Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Tragedy of the Commons: Power and conflicts in Overfishing

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

The Tragedy of the Commons, first termed by Garret Hardin, describes when a non-excludable common pool resource finds its users acting in their self interest, overexploiting the shared resources which leads to the inevitable collapse of the resource itself. A keen example of this is overfishing as development in technology and increased demand for fish has led to unsustainably larger harvests and thus stressed local fishing communities and their ecosystems. Overfishing in a commons presents itself as an interdisciplinary issue through the dimensions of power. Within the disciplines of human ecology, politics, and economics, unsustainable exploitation arises when interest groups prioritise profit and strategic power over an ecological balance.

Economics[edit | edit source]

13 investigated companies which own around 40% of fish stocks[1]

Globalization and increased demand for fish has led multinational corporations (MNCs) to gain economic power over national governments, fishing-dependent communities of developing countries, and the ecosystem. MNCs regularly catch more than 200 species in over 100 countries and territories[1] and the fish harvested by MNCs are crucial resources for both the marine market and biodiversity thus earning a profit on them negatively impacts the environment.

Yearly reports of the inspected (13) MNCs demonstrate that the extent of considering sustainability as a market strategy varies across these firms[1] and it seems that many continue to treat the environment as separate to their business rather than integral to it. Sustainable fishing practices notions may come from governments or consumers, however, the power gained from earning profit and the possibility of maximising it triggers entrepreneurs to pursue self-interest decisions that they would not otherwise make. Furthermore, global companies, capable of influencing policy-making, became resilient to the aforementioned pressure and continue to threaten both local communities and ecosystems.[2]

Each firm being motivated by receiving maximized revenue causes the fish stocks to be overexploited. MNCs' decision-making could be explained through the concept of game theory where companies interact in a prisoner's dilemma game with each other. Every firm can decide on the number of fish caught taking into account other companies' strategies, however, [3]the competitive industry, the rivalry of resources and the desire of maximized profit result in the market allocation that deviates from the environmentally-friendly outcome leading to excess supply, wasteful practices and the tragedy of the commons.[4]

Revenue maximization and the prisoner's dilemma game are powerful aspects of economics that cause valuing private benefits more than external costs. This phenomenon leads to the conflict between economics and the environment which results in overexploitation of shared resources.[2]

Human Ecology[edit | edit source]

Ecosystem justice is the concept that ecosystems are a whole, made of equally important interlinking parts. Weakening one part of the ecosystem is equivalent to harming the whole, therefore, each part deserves equal consideration [5]. Through this lens, overfishing is an example of ecosystem injustice.

Overfishing and ecosystem injustice[edit | edit source]

The fishing industry and its fishery harvests have negative effects on the local surrounding marine ecosystems [6]. These effects cause decreasing species populations, decreased diversification, and migratory pattern changes that harm the dynamics of local surrounding and interconnected ecosystems. Effective biological indicator-based methods such as trophodynamic indicators, that measure structural changes and interactions in ecosystems, allow for ecological analyses of the damage caused to local marine ecosystems detailing when vulnerability arises [7]. Interactions between ecosystem damage and overfishing can be examined in the case study of artisanal fisheries in Senegal [8]. Analyses of trophic level variances in comparison with measures of Catch per Unit Effort (CPUE) between 1990 and 2009 indicate fishing practices lead to decreasing populations of larger fish species and an increase in small species [9].

Overfishing practices of fisheries hold direct power over marine ecosystems by directly decreasing species’ populations from targeted catches and hold indirect coercive power through the influencing harm these population changes cause the trophic structures of ecosystems [10]

Collaboration in Natural Resource Management[edit | edit source]

In 1990, collaboration between Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans with fishing entities created the Halibut Advisory Board (HAB), introducing an Individual Vessel Quota (IVQ), whereby the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) review stock levels each year and recommend a total allowable catch (TAC) to each IVQ. The HAB ensures that the ecosystem remains sustainably managed between decentralised powers, and creates collaborative, non-competitive fishing practice [11]

Politics[edit | edit source]

The central conflict in the commons of fishing is between the disciplines of economics and human ecology. However, the role of politics acts as an intersection where these disciplines can either collaborate to achieve sustainable solutions or influence to fulfil their disciplinary goal. An example of the latter is how politics can exploit the ambiguity of international, federal and local regulations regarding fishing.

Ambiguity in Laws[edit | edit source]

A case study of overfishing in Somalia suggests that due to the lack of set regulations in Somalia, conflicts between federal and local laws regarding fishing rights allow IUUs, developed countries, and MNCs to continue trawling the waters. Similarly, Somalia’s designated Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nm has been questioned by several countries in the UN as they continue to fish up till 12 nm of the waters.[12] Lack of continuity in federal and local laws[13] enables local authorities to sell permits which allow unsustainable bulk fishing practices[14]. Issues of direct power are central to this ambiguity in-laws: the absence of framework translates to ambiguity in who truly holds power over the resources which allows parties with a profit motive to exploit the resource system further.

Strategic and Dependency Power in International Fishing Agreements[edit | edit source]

The dimensions of strategic and dependency power are observed in the politics of international fishing agreements. Trade and licensing regulations often seem to favour MNCs and developed countries over their developing counterparts which favours their economic motives of keeping costs low and maximising individual profit. The developing countries are exploited for their lower prices and are trapped in a cycle of dependency as most of these countries rely on agriculture exports as a part of their national revenue.

The recent deal which allows Chinese vessels[15] to fish in the Somalian EEZ was widely criticised due to its unsustainable and exploitative fishing methods and its long term impact on the livelihoods of locals. Such policies and deals encourage exploitative fishing practices and contribute to the early collapse of these commons.[16] An example of such a collapse is Senegal [17], where overfishing and policies favouring industrial fishing negatively impacted traditional farmers, causing an increase in poverty, unemployment and immigration to other countries.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Conclusively, international and national conflicts of interest have an influencing power on fishing practices that lead to overfishing. With much of the ocean being considered international territory, a lack of ecological surveillance and policies that enforce open dialogue between MNC interest, local fishing cultures, and ecologists monitoring ecosystem health; allow for an unaccountable exploitation of fishing resources that disregards socio-environmental health over short-term economic benefit. A potential solution to managing fishing resources would be a collaborative effort between national and international policy makers to enforce and regulate a decentralised decisive power over fishing practices, enforcing accountability and continual evaluation of fishing practice and its influences, replacing neoliberal and structural adjustment policies and intense fishing with local focused, sustainable alternatives.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b c Österblom H, Jouffray J-B, Folke C, Crona B, Troell M, Merrie A,. "Transnational Corporations as 'Keystone Actors' in Marine Ecosystems". PLoS ONE.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. a b Ostrom, Elinor. "The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources". Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. Vol. 50: p. 8-21. {{cite journal}}: |volume= has extra text (help); |pages= has extra text (help)
  3. Henrich, Joseph. "Costly Punishment Across Human Societies". American Association for the Advancement of Science. Vol. 312: p. 1767-1770. {{cite journal}}: |volume= has extra text (help); |pages= has extra text (help)
  4. Hardin, Garrett. "The Tragedy of The Commons". American Association for the Advancement of Science. Vol. 162: p. 1243-1248. {{cite journal}}: |volume= has extra text (help); |pages= has extra text (help)
  5. 1. Rashid Sumaila U, Mahamudu B. Fisheries, ecosystem justice and piracy: A case study of Somalia. Fisheries Research. 2014 Sep;157:154–63.
  6. Sadik N. Population growth and the food crisis. FAO [Internet]. Available from:
  7. Cury P, Shannon L, Roux J, Daskalov A, Moloney C. Trophodynamic indicators for an ecosystem approach to fisheries. ICES Journal of Marine Science. 2005;62(3):430–42.
  8. Cury P, Shannon L, Roux J, Daskalov A, Moloney C. Trophodynamic indicators for an ecosystem approach to fisheries. ICES Journal of Marine Science. 2005;62(3):430–42.
  9. Ndour I, Le Loc’h F, Kantoussan J, Diadhiou H. Changes in the trophic structure, abundance and species diversity of exploited fish assemblages in the artisanal fisheries of the northern coast, Senegal, West Africa. African Journal of Marine Science. 36(3):361–8.
  10. Cury P, Shannon L, Roux J, Daskalov A, Moloney C. Trophodynamic indicators for an ecosystem approach to fisheries. ICES Journal of Marine Science. 2005;62(3):430–42.
  11. 1. Raik D, Wilson A, Decker, Daniel. Power in Natural Resources Management: An Application of Theory. Society & Natural Resources An International Journal. 2008 Aug 15;21(8):729–39.
  12. Glaser SM, Roberts PM, Hurlburt KJ. Foreign Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing in Somali Waters Perpetuates Conflict [Internet]. Frontiers. Frontiers; 2019 [cited 2020Dec13]. Available from:
  13. YUSUF A. GOVERNMENT COLLAPSE AND STATE CONTINUITY: THE CASE OF SOMALIA. The Italian Yearbook of International Law Online. 2003;13(1):11-33.
  14. Omboki A. How Somalia lost millions of dollars to fish poachers [Internet]. The East African. 2020 [cited 13 December 2020]. Available from:
  15. Mumin A, Abdalle Ahmed MuminA freelance journalist based in Nairobi S, Kamadi G, Kang R, Coca N. Questions raised over Chinese deal to fish in Somali waters [Internet]. chinadialogue ocean. 2020 [cited 13 December 2020]. Available from:
  16. Glaser SM, Roberts PM, Hurlburt KJ. Foreign Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing in Somali Waters Perpetuates Conflict [Internet]. Frontiers. Frontiers; 2019 [cited 2020Dec13]. Available from:
  17. Overfishing, social problems, and ecosocial sustainability in Senegalese fishing communities [Internet]. Taylor & Francis. 2020 [cited 13 December 2020]. Available from: