Fishermen are managing the catch

By Bruce Barcott
PERC Media Fellow
Environmental Journalist

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.

Community leaders are ‘by far the most important attribute in successful co-managed fisheries,’ says one expert.

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: Community leaders are ‘by far the most important attribute in successful co-managed fisheries,’ says one expert.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.

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Yale Environment 360