounting for the relationships occurring between fisheries and other sectors. This remains an important but understudied area of research for enabling the elevation of fisheries’ profile within the wider water-use discussion.


System characterization

System characterization seeks a basic understanding of the governance history and the present regulatory setup (e.g., the legal mandate, the remit of different sectors, and the diverse management objectives) as well as the prevailing social-ecological conditions and cultural characteristics that preside over the waterbody (see Table 1 for a summary). It calls for a candid depiction of what can be observed in the interactions occurring at multiple scales and fora, concentrating on what is visible, overt, and therefore comparatively easy to assess and record. A vast range of possibilities exists for what should be described depending on the empirical reality of each place. Diagnostic tools such as the social-ecological system framework (McGinnis and Ostrom 2014) and the governability assessment framework (Chuenpagdee and Jentoft 2013) may be helpful in organizing the wide-ranging descriptive details. Specific methods for capturing spatial dimensions (both qualitatively and quantitatively) would include ethnographic analysis (Herbert 2000), use of geographic information system (GIS) (Clarke 2001) and spatial pattern analysis (O’Sullivan and Unwin 2002). For understanding temporal changes, longitudinal studies (Lavrakas 2008) and archival techniques (Lewis-Beck et al. 2004) are available. In addition, important questions such as which sectors are present at a waterbody and to what extent, where each sector is positioned in the institutional structures and who they form coalitions with could be answered through stakeholder analysis (Grimble and Wellard 1997), institutional analysis (Kurian 2004), and/or discourse network analysis (Leifeld 2018). Such information details how conflicts or cooperation are manifested by tracing the positions, rationales, and demands of each sector that lead to friction and/or synergy and can foreground a description of more profound issues. Weitz et al. (2017: 171) argue that “we must consider who is involved in decision-making processes... Recognizing local knowledge and local stakeholders’ rights and interests is especially important in situations where power relations are asymmetrical between institutions at different scales.” (See “power relations” as a separate discursive mechanism, which we detail in a section below.)

Given that there is a diverse set of activities and actors operating in an increasingly complex and dynamic manner, a detailed portrayal and a purposeful framing of the sectors involved would be an essential starting point of any attempt to understand the workings of intersectoral linkages. Forming multiple layers of placed-based information, this research endeavor has, in fact, been widely adopted in existing studies, albeit with different foci. Examples from the case study chapters help illustrate the various aspects of this mechanism.

Mhlanga and Nyikahadzoi (2017), for instance, draw attention to the spatial and historical struggles among different sectors that operate Lake Kariba, two of which are competition for overlapping littoral space between fishery and tourism industries (such as houseboats and lodges) and controversies surrounding big game poaching, with fishing camps being accused of facilitating poachers’ access into nearby wildlife protected areas. In both settings, physical and perceived aggravations are possible, wherein poachers allegedly make an illicit entry through fishing camps or fishers’ presence can intrude into a holiday-maker’s wilderness experience. The authors also report a case of postcolonial racial tension between the white-operated ring net-based kapenta (Limnothrissa miodon) fleets and black gillnet operators casting an historically ingrained consideration for the present-day understanding.

In Lake Victoria, Nunan and Onyango (2017) have highlighted the multiscale setup of intersectoral linkages. On the one hand, there are the community-level interactions that occur between village committees or occupational groups that are largely based on personal relationships and informal encounters. On the other hand, supranational cooperation is being encouraged through the Lake Victoria Basin Commission, which is tasked with the harmonization of policies and laws within the East African Community member countries for improving the collaborative management of transboundary natural resources, pollution, and environmental degradation in the basin. In this case, coordination at the national level appears key (although greatly lacking), as both the effectiveness of decentralization and of upward ministry involvement hinge on the sound oversight and financial capacity of the central government.

There are also intrasectoral interactions that can be instructive. Although fish is indeed the common denominator of all segments involved in fishery, various groups might hold opposing interests and construct different meanings for the fish and fisheries. In Bangladesh, Islam et al. (2017) catalogued cooperative and conflicting relationships that often simultaneously appear between fishery-related actors, such as fishers, fish entrepreneurs, microfinance nongovernmental organizations, law-enforcing agencies, and the local government in charge of administering the Payment for Ecosystem Services scheme. The inter- and intrasectoral interactions most commonly observed in inland fisheries are listed in Table 2.


The valuation mechanism deals with assessing assigned values of different sectors. According to Brown (1984), assigned values refer to a benefit, worth, or merit that is given to an object. Assessed through a wide range of valuation techniques (see below), comparison of assigned values is about estimating how different sectors measure up in terms of the contributions they pose to the society. When different sectors’ utilization of inland waters is deemed at odds with each other, which sector should receive developmental priority? Valuation of their merits is expected to assist in answering this question, thus offering a way to adjudicate intersectoral trade-offs. With an implicit assumption of a zero-sum game, this approach ultimately seeks an instrumental explanation and has been given considerable attention in inland water resource research (e.g., Baran et al. 2007, Ziv et al. 2012).

Among the approaches developed to articulate and capture different kinds of values (e.g., sociocultural and ecological values), economic valuation has been the one most commonly pursued (see Grantham and Rudd 2015). The overall aim of this approach is that an enhanced understanding of the monetary value of inland fisheries (commercial, subsistence, and recreational activities) will reveal the extent of its true economic significance, which in many cases, has been simply buried and therefore ignored. Situating the valuation of fish and fisheries in the broader rubric of ecosystem services has also been touted as an effective strategy that highlights their essential connections to ecosystem functioning (e.g., Hoeinghaus et al. 2009). A comprehensive valuation, including incorporating the temporal or intergenerational dimension (e.g., through discount rates), is expected to bring more informed decision making in favor of inland fisheries and garner greater public support within the context of wider economic development and sustainable livelihoods. In this regard, Arlinghaus et al. (2002: 273) have stated that, “for inland fisheries conservation as well as management, it is essential to provide a thorough economic evaluation of inland fisheries to defend the position of the sector per se against aquatic resource development schemes.”

Several valuation results are indeed noteworthy. For example, de Graaf and Garibaldi (2014) estimate U.S.$6.3 billion as the gross value added by the inland fisheries and aquaculture sector to the whole of Africa in 2011. In the Mekong delta alone, inland fisheries that combine riverine, reservoir, and aquaculture inland fisheries were valued at U.S.$1.5 billion at the time of study (Barlow 2002). These aquatic resources are often regarded as most crucial to the poorest people for sustaining their income, livelihood, and nutritional wellbeing, but they can also be valuable to wealthier groups in society. In the Ayeyarwaddy region of Myanmar, a survey by Tezzo et al. (2017) reveals that the annual average price of “leasable fishery” (Innthugyis in the Burmese language) in 2014 was U.S.$5,726 with a large majority of the 1,265 leases recorded in the region valued above U.S.$1,000. Given that the average annual per capita income in Myanmar is estimated at U.S.$1,105 (World Bank 2014), this result highlights the considerable value of fishery in the local context and its relevance as a prized asset.

In addition to economic values, there are other kinds of values that can be assessed and emphasized to more fully characterize inland fisheries. In fact, the greatest offering of many inland fisheries to society is perhaps found in their noneconomic contributions expressed through values that are nonmonetary and even not easily quantifiable. For instance, accurately capturing the scope of food security and nutritional benefits bestowed by inland fish and fisheries and the extent to which they contribute to people’s livelihoods can be an important marker of their importance. Furthermore, inland fisheries are often a source and a carrier of experiential, identity, cultural, and place attachment values for those who participate, providing psychological, spiritual, and communal benefits (e.g., Close et al. 2002, Jackson et al. 2005). Arguably, these values do not only pertain to indigenous groups found in various pockets of the world, but are also experienced by numerous (and scattered) waterside residents and recreational fishers in the industrialized regions of North America and Europe (e.g., Hickley and Tompkins 1998, Kearney 2002). It is expected that such values will be of increasing relevance to larger segments of society as participation in recreational angling is growing in developing countries such as India (Bower et al. 2014). Most crucially, these humanistic values held by fishers and a fish-dependent populace that go beyond the instrumental purview can help set apart inland fisheries from other water-utilizing sectors, helping to advance different, and more diverse, arguments toward elevating the public perception and the political impetus for inland fisheries.

Valuation is, however, never an exact science. Conversion of the values into a format readily communicable and comparable is inherently unsatisfying, which is partially why values are not easily amenable to decision making. Arlinghaus et al. (2002: 271) have admitted that the “benefits created by inland fisheries are difficult to group, quantify and evaluate.” Fortunately, different valuation procedures are available for helping to capture and analyze the values within and across the different sectors. More conventional quantification techniques include cost–benefit analysis, contingent valuation method, economic impact assessment methods such as using the gross value of fish landings based on market prices (e.g., Neiland and Béné 2006) and various modeling approaches (e.g., Orr et al. 2012). There has also been an increasing interest in using fish consumption data based on agricultural household surveys (e.g., Belton et al. 2011), nonmonetary ranking techniques such as damage schedules (e.g., Song and Chuenpagdee 2013), socioeconomic or livelihood analysis (e.g., Béné and Neiland 2003), and even narrative approaches that center on individual, community, and societal wellbeing (e.g., Song 2018). Despite the significant challenges noted above, the many values of inland fisheries and an active interest in confirming them through a range of valuation techniques present optimism for a breakthrough in clarifying and enhancing the intersectoral position of inland fisheries (Cowx and Portocarrero Aya 2011, Cooke et al. 2013, Lynch et al. 2017).

Power relations

This aspect privileges the role of power in addressing the intersectoral governance of an aquatic system. Involving multiple sectors with diverse interests and overlapping administrative boundaries, especially under the assumption of resource limitation and zero-sum situation, means that there can arise uneven power relations that undergird a particular dynamic between water sectors, including the marginalization of inland fisheries.

Power is one of the central topics in social sciences and governance research and is advanced with many varied meanings (Haugaard and Clegg 2009, Morrison et al. 2017). A conventional way to define power is by referring to the capacities or abilities to shape context or conduct of others (Boonstra 2016). By applying various indicators of power, such as financial resources, infrastructure, access to natural resources, reputation, social connections, information, and technology, each sectoral interest would work to influence decision making about intersectoral relationships and the structural contexts that condition it. On the one hand, power is about winners and losers, and about how trade-offs are determined or maintained between the winning and losing sectors. Power can be used to widen or intensify existing disparities. It can also be manifested in more insidious forms such as patronage, indebtedness, corruption, and nepotism. On the other hand, power can be a productive force that represents potential for change and creation of enhanced opportunities (Jentoft 2007). In this regard, power is about empowerment—achieving a fairer representation of a disadvantaged group, sharing responsibilities through comanagement or decentralization, and widening the knowledge base to include less dominant forms of understanding such as local traditional knowledge. Jentoft (2007: 431) argues that “we should not always think of power as zero-sum, that the empowerment of some necessarily implies the disempowerment of someone else... Relationships of power might then be more than the sum of parts. Power is sometimes strengthened by being shared.” In the same vein, though much rarer in practice, so-called “win–win” scenarios (see Beard et al. 2011, Lynch et al. 2016a) can be regarded as promoting this synergistic function of power, insofar as they are conceived in recognition of power dynamics and do not simply serve an apolitical and neutral prescription akin to a straightforward technical–administrative solution, e.g., a “panacea.”

The trend of inland fisheries research reflects the broader domain of fisheries and water resource research, in which power remains an undertreated topic (Visseren-Hamakers 2015, Weitz et al. 2017). Even in studies that address power, prioritization of its specific facets, such as conflict, inequity, and marginalization, are often needed for research tractability (e.g., Bennett et al. 2001, Nguyen-Khoa and Smith 2004, Arlinghaus 2005). Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly a crucial topic of investigation and forms an essential make-up of intersectoral linkages. Salmi and Sipponen (2017) analyzed the complex power relations that have occurred in vendace (Coregonus albula) fisheries in Finnish lakes, in which both intrasectoral and intersectoral power dynamics are present. In the early 1990s, water owners of private lakes had used their legally sanctioned management authority to refuse the granting of commercial fishing permits despite scientific reports suggesting that commercial fishery using small pair trawling and seine netting does not jeopardize the stock health. The authors observed that local water owners’ opposition to commercial fishing is tied to their will to stamp positional clout in local-level fisheries management and at the same time advance their recreational fishing opportunities. More recently, an increasing concern of nature conservationists for the bycatch of endangered Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis) by commercial and recreational fishing had successfully convinced water owners and government authorities to institute a system of seasonal fishing bans. Although the fishing ban applied equally to both commercial and recreational fishing groups, a heavier impact was on the approximately 60 commercial fishers located in the habitat of the Saimaa ringed seal who became deprived of an important income source, compared with about 400,000 recreational fishers in the area. According to the authors, the lack of consideration of the livelihood aspect for commercial fishers is another reflection of the weaker lobbying power and political standing of the commercial lake fishery in relation to the recreational sector. It also hints at the lower priority of natural resource utilization vis-à-vis nature conservation in decisions being made about waterbody use.

Asymmetrical power relations do not, however, always result in visible conflict and social disorder (Lukes 1974, Gaventa 1980). A seemingly peaceful and consensual situation may in fact be harboring entrenched inequality, domination, and deprivation in which the sense of powerlessness within marginalized sectors is prevalent and self-perpetuating. This reinforces the fact that an investigation of power is all the more crucial in a multistakeholder, intersectoral setting, in which large power differentials may be operating. In many inland fisheries, both in developed and developing regions, such covert power dynamics might be what is happening. Dedicated approaches drawing on political ecology or political economy (e.g., see Derman and Ferguson 1995, Sneddon 2007, Béné et al. 2009, Nayak et al. 2016, Sneddon and Fox 2012) will be helpful. Yet, more general approaches using qualitative methods such as field-based ethnographic research and discourse analysis of policy documents would also represent a useful contribution.

Vertical policy interaction

Whereas the previous mechanisms tend to focus on horizontal interactions taking place in proximate surroundings at the level of a watershed, the final inquiry seeks to examine high-level societal aspirations and discourses that exert influence on inland fisheries. These are seen as external drivers that go beyond geographical confines of a defined waterbody, thus escaping the immediate control of local or national actors, and can strongly motivate the objectives and priorities for development and management of inland waters (Lynch et al. 2016a). Similarly, the pertinent literature has questioned the (typical) horizontal scope of water resource analysis by recognizing that barriers and solutions may lie in the broader political economy (Weitz et al. 2017). Such vertical, multiscalar dynamics are an increasingly important consideration in the current era characterized by economic globalization, supranational coordination, and climate change. Concepts such as cross-scale linkages (Berkes 2002), earth system governance (Biermann 2007), and telecoupling (Liu et al. 2013) all elaborate on general theories of ways to ensure environmental and natural resource sustainability in light of these “distant” implications.

Inland fisheries are no exception to these expanding governance processes. Ideas, resources, finances, people, and goods can all descend upon the sites of fisheries affecting the trajectory of intersectoral interactions. Synergistic and balanced relationships that may have existed between fisheries and other sectors could start to tip in favor of a new dynamic fed by a development of a particular discursive undercurrent. The case of an urban wetland fishery in Kolkata offers an instructive example in this regard, in which the fishery sector is put under growing pressure from a wider development agenda that has upset local-level symbiosis (Hettiarachchi and Morrison 2017). In the early 20th century, in response to wastewater and sewage discharge from an expanding city, the dwellers of the East Kolkata Wetlands skillfully devised a vast network of freshwater ponds to transform runoff into a source of nutrients for aquaculture. This had marked a symbiotic relationship between urban water treatment needs and wetland livelihoods, which was exemplified by the annual production of 8,000 t of fish combined with a daily intake of 0.7–1.0 million m³ of wastewater in 2010. Additionally, it is estimated that the wetland provided ecosystem services of carbon sequestration and recreation, each valued at 53 million and 43 million rupees per annum (ca. U.S.$0.8 and 0.6 million). However, spurred by the procapital economic restructuring in India during the 1980s, the wetland system came under intense urbanization pressure. Speculative real-estate investment and the inflow of international finance capital ensued, and as a result, nearly 20% of the wetland was reclaimed for real-estate purposes by 2003, with more unaccounted conversion suspected in recent decades (Hettiarachchi and Morrison 2017). Along with the reduction of the wetland area, ensuing excessive siltation deteriorated water quality and rendered fish ponds unusable.

Likewise, in Lake Constance in Europe, Baer et al. (2017) described how an internationally coordinated agreement on improving water quality can influence the image of a lake such that water quality quickly establishes itself as the primary concern for the management of a waterbody. The societal narrative toward “clean” water can work to benefit those sectors that favor an oligotrophic condition with clear-blue water while overshadowing others that prefer a more mesotrophic state such as a commercial capture fishery. Baer at al. (2017: 12) write, “Having played a central role in lake management and decision-making in the past, in particular during the eutrophic phase, Upper Lake Constance fisheries now find themselves second in terms of socio-political importance compared to environmental protection, tourism, water quality and outdoor recreation. The lake condition that would constitute an optimal solution from a fisheries perspective (i.e., P at about 10–12 μg·L-1) is anathema to prevailing societal concerns, including those of environmental protection organizations, and contravenes current interpretation of environmental policy such as the EU Water Framework Directive.”

The aspiration toward developing water resources of major rivers for hydropower generation is another case in point (Bakker 1999, Lebel et al. 2005, Winemiller et al. 2016). In the Mekong River basin, large-scale hydropower development powered by big dams is a dominant and long-running regional theme that has garnered the strongest political and financial support (Greacen and Palettu 2007). The formation of this shared vision is said to stem from the Cold War era, in which U.S., Soviet, and Chinese planners all imagined a similar future for the Mekong, and has been, over time, heavily promoted by foreign donors and international financial organizations. With Laos aspiring to be the hydroelectric “battery of Asia,” for example, the existential threat that accelerated hydro-development poses to fisheries and fishery-based livelihoods in the region is real and looming (Baran and Myschowoda 2009, Vaidyanathan 2011). By the same token, inland fisheries can, however, also look to rally around a different discursive ideal. The “food security” argument (e.g., Béné et al. 2016, McIntyre et al. 2016) or the “local food movement” buttressed on healthy food production in an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible manner (e.g., Nelson et al. 2013) may be among some of the strategic avenues to which inland fisheries can attach themselves with the assistance of nongovernmental organizations and other civil society partners.

Alternatively phrased as “global drivers” (Nayak and Berkes 2014, Lynch et al. 2016a) or “external inputs” (Nguyen et al. 2016), the vertical interactions that embody overarching political economy may thus dictate the national or local policy agenda, providing a raison d’être for the use of inland waters and subsequently shape public opinion of involved sectors. Understanding intersectoral interactions would therefore require a broadening of the research scope to see these multiscale connections as integral to the process of governing inland fisheries.


Each of these four mechanisms forms an important research undertaking on its own, as indicated above. Yet, they are also pieces of a bigger governance puzzle, with each putting unique emphasis on intersectoral interaction (as summarized in Table 1). Their thematic connection is an important consideration and leads to synthesized insights. First, the broad-based characterization of the intersectoral relationships is basic to all other inquiries. Some understanding of the involved sectors—their activities, management structure, beneficiaries, and demands on water and space—would be required to establish their relevance in terms of sectoral overlap and influence (see Fig. 2., arrow a). Next, estimated values of the sectors can be used to shift the power dynamic by empowering sectors such as fisheries in resource allocation decisions (Fig. 2, arrow b). In one example reported by Navrud (2001), the Norwegian Fishing and Hunting Association was able to successfully increase government funding for deacidifying salmon rivers and brown trout lakes in southern Norway by using estimated recreational and nonuse values of fish, which demonstrated social benefits that are 1.2–4.4 times the costs of liming and restocking. Yet, this should remain a cautious proposition, because, as noted from the history of hydropower development in the Mekong, favorable valuation results may still be ineffective in shifting power relations if power imbalance between sectors is too large. It follows that valuation itself can be influenced and even distorted by the politics (Fig. 2, arrow c). Valuation numbers may differ depending on which method is employed (e.g., whether cost–benefit analysis or multicriteria evaluation) or which discount rate is used. The question, according to Martínez-Alier (2001: 727), is “who has then the power to impose a particular language of valuation?” Importance given to the different values can depend on the “outcomes of the conflicts,” as those who surface as “winners” would be at an advantage to dictate the terms of valuation.

Probing further, vertical policy interaction will affect the intersectoral power relations subtly but forcefully, raising the legitimacy of the sectors that align with the prevailing paradigm while marginalizing others that do not (Fig. 2, arrow d). Likewise, the discourses can also reveal which types of values are prioritized and why, and dictate how they are to be weighed (Fig. 2, arrow f). Although indigenous and cultural values are being increasingly discussed in management contexts (e.g., Jackson 2006, Chan et al. 2011), economic values will likely remain the basis of modus operandi given the dominant ideological orientation of “economic man” in governance processes (Söderbaum 1999). Reciprocally, the high-level discourses would also be shaped by local, watershed, or national-level experiences (Fig. 2, arrow e). Capable sectors on-the-ground may deliberately enlist (or dismiss) support of certain discourses, thereby reinforcing or weakening the potency of affected discourses (e.g., irrigated agriculture championing the “food security” objective, but not “wetland conservation”). Unlike the top-down influences, the local-to-global processes may be more difficult to detect and analyze because impacts on global commons are felt more slowly and cumulatively and the cause–effect relationships tend to be diffuse and complex (Nayak and Berkes 2014). Still, well-publicized cases of environmentally destructive practices of brackish shrimp farming in tropical mangrove settings have, for instance, led to changing consumer preferences, as reflected in certification schemes and consumer purchasing behavior, and have contributed to shaping global awareness about the sustainable-use patterns of inland water resources (Oosterveer 2006). Moreover, many recent efforts to recognize and diversify the values of inland fisheries by academia, nongovernmental organizations, and global institutions demonstrate the potential of empirical work to inspire a “grand” discourse (see Baran et al. 2007, Taylor et al. 2016, FAO and MSU 2016) (Fig. 2, arrow g).

Thus, not only does each mechanism provide a discrete lens to reveal the rationale for policy actions that affect inland fisheries, they can also work in a joined-up way to explore how policy trends are shaped and influenced. In addition to being a desirable undertaking, examining inland fisheries in a synthetic manner may in fact be a necessity. Performed alone, the valuation task may run the risk of being ineffective, if the estimated values of inland fisheries still fall short of what is needed to claim its renewed importance relative to other competing sectors. In such a case, a more qualitative approach that deconstructs why and how the value differences come to be established and what can tip the balance in terms of win–win solutions or new discursive ideals could contribute to constructing a stronger argument for inland fisheries. In the same vein, merely providing a critical analysis of power relations may be less than satisfying when it comes to making policy suggestions. A possibility of quantifying important details through well-structured system characterization and/or valuation should be sought to help translate the lessons into more accessible terms.


Synthesizing empirical experiences documented in case study writing and in the literature, this paper explains an heuristic model aimed at enhancing the governance of inland fisheries by recognizing and accounting for the relationships occurring with other water-based sectors. Simply put, inland fisheries do not work as an isolated governance entity, perhaps even more so than marine fisheries (Hilborn et al. 2003, Cooke et al. 2014). Whereas the fishing populace and fisheries managers would be directly responsible for managing fisheries, other sectoral interests play an oblique yet momentous role in determining its fate. In promoting another view of development, other sectoral interests may be advancing a certain valuation logic that inevitably trivializes fisheries. In doing so, they could also be exerting resources to win local and wider public support, framing debates to sway interpretations of scientific data and media reports, siding with particular global narratives and funding bodies, and offering status quo-driven win–win solutions. All this (and more in the form a poor design, a weak multistakeholder process, and operational inefficiency) has been observed in the case of the Pak Mun Dam in northeast Thailand, for instance, where social strife to defend and restore fisheries-dependent livelihoods has been equally rife since the approval of the dam in 1989 and is ongoing to this day, prompting Foran and Manorom (2009) to call it “perpetually contested.” This raises the question of whether the process would have been any easier and better decisions derived if the above lessons were sought and more readily available from the outset.

In the end, despite the augmented research endeavor and better-informed political conversations, inland fisheries might still garner low priority in water decision making. Promoting sustainability and resilience of inland fish and fisheries could, therefore, continue to face an uphill task. The exclusion of inland fisheries in preference of a sole focus on the marine domain in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals is a stark reminder that inland fisheries occupy a peripheral position in the wider sustainability discussion. Nevertheless, tangible and important benefits of inland fisheries do occur around the world and are not to be overlooked. Viewing policy outcomes and research initiatives of inland fisheries through intersectoral lenses can help stimulate more balanced guidance for streamlined water development (e.g., using the approach taken here as a start). We submit that failure to act upon the connected effects of intersectoral influences risks further dissipation of the livelihood and biodiversity functions of inland waterbodies, putting millions of fishers and waterside communities’ crucial dependence worldwide in jeopardy.


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.


This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project, Too Big to Ignore: Global Partnership for Small-Scale Fisheries Research [895-2011-1011]. It also contributes to the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH). The authors thank Ruby Grantham, Tiffany Morrison, and an anonymous reviewer for constructive and helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.


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Address of Correspondent:
Andrew M. Song
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University,
Townsville, QLD, 4811, Australia
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