My research examines the power and the limits of common-pool resource theory to predict sustainable outcomes in small-scale fisheries from decentralization policies. My research conceptualizes small-scale fisheries broadly, as social-ecological systems involving ecosystems, fish, fish harvesters, fish processors, fish traders, and others who derive livelihoods and wellbeing from seafood. To fill in gaps in common-pool resource theory identified by my empirical research, I draw on critical perspectives from political ecology, human geography, and development studies.
COMMON-POOL RESOURCE THEORY
Common-pool resource theory is a theory of collective action to resolve natural resource tragedies such as the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Ostrom and others demonstrated that local groups of resource users often have the strongest incentives and the best information to manage resources sustainably, and can sustainably harvest resources collectively for hundreds of years. This work motivated a wave of decentralization in natural resource policy, especially around fisheries: the classic ‘resource commons’. In the past 20 years, common-pool resource theory has evolved substantially, incorporating the voices of critical social scientists concerned with environmental justice, feminist critiques, and decolonizing methodologies. These concerns are incorporated in global conversations about small-scale fisheries. One of the major debates within the field today is whether the circumstances of sustainable resource management by local users (i.e., sustainability through decentralization) can be crafted through policies.
My research program speaks to this debate through analysis of fisheries at two scales: ultra-local (fishing towns in the Mexican states of Baja California Sur, Quintana Roo, and Sonora), and global (international patterns of trade and fishery status). These different scales of analysis require different methods. Thus, I use multiple methods, predominantly social science methods: ethnography (interviews, participant observation, field notes), social science surveys, document analysis, and economic games in the field. For example, my dissertation research critically examined the implications of a decentralization policy for fisheries management in Baja California Sur, Mexico. To assess collective action implications of this policy, I conducted 76 interviews, 6 months of participant observation in Baja California Sur (including 300+ pages of field notes), and document analysis of 12 legal documents, funded by a James B. Duke International Research Travel Fellowship (Duke University Graduate School). I contextualized this qualitative data with quantitative data from surveys conducted by collaborators in the same towns in 2009 and 2016. My dissertation contributes to and is complemented by ongoing collaborations with economists, geographers, ecologists, oceanographers, and modelers in projects funded by the NSF Coupled Natural-Human Systems Program (NSF-CNH, Award #1632648, $1,790,687) and the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC, FISHMAR Graduate Pursuit).
There are three themes of my current and future research program. My research program asks:
- Can weakly defined policies facilitate fishers to manage their own fisheries sustainably? (Theme 1)
- What cross-scale linkages facilitate collective action for sustainable fisheries? (Theme 2)
- How can critical perspectives on collective action fill gaps in common-pool resource theory? (Theme 3)