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Scale and Costs of Fishery Conservation


James Wilson

School of Marine Sciences; University of Maine, USA
About James
Professor of Marine Sciences and Resource Economics
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Observation and measurement of the ocean's ecosystems is demanding and costly. It makes verification of our theories difficult and forces us to engage in collective action based upon often very imperfect concepts of the dynamics of the system. Once we establish the institutions of col-lective action we adopt 'official' conceptions of system dynamics and generate expectations about how the natural system will react to our collective actions. In response individuals invest-ment in skills, knowledge, capital, technology, business plans, scientific agendas and so on. The self-interest reflected in these investments filters the amount and the quality of private information provided to the public so that it is consistent with the self-interest of agents who acquire that information. This limits and biases the private information available to managers. If the system being managed is simple (or if we think it is) and the costs of data collection minor, these impairments are not of any account (or we may think they are not); under these circumstance, a public science body should be able to gather whatever information is necessary for continuing adaptive governance. In a complex system, however, these impairments deprive the governance process of valuable information, and reduce the scope of collective action (the set of feasible rules). This creates path dependent lock-in that reduces adaptive capacity, generating, thereby, the circumstances for still another tragedy. Our way out of this dilemma rests in an understanding of the limits of our ability to predict and control natural systems. We are most able to predict a response to our actions at broad, slow moving ecological scales, e.g., a single stock of fish next year. Consequently, we gravitate towards institutional solutions that cater to that predictive ability. But these kinds of solutions impair feedback and make us vulnerable to surprises that develop over a longer period of time and at finer ecological scales. Maintaining adaptive capacity, consequently, means moving toward institutions that are less specific and longer-term, i.e., multi-scale and system based. This tends to improve feedback by reduc-ing the bias and increasing the breadth of private information provided to the public. This cannot be accomplished, however, without taking into account the constraints on the efficient flow of information within institutions/organizations. Recognizing these limita-tions is the other part of our way out. In particular, we cannot afford to base governance on a centralized organization that operates only at a broad scale; by doing so, we misalign private incentives and social objectives, incur very high enforcement costs, forfeit the ability to use a broad range of policies necessary for sustainability and, overall, create an environment in which information about the environment and the impact of our activities is very costly
How to Cite: Wilson, J. (2007). Scale and Costs of Fishery Conservation. International Journal of the Commons, 1(1), 29–42. DOI:
Published on 17 Oct 2007.
Peer Reviewed


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