The questions of what property is and how it can and should be managed are central to the academic fields of economics, finance, history and sociology. Looking at successful examples of vulnerable and valuable resources, such as commodity
fisheries, can help us answer important questions: What role did the management of the commons play, and what was the impact of indigenous traditions?
Derived from game theory in shared resource ecology, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is the idea that individual users who have access to a resource will act according to their self-interest and cause the degradation of the resource because of
a lack of coordination. A frequent example is the unregulated livestock grazing on common land (referred to as ‘common’ within Great Britain and Ireland).
If people have privately kept herds: each farmer has a financial incentive to feed their herd as much as possible, yet that often results in overgrazing and destroys the pasture affecting everyone’s herd. The solution most commonly
presented is removing open access to the resource, through government regulation or privatisation.
When it comes to the specific case of coastal communities, an unfortunate pattern has emerged. Contact with international markets has led locals to over-exploit highly valuable fisheries in a boom phase, which has been followed by fishery
collapse and social disruption in the bust phase.
Examples range from overexploitation of sea cucumbers in Mexico to exhaustion of jellyfish populations in Nicaragua. Is it an inevitable, never-ending cycle? Can users exploit common pool resources without destroying them? This is
especially in the context of resources as ecologically delicate as fisheries.
‘Contact with international markets has led locals to over-exploit highly valuable commodity fisheries in a boom phase, which has been followed by fishery collapse and social disruption in the bust phase.’
In an attempt to answer who is responsible for our natural resources, we can turn to the island states of Palau, Yap and Pohnpei. A recent study focused on these Pacific island nations to identify how they were able to improve the
livelihoods of their citizens and simultaneously avoid fishery collapse, critical to each of their economies. How did they do so? By rejecting export markets? How did these communities find a way to govern the common resources?
Despite different languages and cultures, they are all island nations with indigenous rights enshrined into their constitutions—a key factor for this case study, since traditional leader roles are protected and incorporated into law.
Additionally, the practice of fishing shares a similar role within all three societies. A key part of local economies, food systems and cultural values, over half of households engage in some form of fishing. Importantly, sea cucumbers are
part of the traditional diet of Palau and Pohnpei, but not Yap.
The global sea cucumber trade has seen multiple booms in recent years and has even been hailed as a tool for reducing poverty. They are highly sought-after luxury products, especially in China and Hong Kong, with alleged medicinal
properties, ranging from fighting wrinkles to curing cancers.
While the sea cucumber trade has certainly brought immediate financial benefit to the nations as a whole, individual fishermen often fail to see a wage increase. Meanwhile, the social disruption generated by inequity, socially unacceptable
behaviour and in-migration is lasting.
Moreover, the rapid depletion of fisheries can end up permanently destroying the livelihoods of fishermen. Sea cucumbers are particularly vulnerable to overharvesting for the same reason they are attractive for fishermen: slow-growing yet
easy to collect and store. In terms of reproduction, they are broadcast spawners, and so are functionally dependent on high density to be successful. Their depletion, therefore, creates a vicious cycle.
In 1994, with the roles of the states’ fisheries and ecology at the top of mind for the new nation, Palau enacted the Marine Protection Act of 1994, putting intergenerational sustainability into law. But loopholes in its structure allowed
sea cucumber exports in 2011, with many state officials and traditional leaders accused of corruption.
The income of participating fishermen skyrocketed, with some reporting sums greater than $50,000, almost five times the median income at the time. Yet the overharvest, marked by a decline in both the number and size of sea cucumbers,
alarmed scientists and conservationists and also went against the social norms that promoted moderation.
When the number of people coming to Ngarchelong State waters to harvest sea cucumbers became too high, traditional leaders, elected officials, fishers and conservationists came together to stop the exploitation.
The final blow was an anonymous advert in a newspaper, urging people from all over the country to harvest and sell sea cucumbers in the rural state and get rich quick. As a result, even fishermen who had a financial incentive to oppose the
ban joined the movement, since fishery collapse and very high competition was threatening their livelihoods.
The coalition managed to pass an export ban at the state level. In Koror, the most populous state of Palau, NGOs and officials were raising awareness on the national level, eventually gaining enough public support for a nationwide ban in
The level of fishing returned to previous levels once exportation was banned, yet the environmental damage can still be seen—both in the targeted species and the scars of seagrass beds and reefs. Today, despite this being one of the biggest
revenue flows in the country for the past few decades, the majority of people still support the ban, preferring social stability and ecological sustainability over quick profits.
‘The majority of people still support the ban, preferring social stability and ecological sustainability over quick profits.’
In 2011, the Pohnpei State Fisheries Protection Act (PFA) of 1995, originally instituted to protect fishing stocks, came under threat when a Korean company convinced a senator to try to re-open the fisheries.
After the Office of Fisheries and Aquaculture (OFA) assessed sea cucumber stocks and developed a management framework, the PFA was amended to allow for exports, with a bid to allow up to 67,500 kilograms net weight of sea cucumbers. The bid
was won by a Chinese company, and a lengthy legal battle involving reinstating the ban in 2019, then lifting it regionally, ensued.
This was also compounded by the fact that by allowing foreign companies to fish in their waters, the local fishing communities faced strong competition and were affected by decreased stocks with no direct benefits.
Despite multiple studies continuing to show that Pohnpei’s waters cannot sustain sea cucumber fishing at an industrial scale, the legal battle continues. On one hand, Young Sun, a trading company headquartered in Hong Kong threatens the
island’s state government with lawsuits over their losses. The young people of the island also sued Young Sun and Pohnpei State under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and another case that targeted individuals caught illegally
‘While many cautiously supported the public victories against the company and the bans on exports, trust in the state and traditional leaders has also eroded.’
Yap has the longest history with sea cucumber exports, undergoing boom-bust cycles since the 1800s, both under Japanese colonial administration and as an independent nation.
In 1995, a Korean company exploited a loophole in Yap law by paying fishermen low prices for large volumes of sea cucumbers under the guise of a scientific study. As more people fished illegally, an alliance of biologists, chiefs and state
workers acted together and successfully pushed a fishing moratorium, which lasted until growing demand in China and declining supplies in the Pacific once again made exporters target the island.
In the years after the moratorium was passed, the power of chiefs had declined, and from 2006, fishing gained momentum. Overfishing occurred and there was an alleged decline in the quality of the catch, resulting in lower prices being paid.
A moratorium was designed to ensure environmental sustainability. Today, Yap is still able to boast a sustainable model for sea cucumber harvesting while avoiding fishery collapse.
The results are quite similar: moratoriums or bans that either greatly limit foreign markets or ban them outright while allowing locals to continue their traditional ways.
These examples show how diverse shareholders can work together to protect a common resource, even when there is a great financial incentive to overexploit it. The fact that even today these countries have sustainable practices, despite the
pressure from international companies, is a testament to the power held by a culture focusing on intergenerational responsibility and respect for nature.
The victories were won by united coalitions of people with a common goal. Fishermen, young people, elected and traditional leaders, and civil society organisations coordinated to ban the trade at its peak, using public protest, court
battles, customary and statutory law, because they all realised the health of the environment is more important than short-term profits.
‘The victories were won by united coalitions of people with a common goal.’
These examples of successful resistance show that the people affected can be self-aware political actors, able to advocate for themselves through a diversity of tactics. By asserting indigenous values, rights and institutions, they
establish a balance between development, market participation and ecology.
This is how we can prevent the tragedy of the commodity: by identifying the various stakeholders, forming a diverse coalition, and employing the full diversity of tactics and means we have available. It is not just an economic endeavour; it
requires building or maintaining strong social links based on mutual respect and trust.
Featured Image: The Ocean Agency | Ocean Image Bank
Crona B.I., Basurto X., Squires D., et al. (2016) Towards a typology of interactions between small-scale fisheries and global seafood trade, Marine Policy.Volume 65, pages 1-10.
Ferguson, C., et al. (2022) The tragedy of the commodity is not inevitable: Indigenous resistance prevents high-value fisheries collapse in the Pacific islands, Global Environmental Change.Volume 73, page