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Understanding Collective Action from Mexican Fishers’ Discourses: How Fishers Articulate the Need for the State Support and Self-Governance Capabilities


Crisol Méndez-Medina ,

Duke University, US
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Alejandro García-Lozano,

Duke University, US
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Amy Hudson Weaver,

Independent consultant
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Salvador Rodríguez Van Dyck,

Sociedad de Historia Natural Niparajá, MX
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María Tercero,

Sociedad de Historia Natural Niparajá, MX
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Mateja Nenadovic,

Duke University, US
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Xavier Basurto

Duke University, US
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In this study we examine how fishers negotiate the tensions and tradeoffs between self-governance and reliance on the state. We address this question using the case of cooperative fishers in Mexico, where the government has historically acted as benefactor to local communities while also positioning itself as the key actor holding the capacity to solve governance problems. We found that framings regarding the scale of the problem influence arguments about when the government should take responsibility and when fishers should be given autonomy. For Mexican cooperativist fishers, the intervention of the state is fundamental for many issues, particularly for problems that transcend fishers’ capacity for action. To better understand how fishers articulate their responsibilities and those of the government in fisheries management, we designed a participatory methodological approach that allowed fishers the opportunity to articulate and prioritize their own needs and concerns. In the space created through our methodology, fishers were also able to reflect about what might be viable policies and interventions for effective fisheries governance on a national scale. Through the act of speech, fishers performed their own understandings of governance processes and at the same time proposed new institutional arrangements and collective governance strategies, while identifying roles that the state should play in nested, multi-level governance. Insights of this study contribute to the discussions about the value of examining the discursive practices as part of politicized performances that actors use to express policy preferences.

How to Cite: Méndez-Medina, C., García-Lozano, A., Weaver, A. H., Van Dyck, S. R., Tercero, M., Nenadovic, M., & Basurto, X. (2021). Understanding Collective Action from Mexican Fishers’ Discourses: How Fishers Articulate the Need for the State Support and Self-Governance Capabilities. International Journal of the Commons, 15(1), 395–413. DOI:
  Published on 05 Nov 2021
 Accepted on 10 Oct 2021            Submitted on 28 Apr 2021

1. Introduction

Fishers frequently employ public spaces of decision-making as sites for complaining about the problems they face and urging external actors to support them (García Lozano et al. 2019). Yet, the disadvantage of formal decision-making spaces as study sites for understanding how fishers view their own capabilities for collective action and the need for government support is that these spaces incentivize the strategic performance of discourses by fishers and authorities. Fishers discursively reproduce a narrative in which they often portray themselves as powerless to address collective action issues, and the government is often portrayed as the problem-solver. In turn, government officials position their agencies as paternalistic caretakers of the national fishing industry. In private, however, fishers often adopt a much more assertive role in self-governance (Garcia-Lozano et al. 2019 and data from this study).

This study sought to create an alternative space in which Mexican fishers, particularly the small-scale cooperative sector, could express with less strategic motivations (when government officers are not in the room) how they envision their roles in addressing their needs and concerns, so we could understand what these discussions reveal about collective action and the limits of self-governance. In other words, we sought to examine the question: How do fishers articulate the co-existing tensions and tradeoff between self-governance and dependence on the state?

The Mexican government has historically acted as benefactor to local communities, through the allocation of collective access rights to key resources, incentivizing small-scale producers in the primary sector to self-organize to satisfy national economic priorities (Young 2001) yet also positioning itself as the key actor holding the capacity to solve governance problems (Alcalá 2003, Gatti 1986). The case of Mexico is therefore empirically and theoretically valuable for examining this question regarding the emergence of competing discourses of self-reliance from and dependence on the state. Research has focused on how to strengthen local fishing organizations’ capacities or what kinds of policy reforms are necessary (Finkbeiner and Basurto 2015), but less so on facilitating fishers’ articulation of their own agency and capacities. In this study, through discourse analysis, we examine how organized fishers from the small-scale fisheries sector perform their own understandings of governance processes. In the process, fishers identified their own capacities for designing new institutions and developing collective governance strategies, as well as the role that the state should be playing in nested, multi-level governance.

Challenges for self-governance in Mexican fisheries

The promises and challenges of self-governance are well documented in the collective action literature (Berkes 1989, McCay and Acheson 1987, Ostrom 1990). While the practice of self-governance in fisheries most often takes place outside of formal policy circles, in legislation, self-governance is expressed as decentralization of decision-making power, described frequently in terms of the devolution of autonomy or co-responsibility in the governance of fishing resources. Yet too often it remains unclear how it can be implemented, when and over what fishers should have more autonomy, and when should government step in to support or regulate their activities (Domínguez 2010, Méndez-Medina et al 2020a). A commonly cited barrier is that, often, negotiation fora do not involve fishers appropriately (Jentoft 2005, Townsend et al 2008, Yang et al. 2014), or are skewed toward those with power and/or knowledge of existing regulatory frameworks (Nenadovic et al. 2016).

For fishers in Mexico, participating in fisheries management decisions is a challenging task. All fisheries resources are the responsibility of the federal government, which historically has followed a centralized management approach. Recent efforts to decentralize fisheries decisions to coastal states are encouraging, however. The creation of state fisheries councils and local committees is enabled by the most recent Fisheries Law and there are examples of collaboration between states’ fisheries departments and the Federal government (e.g., fishing refugia in the Punta San Cosme-Punta Coyote Corridor and the swimming crab fisheries management plan) (Espinosa-Romero et al. 2014). Yet, it is still the case that opportunities for fishers to interact with decision-makers are very limited, often leading fishers to choose disruptive strategies to be heard in meetings. Fishers’ interventions are commonly dismissed because they pertain to broader issues not directly related to the specific topic of the meeting, illustrating their struggle to find the ‘right venues’ where to express their concerns. Management of fisheries in Mexico relies heavily on the allocation of licensing or permitting to harvest particular species and to a lesser extent on spatial management tools, such as no-take fishing zones, and concessions, which grant exclusive management and exclusion rights. However, because fishing permits can be given to multiple users of the same resource in the same area, overlapping claims over fishing areas and resources could create challenges for collective action and the self-governance of sustainably managed resources.

From the outset, it seems that Mexican cooperativist fishers have developed appropriate institutions with which to address some of the spatial externalities and commons dilemmas created by permits at larger spatial extents. Examples include conflicts generated by the ambiguity of permits – some of which are granted for specific geographic areas and others for the entire littoral zone where exclusive use areas (i.e., concessions) or conservation reserves also occur. Another example is when single-species concessions are granted for different species but in the same geographic coordinates, creating a coordination challenge among different permit-holders. In Mexico cooperatives often group into regional associations (federations) and these into national organizations (confederations) – these are nested, multi-level forms of collective action that can allow cooperatives to address spatial and temporal problems, as well as participate in national policy forums, represent the sector, and compete for federal support (Garcia Lozano et al. 2018, Espinosa-Romero et al. 2014, McCay et al. 2014). Through these organizations, the cooperative sector is increasingly involved in partnerships with other actors, such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Yet, the issue is not as straightforward as it seems from the outset.

2. Performativity of discourses and collective action

Analyzing the discursive practices of cooperativist fishers and government actors is one important tool for understanding how they express their concerns, or address some of the fisheries management collective action dilemmas mentioned in the previous section. Analyzing their discourses also reveals how different groups imagine themselves in the context of governance arrangements and broader social movements (Roelvink 2016). In this paper we analyze the use of discourse as part of politicized performances that actors use to express policy preferences (Fischer and Forester 1993, Hajer 1995). Discursive practices are performative in the sense that, through the use of discourse, social actors bring about certain social realities over others and negotiate shared and competing understandings of the world (Butler 1990, 2010; Hajer 1995, Hajer and Versteeg 2005). During public meetings, fishers frequently choose to discuss certain concerns and reproduce narratives, depending on who is listening. For example, fishers in Mexico use discourses in public situations as a tool to negotiate what they need from other actors (García-Lozano et al. 2019), but also, in the context of our research, to negotiate with peers regarding issues that should be addressed by their organizations.

Analyzing these public speeches, allowed us to understand the performative dimension of collective action, which emerges from the shared articulation of problems, and from stepwise rational decision-making processes in which people determine whether action must be taken by individuals, by the collective, or by government (McCay 2002). Social actors are boundedly rational (Schlager 2002), and they make decisions not only based on cost-benefit and utility maximization but rather based on complex sets of factors including narratives, rhetoric, emotion, and historical dynamics at play in how they understand problems and solutions (Basurto and Garcia Lozano 2021, Leach et al. 1999, Rose 1990). Discourses become the vehicle through which subjects make decisions about what is being said and how (Ruiz Ruiz 2009), and a key mechanism for communicative alignment along particular issues or storylines (Hajer 1995). In the context of our research, fishers employed discourses tactically to negotiate their needs with others (NGO’s, academics, and peers), but through the process, fishers are also imagining together possibilities for institutional change. Additionally, bringing together fishers from similar regions but different localities enable them to make connections with one another, articulate shared understandings of problems, and interact beyond the research site. Therefore, this study’s research arrangements themselves are also performative by engaging fishers in ways that make possible new realities and new forms of collective action (Barad 2007, Gibson-Graham 2008, Roelvink et al. 2015, Roelvink 2016)

3. Methods

To untangle the tension between the responsibilities of government and fishers in management, and to understand issues at the national level while attending to heterogeneities at sub-national levels, we examined how different groups of fishers from different regions in Mexico articulated their relationship with the state by expressing their needs and their own governance capacities. We designed a set of participatory approaches and tools1 to give organized fishers the opportunity to describe and prioritize their own needs and concerns, and simultaneously learn what they perceive as viable policies and interventions for effective fisheries governance on a national scale. Our methodology incited fishers to reflect on their own agency and capacity to face social dilemmas. Accordingly, we considered the performative dimensions of discourse and considered how our own work emerged as a space for developing new and continued forms of collective action. By analyzing discourses during discussions, we identified the governance priorities for organized fishers (i.e., cooperatives, federations), and the solutions that fishers propose to address social dilemmas in the governance of fishing resources. We also identified the influence of public policy regimes and the local institutional environment as relevant contextual elements.

This section presents the overall context of our methodological approach. The results and discussion section follows where first we present the elements influencing fishers’ discourse, like the national policy regulating fisheries and their own local institutions shaping their experiences of collective action. In the second part we analyze more specifically situations where fishers performed diverse discursive practices and how our methods open a space for continued and emergent collective action.

3.1 Overall context of the methodological approach

The opportunity to study the competing discourses between state and fishers’ responsibilities in management at a national level came about through a multi-stakeholder partnership formed in 2016 with a national representative fishing organization, the Mexican Confederation of Fisheries and Aquaculture Cooperatives (CONMECOOP, representing more than 11,000 fishers), Niparajá Natural History Society and Duke University.2

The goal of this project, the National Diagnostic of Fishing Organizations (DNOP for its acronym in Spanish), was to understand empirically which aspects of fishing cooperatives and their federations increased their performance and the likelihood of collective action. In other words, why some self-governed fishing organizations worked better than others. For civil society partners and fishers, the knowledge generated would be useful to inform what kinds of policies could be designed to improve and strengthen fishing organizations in Mexico.

The project assessed the indicators that influence the performance of fishing organizations (confederations, federations, and cooperatives), which generated a set of strategic goals to attend as recommendations to improve the performance of their organizations (first phase of the project, Nenadovic et al. 2018). Findings of the assessment were disseminated and validated (second phase) through engagement with fishing organizations that participated previously. Informing participants about the findings and asking them to validate the recommendations created a sense of continuity and engagement between phases of the project. Validation consisted of plenary discussions about the results from the assessment, focus groups to prioritize the strategic goals (see Appendix A), and reflections about the role of organizations in addressing those recommendations. The data for this paper come from discussions performed in the dissemination and validation phase of the project.

The partnership followed a participatory approach and fishing organizations’ representatives were involved in the design of research questions and the development of indicators to measure different dimensions of functionality of their fishing organizations. This process encouraged fishers to reflect about what they wanted to understand about their own organizations and practices, as well as how they wanted to use that information. Data collection strategies were also discussed and co-designed with leaders of a national confederation of cooperatives (CONMECOOP).

3.2. Data collection and analysis

Fishers’ discourses were recorded during the dissemination and validation stage of the DNOP (i.e., second phase) through a multi-method approach (see Appendix B for details description). We organized meetings into six coastal regions determined strategically and collaboratively by all partners in the project to represent the diversity of organizations and grouped according to similarities in the different coastal states (Figure 1). Participants belonged to 149 fishing cooperatives and 33 federations representing fishers from 15 out of the 17 coastal states in Mexico.

Figure 1 

Sample covering (map).

Each meeting consisted of two parts. First, a discussion including all attending participants in plenary, regarding the role they were playing in the organization (member of the board of directors of the cooperative or the federation, or fishers) and the number of assistants. The goal of those plenaries was to explain the findings from the assessment conducted during the phase1 of the project (see Appendix B) and collect initial fishers’ impressions about the results and the strategic goals. Also, the space of the plenary was intended to give all the participants the opportunity to ask questions about the results and build a common understanding about the strategic goals, as a baseline for the discussions in focus groups. These general discussions enabled us to identify and classify the common concerns and needs present in fishers’ first responses. Plenary discussions were conducted by the first author and took on average 2.5 hours each. At the beginning of the plenaries, it was very important to clarify to the audience that project staff were not government officials and that the goal of the meetings was not delivering subsides. It was important to reassert constantly that facilitators were looking to help fishers to organize their proposals and needs but not fulfilling them. Little by little, the constant reminder of they were not negotiating with government officers, helped to set an environment where fishers were able to have deeper conversations among peers.

The second part in the regional meetings involved separating participants into small groups for focus group discussions. To overcome possible power dynamics associated with hierarchical relationships in cooperatives, we conducted separate focus groups according to participants’ positions in their organizations: (1) directors of federations, (2) directors of cooperatives, and (3) non-director members of cooperatives Also, the size of our focus groups never exceeded the 10 participants. Five research assistants (facilitators) conducted 52 focus group discussions (see appendix B). Each focus group contained 3–8 participants. In these focus groups, we documented two different discussions. In the first one, fishers discussed proposals about how to achieve the 9 recommendations or strategic goals generated to strengthen their organizations and what should be the role of fishers in the process. The second discussion was a process where fishers decided collectively how to prioritize the 9 strategic goals discussed previously. Field assistants conducted focus groups and took notes and audio-recorded the discussions to complement their notes later.

Regional meetings were documented through an adapted version of collaborative event ethnography proposed by Campbell and colleagues (Brosius and Campbell 2010, Campbell et al. 2014), which consisted of five research assistants documenting in field journals the discussions and the context of the discussions across different moments of the meeting (i.e., plenary and focus groups). The first author and assistants used the notes and audio recordings to construct an integrated collective record of the entire event. Information gathered in the collective ethnographic account allowed us to identify the diversity of discursive practices performed by different actors during and throughout the meetings (Table 1).

Analysis of fishers’ discourses focused on three elements: (1) the content of the discourses (what fishers said during the meetings), (2) the political and local context informing discourses (how this influence what they choose to say), and (3) the situation where people perform discursive practices (i.e., how discussions in focus groups occurred), consistent with traditions from sociological discourse analysis (Ruiz and Ruiz 2009).

4. Results and discussion

Despite the existing regional diversity of small-scale fisheries in Mexico and differences in the functionality of fishers’ organizations (Nenadovic et al. 2018), we found a similarity of opinions among fishers from all over the country regarding the sector’s most pressing needs and obstacles to build or maintain functional fishing organizations (see Figure 2). There was also significant coincidence in the ordering of needs by priority and propositions for how to address them (see appendix B, table 3). Figure 2 shows the three strategic goals that where medium o high level of coincidence through all the regions. The ‘No Coincidence’ category means that in some regions those goals were high priority and medium or low priority in others. It is significant that fishers from different contexts find the same two goals as high priority and one as medium priority.

Figure 2 

Strategic goals to improve the performance of fishing organizations and priorities.

To identify the underlying factors influencing the articulation of common priorities at the national level and how to achieve them, we conducted a content and context discourse analysis of fishers’ proposals (what fishers said and what was influencing what they choose to say).

In the following section we will explore how fishers articulate their responses. Participants during the plenary discussions, tended to use the space to request something they needed from outsiders, specially from the state. We worked in plenary discussions to begin the conversation about what could be the role of the organizations in achieving their strategic goals. But also, to make sure that there was a common understanding about the need and concerns that should be addressed in the discussions. After we separated in smaller groups, participants shared more ideas with the facilitators and with peers. Fishers felt more comfortable to give more details to facilitators when the board directors where not present and, because plenary discussions were conducted in big groups (60–80 fishers), fishers had more opportunities to discuss their needs and concerns in depth during the smaller focus groups lasting 3–4 hours.

4.1 Articulating the Need for State Support and Self-Governance Capabilities

In this section we examine how fishers negotiate this tradeoff between self-governance and reliance on the state, identifying different moments in fishers’ discursive practices. The first discursive moment consists of fishers’ initial responses, which emphasized changes needed in the political setting and the role of outsiders (e.g., government) in improving governance. Discussions moved towards a second discursive moment when the facilitators of the focused groups encouraged participants to think about their own agency and role as organizations. In this second moment, fishers identified that some of the problems arose from their organizations’ actions (e.g., compliance with formal rules), and accordingly some of the solutions could emerge from their own actions. Fishers’ responses in this second moment were highly related to the local institutional context (e.g., their own experiences of collective action). Fishers were able to explore this possibility only after collectively creating the affective space to share their disappointment, distrust, and grievances with the federal government and the impacts of policies that have historically marginalized them. During the discussions, fishers went back and forth between those first two opposite moments, influenced by the national political setting and the local institutional environment respectively, as they crafted proposals for improving governance. After going through this process, they were able to articulate conditions that could allow them to improve their organizations’ performance and propose the kinds of institutions that would improve collective action from inside their organizations. We consider this final position a third moment in their discourse (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 

Discursive moments during the discussions.

4.1.1. Initial responses: how national governance processes influence fishers’ narratives

The most important barriers fishers mentioned for effective fisheries governance are mostly associated with national policy and the role of the state (Mansbridge 2014, Ostrom 1990). When asked ‘what was the role of their organizations’ in addressing these challenges, most of the time fishers first identified something related to the paternalistic relationships between fishers and the government in Mexico, where the state is the main problem solver (see Figure 4)

Figure 4 

First discursive moment: fishers’ initial responses.

Analyzing fishers’ discourses, we trace how their concerns reflect vestiges and legacies of historical relationships between fishers and governmental authorities, as well as specific policies for governing fisheries in Mexico. Below we illustrate the influence of national policy for the five most important fisheries management issues in Mexico.

Fisheries planning and zoning

One of the biggest concerns expressed by fishers relates to fisheries planning and zoning (Ordenamiento Pesquero), which for cooperativist fishers is rooted in a particular history of public policies. Cooperatives enjoyed strong state support during the period from 1927 to 1982. The first national fisheries law was decreed in 1925 with the goal of encouraging and regulating the emergent sector (Martínez-Martínez and González-Laxe 2016). In conjunction, in 1930, the state promoted the participation of cooperatives in the industrialization boom, granting them exclusive rights to harvest species of high value such as clams, abalone, shrimp, lobster (López, 1997). During the government of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), the first cooperative legislation was decreed in 1938, which became the normative frame regulating cooperatives in Mexico for several decades, until it was reformed in 1994 to adapt cooperative regulation to the recently adopted neoliberal model. One of the modifications that had a significant impact on the performance of fishing cooperatives in Mexico was the reduction of the minimum number of members needed to constitute a cooperative (from 25 to 5) (DOF 1994). Fisheries planning also suffered modifications in federal policies. In 1992, the Law of Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture enabled greater participation of the private sector in the fishing industry. An important change that resulted was that cooperatives lost exclusive rights over high-value species.

Fishers are concerned about these policy changes because they challenge historical rights for access to fishing areas and the availability of resources. Changing the minimum number of members to legally form a cooperative enabled the emergence of many more fishing cooperatives, often constituted by families. These are known in the fishing sector as “ghost cooperatives” where their creation responds to the incentive to access state financial aid programs and not necessarily to perform sustained and collective fishing activities (Basurto et al. 2013). As a result, there are many more fishing cooperatives competing over access to fisheries and financial resources in coastal regions. Additionally, after opening access to fishing to private sector investment and the loss of exclusive rights over high-value resources, cooperatives began struggling to remain competitive. Fishers articulated their concerns in focus groups as follows:

“We need [an]ordenamiento pesquerothat comes from the fishers themselves, that recognizes who are the original and traditional fishers. So many people have commercial fishing licenses that aren’t fishers, that have never fished. There should be supervision when permits are given, they should go to who needs them. I believe it is thoughtless to just give permits away, without really understanding who needs them.” (Region: Baja California/Baja California Sur).

Fishers’ discourses suggest they see their own organizations as powerless to solve the challenge of access and use in their fishing areas. Their argument is that even if their fishing cooperatives follow the authorities’ fishing regulations and even if they develop and follow their own internal rules to control use for authorized entrants, the challenge of clearly defining boundaries to stop outsiders from harvesting their resources remains, making their collective efforts not worthwhile. This seems to be aggravated by the state’s allocation of fishing permits which often results in too many fishers pursuing fishing with no control or supervision. Given the bleak prospects of successful enforcement, fishing cooperatives are often having to choose between allocating scarce resources to enforcement or allocating them to harvesting to secure incomes despite the challenge such behavior might pose to the long-term prospects for the sustainability of the organization itself. These issues pose serious challenges for fishing cooperatives’ governance system and fishers highlight the urgent need for government authorities to support their local systems by re-organizing, regulating, and monitoring the overall access of fishing resources through what fishers would call “re-ordenamiento pesquero” (fishers demand through the use of this term, a re-organization in fisheries management rights).

Non-spatial fisheries management tools

Non-spatial tools are commonly employed for the management of fisheries in Mexico (e.g., closed seasons, gear and size regulations, etc.). The primary normative framework in Mexico is the General Law of Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture (DOF 2007), which enables the production of specific formal regulations and the National Fisheries Chart, which synthesizes information and recommendations for different fisheries. Fishing organizations commonly express tension against government regulation of harvesting through formal non-spatial fisheries management tools, sometimes because they lack understanding about how their practices affect stocks, which leads to breaches of the law and contributes to over-exploitation of natural resources (Cinti et al. 2010, Meza-Monge et al. 2015, Reyes and Delgadina 2018). This lack of knowledge becomes a challenge for governing fishery commons because local users cannot develop adequate appropriation rules that could regulate their harvesting to prevent members of the group from negatively impacting each other. However, fishers’ discourses reflect a growing recognition of the importance of understanding and following the regulations collectively:

“We need to be careful in using nonselective fishing gear. The cooperative has to install a culture of respect for fisheries management and taking care of the ecosystem. The cooperative members have the responsibility to respect the closed seasons and size limits in order to let the species to reproduce,” (Region: Guerrero/Michoacán).

For fishers, there should be co-responsibility between government authorities and their organizations, which might consist of better training fishers about the importance of better harvesting practices as well as incorporating the local environmental-institutional conditions in the national regulations. Co-responsibility is a key principle of fisheries legislation in Mexico (Ponce Diaz et al. 2009), but the mechanisms for participation do not always effectively involve such collaborations between fishers and authorities (Hayashida et al. 2018).

No-take zones

No-take zones are areas that are temporarily or permanently closed to all extractive activities, which are gradually being implemented around the world to protect marine resources and fisheries (Marton-Lefèvre 2014, Velez et al. 2014). Mexico is no exception (Velez et al. 2014), and researchers have argued their potential to restore ecological populations, also generate social capital related to fishing cooperatives’ organization, administration, leadership, marketing, law enforcement and governance skills (Aburto-Oropeza et al. 2011, Fulton et al 2013). In some regions in Mexico, NGOs form partnerships with fishing organizations to establish refuges or no-take zones (See Ayer et al. 2018, Méndez-Medina et al. 2020b), which are monitored with fishers’ participation (Quintana and Basurto 2020). Ten years after fishing refuges were first established in Mexico, fishers’ narratives show their perceived importance as a tool for fishers’ participation in governance, across regions in the country.

“We should make proposals for fishing refugia zones, we should do it by a consensus with the local residents, who have a sense of place and within areas with exclusive use rights in order to build a sense of ownership,” (Region: Baja California/Baja California Sur).

In fishers’ narratives, the establishment of no-take zones becomes an opportunity to exercise what they see as their right to participate in modifying rules affecting them. They reject what they see as “imposed” protected areas. They want to be part of the delimitation of boundaries protecting their resources. Otherwise, they see this management tool as restrictive over their harvesting rights and challenging their common governance, sometimes describing them in terms of enclosure by conservation polygons. They see no-take zones as spaces that should be governed collectively to exclude outside fishers, making worthwhile the effort of creating and enforcing group rules about how to harvest resources or not.

Aquaculture regulation and planning

Aquaculture in Mexico is touted as a strategy for reducing the pressure on ocean resources and as an opportunity for economic development in rural regions and coastal areas (Campos et al. 2016, Lugo et al. 2016, Mártir-Mendoza 2006) and its contributions and impacts are increasingly studied in Mexico (Páez-Osuna et al. 1998, Plascencia and Almada 2012, Salas et al. 2016, Sosa-Villalobos et al. 2016). Fishers’ discourses suggest aquaculture poses challenges to them because of competition over space and negative externalities industrial aquaculture generates on fishing, such as pollution and other negative ecological impacts on coastal areas. Fishers described these negative externalities during focus group discussions as follows:

“The shrimp farms are using shrimp feed, and the water the farms expel goes into the ocean. They don’t have a water treatment plant. They should have closed seasons because they are pumping water in from the ocean all year long. The water they bring in comes with larva and when they are pump water out, they kill so much of the larvae,” (Region: Sonora, Sinaloa, and Nayarit).

Fishers also expressed they feel powerless against what they describe as negative effects of aquaculture on fishing stocks. From their perspective, regardless of whether their organizations follow formal harvesting regulations, the lack of monitoring and enforcement over aquaculture activity by government agencies challenges the impact of their own group governance over the resources system.

Improve oil-industry management

Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) is the tenth largest oil company in the world and has had a key role in coastal communities, being the priority source of income in the region, since oil extraction activities initiated in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1970s (Quist and Nygren 2015). In 2003, conflict between fishers and the oil industry worsened. The government-imposed security restrictions, banning all activities near oil installations in the Gulf of Mexico in a 15,907 km2 marine zone of exclusion (DOF, 2003). This exclusion zone forced fishers to venture offshore, to deeper waters far from their traditionally exploited fishing areas, where their boats and small-scale engines were inefficient for obtaining the product and the risks of fishing increased (Ramos-Muñoz et al. 2019). The oil industry subcontracts foreign companies to carry out oil exploration and drilling activities. Government officials act as mediators between fishers and oil industry, employing techniques ranging from paternalist control to public-private regulation to simultaneously appease private sector pressures while promising to address local fishers’ problems and demands for compensation (Quist and Nygren 2015).

The oil industry creates one of the more challenging dilemmas for the collective action of fishing organizations. Fishers point at displacement by the oil industry in the last decades as the principal obstacle for effective fisheries management and ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the related loss of access to resources and widespread illegal fishing. Hopelessness and impotence were major affective components in the discussions, and several studies in the past decade have also explored these effects on oil industry impacts on fisheries in Mexico (Quist and Nygren 2015, 2019, Quist and Riin 2017, Ramos-Muñoz et al. 2019).

“PEMEX has been the worst misfortune that ever happened to us, they displaced the shrimp industry… PEMEX has invaded our fishing areas, and they just sunk our ships. PEMEX has put the noose around our necks. The fisheries are not the same, the oil platforms don’t let us work,” (Region: Tabasco/Campeche/Yucatán/Quintana Roo).

Conflict between fishers and the oil industry challenges fishing organizations’ capacity to develop access rules and enforcement because displacement triggers major concentrations of users in some areas, which makes unclear both boundaries between fishing zones less and who are authorized entrants. This is a challenge to fishers’ collective efforts to develop harvesting arrangements. Hopelessness and impotence about fishers’ capacity to participate in the creation or modification of operational rules also reduce fishers’ incentives to organize and their capacity to collectively envision sustainable fisheries in the future.

Fishers’ discourses indicate that they perceive national policy changes as challenging their agency capacity. In their responses, we could identify that, along with the paternalistic relationships in Mexican governance, fishers express what they need from the state to make more sense of local efforts to govern resources collectively. After they expressed the biggest challenges where multilevel governance efforts are needed (i.e., support from the government authorities, arrangements between different agencies in managing, monitoring, and enforcing fishing regulations, recognition of their local rules) fishers started to articulate changes that are needed within their organizations.

4.1.2. Reconsidering: how local institutions influence fishers’ narratives

Initially, fishers struggled to imagine what their role could be in achieving successful sustainable fisheries. However, when we encouraged fishers to reflect on their own capacity for action, they described their own past and current attempts to foster sustainable fisheries through their organizations (e.g., cooperatives, federations) and made proposals based on those experiences. Our methodology, therefore, enabled us to document not only their proposals for future action but also the diverse forms of collective action already taking place in fishing organizations.

When analyzing fishers’ proposals based on their organization’s experiences of collective action, we found examples of how they perceived some group characteristics as influencing self-governance. In this section, we describe how fishers imagine the improvement of their organizations to achieve sustainable fisheries, by working together. Although there is a big difference in organizational capacity among different fishing organizations, we identify that fishers’ experiences of effective collective action are associated mostly with three aspects: a) the need to strengthen the group and create institutions and incentives for collective action, b) the importance of being able to participate in crafting rules and enforcing them in order to ensure the sustainability of resource systems, and c) the importance creating connections with external actors (see Figure 5).

Figure 5 

Second discursive moment: fishers reconsidering their responses.

a) The importance of organizing: strengthening the group

One important aspect identified in fishers’ discourses was the need to be “organized”, which was perceived as the solution for most of the internal problems in their organizations. For fishers, being organized is about belonging to a cooperative and the ability to make decisions collectively and establishing common goals. Fishers defined, being organized as being capable of crafting rules together about how to access resources and how to distribute the benefits that can reflect those common goals. Fishers’ statements commonly reflected the importance of reinforcing a group identity associated with being organized in a cooperative:

“We need training about cooperatives, what does it mean being a member, what are the responsibilities of the members and the board of directors,” (Region: Chiapas/Oaxaca).

“We have to promote the cooperative thinking, private capital philosophy is just interested in making money and does not respect the environment, the cooperative ideals focus on protection,” (Region: Tamaulipas/Veracruz).

In most regions, fishers expressed the need of establishing clear boundaries, which is an important element of enduring common institutions (Agrawal 2001, Ostrom 1990). This issue has two dimensions. First, fishers ask the government to recognize historical rights to access, and there is constant dialogue within fishing organizations (cooperatives and federations) and at the level of communities about who should be allowed to access fishing areas and what are the geographical limits. Second, when fishers elaborated proposals to improve their organizations’ performance, the focus was on how to define and maintain the membership in the group, enhancing group identity through collaboration:

“We have to work as a team, especially to achieve a good level or participation [from the members]. We need to work all together, the board of directors and the monitoring council [inside of the cooperative], have to work together. When someone becomes a member of the cooperative, we need to be very clear about what the rules are, for example: what kind of fishing gears are allowed, we also have to have internal control of what happens with in the cooperative. Finally, we have to be willing to expel those who do not follow the agreements and rules (Region: Tamaulipas and Veracruz).

In their proposals fishers frequently identified the importance of individual contributions to the group to achieve common goals. Ensuring an equitable distribution of individual contributions towards the collective endeavor has been consistently identified as an important element of sustained commons governance (Agrawal 2001, Cox et al. 2010). For instance, individual members delivering the catch to the cooperative was often described as important for improving the performance of the organization, by supporting the cooperative economically:

“We need to create a savings fund for social welfare. But the only way we can achieve it is by selling our products directly from the cooperative. We need all the members of the cooperative to land their catch to cooperative. The members who have worked week after week, have their retirement fund covered. Also, their health insurance is paid regularly. The responsibility has to be shared between the members and the board,” (Region: Tamaulipas and Veracruz).

There was also a sense of awareness about the benefits of contributing to maintain their organizations functioning in the long term:

“Members must understand that the investments or savings are for their own benefit, this is why good communication between the members and the cooperative and the federation managers is necessary. By investing in something, the members also take care of their own organizations… If a new member joins, they have to pay a large fee to be accepted with the same benefits of the old members. It has to be clear in the statutes and meetings what are the quotas to create the savings fund…We need to generate commitment between all the members,” (Region: Tabasco/Campeche/Yucatán/Quintana Roo).

b) The importance of crafting rules to manage resources

For fishers, it is important that the time and effort they invest in creating rules for the management of resources (i.e., restrictions in the catch, gears, seasons, enforcement, etc.) lead to a fair distribution of benefits from management activities. This relationship between investment by the group and benefits from management has been discussed in the CPR literature, including Anderies et al. (2004), Agrawal (2001), Ostrom (1990, 2007, 2010). When fishers imagined how they could participate in a more sustainable management of their fisheries, they frequently expressed the importance of access rules being crafted at the local level and the recognition of these agreements:

“We realized that the mesh size of the net was killing the small fish, so we decided to give the fish some space. That worked well for our cooperative. It is really important that we (the cooperatives) manage our resources well, we need to take care of the mangrove forest and the fish resources. The agreements need to come from the cooperative and we need to establish sanctions, they should not come from the outside institutions,” (Region: Chiapas/Oaxaca)

Fishers emphasized the importance of having rules and restrictions on harvest that match the ecological conditions and local context, in order to secure the regeneration of their resources and to maintain the fishing practices and livelihoods associated with them for future generations.

“The resource will be maintained if we take care of the ecosystem, if we take care of the ocean, so then, the resource will be able to reproduce… If you don’t maintain a healthy fishing area, you are not taking care of your business…Every fishery resource has size limits, if it doesn’t reach the size – it goes back in the water. We need to focus in restoring and recovering de fish banks. We the fishers should be doing this, not having others do it for us, we must be involved to reap the benefits. We need to know how much sweat it takes to create consciousness and then help in the preservation of the resources,” (Region: Baja California/Baja California Sur).

Fishers were also aware about the need for creating harvesting rules for the group but assuring individual benefits of following the rules, without losses coming from free-riding:

“We need to establish agreements with the cooperatives that are affiliated with our federation and little by little encourage them to use the correct gear. We need to build a culture of using the right mesh size, larval seeding [release of the larva into fishing zones] and establish penalties for all of them who are breaking the rules. Every member has to monitor the other members,” (Region: Chiapas/Oaxaca).

To achieve the enforcement of rules, fishers recognized the importance of cooperative members’ internalization of the importance of following rules as a group, as well as giving them time to adapt to the new institutions by constantly investing in building capacities:

“The cooperative has to develop a consciousness among their members in regard with a management of resources [sustainable practices] and ecosystems caring… We need a capacity building program for all the members of the cooperative about caring for the ecosystems and sustainable fisheries management. We need to hear from other fishers about their successful experiences … We need to work with the young generation and teach them about the importance of species preservation and develop a consciousness about the importance of the closed seasons. The cooperatives were created to operate thinking about the future,” (Region: Tabasco/Campeche/Yucatán/Quintana Roo).

Fishers also argued that, once rules were established within their organizations, the group should improve their local enforcement mechanisms, involving the members in monitoring and enforcing duties:

“We need to respect the mesh size; we need to enforce that people are not fishing with unauthorized gears. The local people need to monitor their fishing zones, and we need to promote that people report formal complaints. The members of the cooperatives should do their part, following the regulations. In that way, we could create a culture of sustainability where the people who are fishing should hold the responsibility of sustainable management,” (Region: Tamaulipas and Veracruz).

c) the connection between the group and the external environment

In the commons literature, two kinds of external conditions have been identified that facilitate common governance through local organizations – technology and support from the state (Agrawal 2001). In our study, fishers’ discourses illustrate the fundamental role those conditions are playing. Fishers identified the need for gradual change in the way they participate in external markets and the urgency of crafting mechanisms for collaboration with government agencies, across different levels of organization (e.g., among federations, among federations and confederation, among cooperatives and federations), and with nested levels of appropriation, provision, enforcement, and governance (i.e., nested enterprises; Ostrom 1990). The following quotes illustrate these relationships they envision with external actors:

“The confederation should promote training programs for the cooperatives and federations’ directors…The federations should transmit the information to the cooperatives and cooperatives should request training from some government agencies as well,” (Region: Guerrero and Michoacán).

“Congressmen and senators should legislate and impose stronger sanctions for illegal fishing, they should confiscate permits, seize illegal gears and illegal fishers should be placed on house arrest. The legal framework should institute illegal fishing a serious felony, prosecute it criminally,” (Region: Tabasco/Campeche/Yucatán/Quintana Roo).

4.1.3 Articulating the connection between the role of the State and the role of the organizations: performative dimensions of the study

In their final proposals, when encouraged to think further about the roles of their organizations, fishers connected what they need from outsiders with what they need to improve inside their organizations. Fishers negotiated the need for external actors’ participation by identifying more localized actions – for instance, external authorities supporting the enforcement of the rules, providing training to improve their knowledge about the importance of following non-spatial management tools, or giving support to cooperatives through public policy changes. The way fishers negotiate the tradeoff between self-governance and dependence on the state is related to the perceived scale of the problems. After negotiating these tradeoffs in the discussions, fishers found a place for actual co-responsibility in fisheries management, identifying where the government should take responsibility and where fishers should be given autonomy (see Figure 6). They identified the places where the state has something to offer that is indispensable for fishers, such as legislative support or technical infrastructure necessary for fisheries management (Jentoft 2005).

Figure 6 

Fishers’ responses articulating responsibilities.

By negotiating their roles and the roles of external actors in these discussions, fishers articulated their willingness to act to strengthen their organizations and both their responsibilities and rights in the management of fisheries. They built a collective awareness of their own competence (and the confidence to say ‘we know we can do this’ (see Jentoft 2005).

4.2 Performative implications of the study: space for continued and emergent collective action

In the first discursive moment, fishers emphasized changes needed in the political setting and the role of outsiders providing the needed conditions that allow better governance from their organizations. During the second discursive moment when facilitators encouraged participants to think about their own agency and role as organizations, fishers identified that some of the problems arose from their organizations’ actions and compliance with formal rules, and accordingly some of the solutions could emerge from their own action. In what we identified as the third moment, fishers were able to articulate conditions that could allow them to improve their organizations’ performance and propose the kinds of institutions they should craft to improve collective action from the inside of their organizations (see Figure 7).

Figure 7 

Performativity of fishers’ discourses.

Focus group discussions suggest that discourses in public situations are a tool that fishers in Mexico use frequently to negotiate what they need from other actors (García-Lozano et al. 2019), but also to negotiate among peers regarding aspects that should be addressed by their organizations. Focus groups became discursive spaces created for collective peer-to-peer learning and for generating new ideas for improving governance and collective action through common decision-making processes. By sharing face-to-face with peers, fishers in our study connected urgent strategies with common stories of problems and social dilemmas they face in their daily fishing practices. In these face-to-face interactions, fishers not only connect along shared problems, but also along shared affective experiences associated with belonging and shared struggle, suggesting a shared identity as “cooperativist fishers”.

During the focus group discussions, fishers had the opportunity to learn that their needs and experiences were similar to those of their peers in regions both near and far. In some of the groups, fishers made steps toward proposing ways of collaborating among their peer organizations and to protect the cooperative identity (Figure 8). For example, they imagined membership as a collective right that comes with responsibilities and belonging to any cooperative should be monitored and enforced by other peer organizations as well.

Figure 8 

Fishers’ responses imagining new forms of collective action.

These observations are consistent with other studies on the psychology of collective action about how in-group identity can enhance cooperation by blurring the distinction between personal and collective welfare (Krammer and Bewer 1986), and the importance for individuals of developing loyalty and commitment to collective action (Garrison 1992). Further, during the discussions, fishers suggested they should write down their proposals and use them as an instrument of common concern to demand government officials to act on their behalf. This demonstrates how participatory methodologies do not merely reflect reality as it is but can incite other imaginaries and possibilities for action – they have performative effects (Gibson-Graham 2008).

Our study allowed us to understand collective action in two different dimensions. First, it was apparent from the discussion that there are multiple examples of collective action and successful commons governance in fisheries throughout Mexico besides the most known examples (e.g., Sian Ka’an fishing cooperatives in the Mexican Caribbean and cooperatives in the North Pacific). In the discussions, fishers also expressed some common understandings about how collective action should take place and gave examples of actions they are already taking in their organizations. These forms of collective action often go undocumented because fishers tend to express their problems rather than reflect on what they are already doing in their organizations. A second dimension is that reflexive methodologies for facilitating discussions (such as the one used in this study) can reveal and enhance processes of collective action while promoting peer-to-peer learning and sharing experiences. As we observed, fishers are capable of organizing and making agreements to overcome problems in their organizations. The focus groups became spaces where fishing organizations crafted and proposed new institutional arrangements for cooperation. The discussions provide evidence that fishing organizations in Mexico are generally capable of successful common governance and of creating alliances with other fishing organizations and other actors like NGOs and academic institutions.

5. Conclusions

Our analysis suggests that fishers’ perceptions of when the government should take responsibility and when fishers should be given autonomy depend on several factors, including the framing of the scale of problems, macro-level institutional histories, and experiences that enable fishers to envision successful forms of collective action, also the self-recognition of what they are capable to do given their autonomy but lack of training or capacities. From the perspective of Mexican cooperativist fishers, the role of the state is fundamental for many issues, particularly because the problems they identify as priorities transcend or pose significant challenges to their governance capacities. For instance, some of the issues they cite depend on processes across institutional levels or at greater scales – for instance, the need for government authorities to re-organize, regulate and monitor the access of fishing resources nationally.

Our research also demonstrates some important tensions regarding fishers’ understandings of governance dilemmas and the roles of different actors in solving them – tensions that have been documented elsewhere. On the one hand, fishers portray themselves as hopeless, lacking power, and the government as the problem solver. On the other hand, fishers also engage in discourses recounting tangible experiences of successful self-governance. Through their use of discourse, fishers perform their own understandings of governance processes, and simultaneously they are capable of envisioning new institutions, developing collective governance strategies, and identifying the role that the state should be playing in nested, multi-level forms of governance. Research has focused on how to strengthen local fishing organization’s capacity or the kinds of policy reforms necessary, and less on facilitating fishers’ articulation of their own capacities.

By analyzing fishers’ discourses, this study allowed us to document multiple examples of collective action and successful common governance in fisheries throughout Mexico beyond the most well-known examples of Baja California Sur and the Yucatán peninsula. They illustrate that there is a common understanding among fishers about how collective action can take place. The diverse experiences of collective action that exist throughout Mexico have not been widely documented because research has tended to focus disproportionately on some geographic areas (e.g., Baja California, Quintana Roo). Our methodology enabled us to document other forms of collective action taking place even in organizations or regions not commonly associated with strong cooperative institutions, particularly because we urged fishers to reflect on their own capacities and the kinds of collective action already taking place in various regions. Additionally, we observed that by participating in the research at the sites of regional meetings, fishers were able to network with one another and make plans for future collaboration and new forms of collective action, all of which suggest the research has performative implications as a coming-together of researchers, field assistants, and fishers from various cooperatives, in which new and emergent forms of collaboration are possible.

Participatory methods create a space where participants are encouraged to reflect on their own experiences of social organization and overcome discursive traditions. Analyzing the performance of discursive practices in these kinds of quasi-controlled environments could offer one important tool for continuing to study the emergence of collective action. In addition, the sites of such participatory research themselves can be important for enhancing collective action by enabling face-to-face communication, expressions of solidarity and identity, and creating space for collective learning and the design of new institutions. It would be important to consider, for future research, that this kind of participatory methodology may have some limitations. Although the facilitators were trained to avoid inducing the responses of the participants in the forums, it has been documented that fishers can use the speech as a tool to negotiate what they require from their interlocutors (García-Lozano et al. 2019). In the case of our research, we had to be careful in managing the expectations of our audience, by constantly reminding fishers we were not government agents, and that our role there was only to help them to organize their ideas and proposals. It will always be necessary to consider the position from which these conversations are being facilitated and to look for mechanisms to reduce this possible bias.

Additional Files

The additional files for this article can be found as follows:

Appendix A

Recommendations from the National Assessment of Fishing Organizations (Phase I). DOI:

Appendix B

A Detailed Description of Data Collection and Analysis. DOI:


1In face-to-face meetings with fishers where we performed focus groups and plenaries (pre-pandemic, 2017 and 2019). 

2In the first phase of the Project, the NGO Comunidad and Biodiversidad (COBI) was part of the partnership. 


This work was supported by Walton Family Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.


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