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In novel approach to fisheries, fishermen manage the catch

An increasingly productive way of restoring fisheries is based on the counter-intuitive concept of allowing fishermen to take charge of their own catch. But the success of this growing movement depends heavily on a strong leader who will look out not only for the fishermen, but for the resource itself.

When it began in the early 1970s, Southern California’s sea urchin fishery was a wide-open free-for-all. State marine managers considered urchins a pest — a threat to coastal kelp beds, which they eat — and divers were given a no-limit harvest. Japan’s robust economy was driving a thriving trade in “uni,” buttery sweet urchin gonads beloved by sushi fanciers. The good money convinced divers like Peter Halmay, then a civil engineer, to quit his day job and dive for urchins full time.

“You go down with a rake and a basket and hand pick ‘em, one by one,” says Halmay, who dives out of an old lobster boat based in San Diego. “Cleanest fishery in the world — our by-catch is zero.”

The open harvest worked all too well. By the 1990s, the sea urchin population had been reduced by 75 percent and showed no sign of leveling off. The state limited the number of urchin licenses, but still the population fell. So Halmay led his fellow divers to agree upon limits among themselves. “We realized that unless we established minimum size limits we were going to fish these things out,” he recalls.

Today the San Diego sea urchin fishery is one of the most sustainable co-managed fisheries in America. Co-management is just what it sounds like: Local divers and state officials work together to set limits, and for the most part the divers police themselves. Over the past two decades, co-managed fisheries have emerged as one of the most promising strategies — along with marine reserves and catch shares — to halt the decline of ocean ecosystems worldwide. At least 211 co-managed fisheries now exist worldwide, ranging from Alaska’s billion-dollar Bering Sea pollock fishery to smaller artisanal cooperatives like the abalone harvest along the Chilean coast.

What separates a successful co-managed fishery from a failure? It’s not strict oversight, enforcement, or harsh punishment. It’s Peter Halmay — or rather, the role that he plays.

In a study published earlier this month in Nature, researchers at the University of Washington analyzed 130 co-managed fisheries around the world, looking for the factors that made the difference between success and failure. At the top of the list: Strong, legitimate community leaders like Peter Halmay.

“Community leaders weren’t just important — they were by far the most important attribute present in successful co-managed fisheries,” says Nicolás Gutiérrez, the study’s lead researcher. That community leader usually comes from among the fishers. Like Peter Halmay, it’s someone who’s earned the respect of his competitors and peers, continues to have a stake in the fishery, but doesn’t use his position to line his own pockets. “Having the trust of peers is critical,” Gutiérrez says. “We identified some fisheries where there were leaders, but they were mostly guided by self interest, and they weren’t effective.”

Surprisingly, the support of local authorities — usually government officials — was one of the least important attributes of a successful co-managed fishery. “In much of the world, central governments have no resources for fisheries management, no effective governance, and little impact on what actually happens on the water,” says University of Washington fisheries professor Ray Hilborn, who co-authored the paper with Gutiérrez and Omar Defeo, scientific coordinator of Uruguay’s national fishery management program. “In a place like Indonesia, top-down government control simply isn’t possible, and community-based management is the only real alternative.”

The largest industrial fisheries in the U.S. and Europe employ observers to monitor the catch. But even in developed nations, government agencies don’t have the money to monitor what happens in smaller enterprises like the Southern California sea urchin fishery. Only the fishermen themselves can do that. And to get them to agree, it takes a Peter Halmay to lead them.


“Gutiérrez’s work is important because it actually tests a number of ideas” that have been put forth in a theoretical way, says Donald Leal, a fisheries economist and senior fellow at PERC, the Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center. Leal works with the World Bank on sustainable fisheries projects in developing countries. Specifically, Leal says, the new study bolsters the work of Indiana University political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics for work that showed how groups using common property could manage it themselves without succumbing to the “tragedy of the commons.” The tragedy of the commons, described in Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 Science article, says that individuals or groups exploiting a shared resource will, out of their own self-interest, ultimately deplete that resource.

Prior to Ostrom, many economists believed the commons could be solved only through privatization or top-down state control. In her 1990 book Governing the Commons, Ostrom found examples of a third way: self-organized enterprises — groups of fishers, farmers, or ranchers — who voluntarily organized themselves in order to share the short-term sacrifices and reap the long-term rewards of their sustainable stewardship of common resources.

Think of a law firm, Ostrom wrote, where individual partners practice on their own but share the rewards of the whole firm’s success. These “private-like” and “public-like” institutions defy easy classification, and each evolves out of its own local ecological, economic, social, and political circumstance. Over the past 20 years, Ostrom’s ideas have been embraced by fisheries policymakers desperate to stop the overfishing that’s led to the crash of marine ecosystems all over the world.

“One of the questions we deal with all the time is, how do you motivate participants in a failing fishery to adopt the changes needed to save it?” says Leal. “Elinor Ostrom looked at fisheries and other natural resources,” he noted, “and derived some common characteristics that led to what she called long enduring systems,” or sustainable, thriving commons. Gutiérrez’s study, Leal says, builds on Ostrom’s foundation by highlighting the importance of what Leal calls “an actuator — a respected leader who can motivate other fishermen to adopt that change.”

As for Ostrom herself, she says she’s heartened by Gutiérrez’s findings. “It was very exciting to see the findings about trust, communication, commitment, and respect for leaders being the most important attributes leading to successful fisheries co-management,” she said recently. Fishing culture has long valued independence, secrecy, and competition. Co-management requires lifelong rivals to cooperate and trust one another. “These aren’t situations where everybody gets together for dinner on a Saturday night and solves the problem,” Ostrom added. “They’re complex, and they take time. You’ve got to trust the other fishers, and that’s why a leader is so important. You’re looking for a person who’s built trust and social capital by solving previous problems in the community.”


Though there are common characteristics, there’s no one-size-fits all model for this “actuator.” Sometimes it’s not even a fisherman. Take, for instance, the southern Belizean town of Punta Gorda, near the Guatemalan border. About 100 local fishermen there make their living by catching grouper, snapper, and mackerel a few miles offshore. It’s an artisanal fishery typical in the non-industrial world. In the predawn hours, fishers head out in pangas or skiffs powered by small outboard motors. They use fish pots and hand lines. Their catch is featured at the local street market, sold to a commercial processor, or taken home for dinner.

Global forces come to bear on Punta Gorda’s tiny fishery. International conservation groups like the WWF and the Environmental Defense Fund are working to protect the Mesoamerican Reef, the 700-mile system that runs from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to northern Honduras — a reef that sustains Punta Gorda’s fishery. In recent years, Jamaican fishermen, who have notoriously overfished their own waters, have taken to raiding the waters off Punta Gorda. The Belizean government lacks the resources and legal authority to keep the foreigners out.

But there is a leader here — or rather, leaders. In 1997, Wil Maheia, a local Punta Gorda man educated at the University of Idaho, created the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE). TIDE and the Belizean government became partners in managing the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, a newly created conservation area. Maheia worked with local fishermen to make sure the reserve enhanced their businesses, instead of ending them. TIDE-funded rangers patrolled local waters to make sure everyone fished with legal nets, in legal spots, at legal times.

Not just an environmental group, TIDE became a beneficent force in the community. The group sponsored youth camps, offered scholarships, and organized soccer leagues. And Maheia became the public face of sustainable marine co-management in Punta Gorda, trusted because of his deep ties to the town and his group’s work on the community’s — and the fishermen’s — behalf.

Maheia retired from TIDE a few years ago, but his role is being carried on by Celia Mahung, the organization’s current executive director. Recognizing the importance of fisher-to-fisher communication, she’s created a community stewards program in which experienced local fishermen receive policy-level training in fisheries management. “We saw there were a few resource users who were already practicing stewardship on their own,” Mahung says. “They were fishermen who’d call up and say, ‘We ought to do something about this.’”

Those stewards have become community leaders, speaking at public meetings, to schoolchildren, and to other fishermen about co-management and sustainable fishing practices. Today they’re leading advocates for a catch shares system, which the Belizean government is now working to institute. (In a catch shares system, fishermen are allotted a secure percentage of that season’s total allowable catch, usually based on their past seasonal average.)


There’s an element of entrepreneurship that often goes hand in hand with the leadership role identified by Gutiérrez in the Nature study.

Six years ago, for instance, Peter Halmay got the idea to have sea urchin divers start collecting data on their catch. They recorded urchin sizes, dates, and locations. “One guy, he’s measured 100,000 sea urchins in the last few years,” Halmay says. That data has proven invaluable. “The state [the State of California Department of Fish and Game] is being pressured to step up their fishery management, but they’ve got no money,” Halmay says. The urchin fleet’s numbers showed that its harvest remained healthy and sustainable. “Without that data, the state might have defaulted to the precautionary principle and just shut us down, not let us fish at all,” says Halmay. (This arrangement, of course, still requires some trust-but-verify work on the part of state fisheries managers.)

For his part, Wil Maheia was instrumental in opening up new markets for the fishermen of Punta Gorda. Years ago he saw an opportunity for local fishermen to make good money guiding foreign sport fishermen — a small but lucrative industry that benefitted from the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. For those who were interested, Maheia arranged for guide training and connected local fishing guides to nearby high-end fishing lodges.

In San Diego, Halmay and the fishery co-management association he helped form, the San Diego Watermen’s Association, have also expanded their markets. “We realized our old business model wasn’t very good,” he says. In the past, sea urchin divers would sell all their catch to uni processors, who didn’t differentiate price-for-quality. An urchin was an urchin. “But we realized there was a market for the highest quality sea urchins — that the very best could command a higher price.” So they started a dockside market.

“All of a sudden people started coming by,” Halmay recalls. “Local Italians love ‘em, but they don’t want them processed. They like them whole. They cut the urchin open and eat it on bread.” Restaurants also came calling. A local Italian bistro, Baci Ristorante, now serves such renowned sea urchin dishes that Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is known to stop in for the uni when his team’s in town.

“Peter Halmay is a great example of this kind of leader,” Nicolás Gutiérrez says. “He used data collection to empower others in the fishery. After a while the whole community started getting involved, realizing that the resource was theirs” to harvest, conserve, and co-manage.

One thing Gutiérrez’s study doesn’t touch on, though, is a key ingredient that Halmay said made a big difference: Information transfer. Fishermen often live in closed-loop information systems. They know a hell of a lot about what’s going on in their waters, but little about what’s happening up the coast or around the world. “We had a visit from a fellow who helped start fishing cooperatives in Japan,” Halmay says. “Then we started reading about what they were doing in Chile and some other places where fishermen were taking charge, doing the management themselves. We said, ‘Well, we can do that!’”

And, with Halmay’s ideas, energy, trusted intentions, and verbal dexterity leading the way, they did it.

Bruce Barcott is an environmental journalist whose articles have appeared in Outside Magazine, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and On Earth magazine. A 2009 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction, he is the author of the book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw. He is working on a narrative history of the battle over salmon and treaty rights in the Pacific Northwest.

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