Marine Protected Areas – A successful implementation of Common-Pool-Resource Theory?

While fish farming has grown tremendously over the past decades, marine catches have stagnated: Nearly 90% of global marine fisheries are overfished (Kokhar, 2017; Worldbank Group, 2017). The increasing degradation of natural resources, such as coastal ecosystems, poses a major threat toward sustainable resource governance. Densely populated coastal regions are especially vulnerable and depend on the maintenance of a tactile ecosystem.

Notably however, these regions have become susceptible to increased pressure from influences including the exploitation of marine resources (e.g. overfishing), tourism and urban expansion (WII et al., 2014). Thus, a need for an integrated approach to coastal and marine management has emerged. This method must provide a way to resolve the conflict over fisheries and find an equilibrium between, on the one hand- the preservation of the livelihood of local fishermen, and on the other hand the protection of the biodiversity of its ecosystem.

Elinor Ostrom, Nobelist on institutional economics, provides empirical evidence to explore the conditions under which Common-Pool Resource (CPR) conflicts can be satisfactorily solved. According to her conceptual framework, the term common-pool resources refers to a ‘natural or man-made resource system that is sufficiently large as to make it costly […] to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use (Ostrom, 1990).’ As such, fishery resources frequently suffer from free-riding problems, since it is hardly possible to exclude an individual from exploiting fish. In fact, an individual who cannot be excluded from obtaining the benefits from the CPR has little incentives to contribute voluntarily to the provision and maintenance of the concerning natural resource (Olson, 1965). However, Ostrom tackles the socio-economic challenges of CPRs by developing a framework of self-collective action and decision-making. Thereby, the participation of all local stakeholders is crucial to build up institutional arrangements, which include rules and mechanisms in order to sustain a CPR.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are institutional arrangements developed to manage coastal natural resources with the objective to restrict human activity and to achieve long-term conservation of the ecosystem (Feuerstein, 2014). Despite some differences between CPRs and MPAs the obstacles are similar, and solutions can be sought by applying the model of CPR theory (Mackleworth, 2007). MPAs adjust livelihood opportunities and incentives for collective action by creating new rules and practices that regulate stakeholders’ interactions with the marine environment (Basurto et al., 2016). MPAs restrictive regulations regarding access to fishing grounds are likely to cause tension among local fishermen (smaller stakeholders), yet produce an alternatively positive response from a broader set of stakeholders, including tourism and industrial sectors.

Consequently, competing interaction between fishermen and other stakeholders are frequently observable within MPAs. As well as new conflicts (between use and conservation) are generated (Jones, 2002). In Croatia for example, the dynamics of new economic activities have led to traditional stakeholders becoming peripheralized and some areas became deteriorated environmentally while others developed economically (Christie et al., 2003; Garaway & Esteban, 2003). Regarding the role of governance structures, two divergent approaches to optimal MPA management are characterized to resolve conflicts: top-down, government-led, and bottom-up, community-based (Jones, 2002). Given CPR theory and its emphasis on self-collective rule implementation, as well as the diverging interests of different stakeholders along MPAs, it is argued that it is a key challenge to adopt a middle-way combining both approaches (Jones, 2002). In addition, previous research on CPR theory has proved that cooperative strategies among resource appropriators can lead to long-term sustainable and effective use of CPRs such as fisheries (Berkers, 1989). Thus, successful MPAs highly depend on an institutional framework, which provides for stakeholders and government agencies to jointly manage MPAs (Kelleher, 1999). According to this the development of local participation and greater involvement of power in MPA policy-making would enter the realm of CPRs.

Why is local participation crucial for the successful implementation of MPAs?

Where there is a high level of local participation there is a high potential for collective action in designing MPAs. Better involvement helps to understand the nature of conflicts over (property) rights and responsibilities and the role of larger global processes affecting the natural resource. A successful implementation of CPR theory in MPAs therefore requires understanding of social and political capacities of local communities. Individuals, such as fishermen, who cannot be excluded from obtaining benefits of the collective good have little incentives to contribute voluntarily to the provision of that good. Hence, they must be involved in the establishment of a regulatory framework that deals with the management of their resource. To conclude and open up for discussions, I would like to underline the argument with a quote from Ostrom:

However, as long as analysts presume that individuals cannot change such situations themselves, they do not ask what internal or external variables can enhance or impede the efforts of communities of individuals to deal creatively and constructively with perverse problems […] (Ostrom 1990).




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Christie, P., McCay, B., Miller, M., Lowe, C., White, A., Stoffle, R., Fluharty, D., McManus, L., Chuenpagdee, R., Pomeroy, C., Suman, D., Blount, B., Huppert, D., Eisma, R., Oracion, E., Lowry, K. & Pollnac, R. (2003): Toward developing a complete understanding: A social science research agenda for marine protected areas, Fisheries, S. 22-26.

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Kelleher, G. (1999): Guidelines for Marine Protected Areas, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Khokhar, T. (2017): Marine Catches Have Stagnated While Fish Farming has Grown, World Bank Blogs. (Zugriff: 15.07.2019)

Mackelworth, Peter C. (2007): Convergence of Marine Protected Area Policy with Common Pool Research Theory, a case study:The Losinj Dolphin Reserve, Croatia, Thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of London.

Mathur B., Endrukaitis E. (2014): Training Courses on Coastal and Marine Biodiversity and Marine Protected Area in India, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) & Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) Gmbh.

Olson, M. (1965): The Logic of Collective Action, Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Ostrom, E. (1990): Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge Univ. Press, New York.

Worldbank Group (2017): The Sunken Billions Revisited, Progress and Challenges in Global Marine Fisheries, Environment and Sustainable Development, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank.


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