Cooperation Must Recognize And Overcome Differences

Filed under: Opinion Pieces, Publications 

By Brock Bernstein

Cooperative studies are an attractive tool for fishery management because of their potential for reducing conflict, improving the knowledge base for management decisions, and attracting additional sources of funding and expertise.

The opinion pieces presented in NFCC’s discussion series on cooperative studies and our evaluation of case studies nationwide (click here for full report) describe how cooperative data collection and research initiatives have helped fishery stakeholders to achieve these and other benefits. They also demonstrate that participants in cooperative studies bring to these efforts their distinct perspectives and goals. Failure to acknowledge and understand such differences will reduce the likelihood that cooperative studies will succeed.

What motivates some fishery stakeholders to work with others who often hold very different and sometimes opposing perspectives? Fishermen, fishery managers and conservation advocates each have different reasons for becoming involved in cooperative studies.

Industry Perspective

Fishermen are usually motivated to participate in cooperative studies by some combination of economic self-interest and a desire for validation, empowerment, and credibility.

A desire to gain relief from painful short-term economic impacts due to current or threatened restrictions on catch levels and fishing activity is a powerful motivation for fishermen to collaborate with scientists and managers. For example, sink gillnet fishermen in New England became deeply involved in experiments to develop an alarm device that would reduce harbor porpoise entanglements in gillnets. By demonstrating that the alarm devices, or “pingers,” were effective porpoise deterrents, their efforts forestalled the imposition of time-area closures that would have had a significant economic impact on their fishery (click here to access the case study). The fishing industry is often criticized for its short-term economic perspective, but this is a normal and understandable reaction to economic reality. Fishing is a business and, like any other business, it will fail if revenues do not exceed costs.

While short-term economic considerations often dominate fishermen’s attitudes toward the business and the resource (especially during a crisis), fishermen also have long-term economic interests in improving the sustainability of fisheries and thereby an assurance of future income. This interest also influences their willingness to participate in cooperative studies. For example, industry commitment to the large-scale tagging programs developed for highly migratory species in the Atlantic was originally motivated both by the novelty of participating in scientific research and the expectation that the data would provide the information needed to sustain catch over the long term (click here to access the case study).

Other motivations also play an important role in prompting fishermen to become involved in cooperative studies and sometimes even outweigh those related to economic self-interest. Fishermen often complain that scientists and managers ignore and/or invalidate their knowledge and insight about both individual fisheries and marine ecosystems. An honest opportunity to have their knowledge and skills used and validated can stimulate fishermen’s participation in cooperative studies. Conversely, resentment about this perceived disrespect can also inhibit fishermen’s participation in potentially valuable studies. The complex story of the development of bycatch reduction devices in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic provides many examples of the roles played by these other, non-economic, factors (click here to access the case study).
Finally, both individual fishermen and industry groups sometimes feel at the mercy of a management system they cannot control. Their experience of disenfranchisement is magnified when management decisions about significant cutbacks in fishing effort are based on fragmentary and/or highly uncertain scientific information. Therefore, a desire to improve the information base for decision making can also motivate fishermen to participate in cooperative studies. Generally, fishermen’s involvement in data collection and research increases their sense of involvement in resulting decisions and reduces the likelihood that they will challenge those decisions through litigation and/or other confrontational actions (see the discussion on this subject provided in Stolpe’s essay).

Management Perspective

Fishery managers are usually motivated to participate in cooperative studies by a combination of desires for better information, reduced conflict, improved working relationships, and cost savings. More recently, active participation in cooperative studies has become an element of policy for the National Marine Fisheries Service and many state agencies. The primary concern of these state and federal fishery managers is compliance with laws and regulations, as well as responding to challenges to the management system from many sources.

Gaps in existing knowledge have become both more visible and more serious as management priorities have expanded and become more complex over the years (e.g., reduce overfishing, protect and restore habitat, respond to often perplexing ecosystem shifts). The intellectual, financial, and logistical resources of management agencies alone are clearly inadequate to begin addressing these information deficiencies. Therefore, some managers are motivated to draw on fishermen’s unique insights into oceanography, ecosystem characteristics, and gear behavior.

Experienced managers also understand that fishermen are more likely to accept regulatory decisions if they have had a part in developing the information that informed those decisions. And they recognize that participants from industry and conservation groups can work outside the management process in ways that agency staff cannot; for example, by approaching constituents or members of Congress for financial and/or other support. In this way, cooperative studies can also broaden the options available to fishery managers. NFCC’s case studies of the Sablefish Longline Survey and Combined Logbook Program and The Pinger Solution provide examples.

Conservation Perspective

Fishery conservation advocates are typically motivated to participate in cooperative studies by a combination of desires to become involved directly in problem solving and to avoid more confrontational approaches to conflict resolution. Their primary goal is the protection and sustainability of fish populations and their habitats.

The advocacy strategies commonly used by conservation groups depend largely on their role as outsiders to the “business as usual” fishery management process. This approach has proven effective in raising public awareness about certain problems, improving the enforcement of fishery regulations, and curtailing activities that they perceive as harmful. But it has been difficult for conservation advocates, as outsiders, to craft solutions that require, for their design, knowledge particular to managers and fishermen and, for their implementation, the willing collaboration of all parties. Cooperative studies provide a pathway for conservation groups to expand their influence beyond that which is possible through the use of traditional advocacy tools.

Cooperative studies can also permit more flexibility and predictability in some cases than can be achieved with other more confrontational approaches to problem solving such as litigation, which can sometimes produce unexpected reactions or outcomes that are undesirable to all parties. Used in combination with other advocacy strategies, cooperative studies thus provide conservationists with another option to influence the management system.


The distinct and often contradictory perspectives of fishermen, fishery managers and conservation advocates often lead to conflict about fishery management decisions. While a certain amount of conflict is sometimes necessary to draw the attention needed to elevate an issue to decision-making status, this same conflict also often prevents key fishery problems from being resolved. For example, while confrontational approaches such as litigation can be effective in forcing fishery stakeholders to adopt a certain management outcome, they generally involve a piecemeal approach to problems that does not address the underlying issues. Thus, conflict continues to resurface and prevents all parties from achieving their long-term goals. Cooperative studies provide a mechanism to air and address conflicting perspectives and to develop collaborative solutions that are based on the collective wisdom of diverse fishery interests and are agreeable to all parties involved. They also provide the building blocks of productive, collaborative partnerships that can be drawn on to resolve common problems well into the future.
Dr. Brock Bernstein is president of the National Fisheries Conservation Center. An environmental scientist specializing in policy development and study design and evaluation, Dr. Bernstein has performed both applied and theoretical research and has designed and/or managed large-scale environmental monitoring and assessment programs. He has served on a number of technical advisory and review committees, including three National Academy of Sciences panels, and has extensive experience working with groups of varied stakeholders to resolve difficult environmental and management issues.


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