Today Stefan Gehrig takes us along his thoughts, impressions and observations of his stay on Zanzibar, where he gathers data for his master thesis on Social-Ecological relationships.For the completion of my ISATEC degree, I have travelled to Zanzibar, the heavenly beautiful and semi-autonomous island off the Republic of Tanzania. Europeans held an extraordinary connection to the tropical archipelago in the Indian Ocean for a long time, whose culture had previously been shaped by mainly Arabic and muslim immigrants: it was German colony, English colony, supplier of spices and other colonial goods, a partner of the former communist German Republic, the desire of Western travelers and dropouts in the middle of the 20th century and finally, for the last 20-30 years, a destination for mass tourism, and, research. In a sharp contrast to bubbles of wealth in some small touristic zones the majority of people in the the country lives either with low and uncertain income in a rural fashion or is even threatened by poverty. Zanzibari people live by and from the sea, with little possibility for the production of other resources by e.g. farming or mining. The sea is also the most important touristic attraction. Not surprisingly, marine resource use, fishery and coastal ecology are thus highly relevant topics in Zanzibar, because also here, population growth, economic development, pollution and climate change make it necessary to continuously re-debate the relation of people and nature. There are numerous fruitful cooperations between the local Institute of Marine Sciences, located on the island, and Northern, in particular German and Swedish universities, dedicated to this line of research. Luckily, I was able to become part of such a cooperation between the IMS and the ZMT Bremen and want to share some of my impressions with you.
I am now located in Chwaka Bay, a stunningly gorgeous natural system on the east coast of the island. Mangrove forests fringe the inner border, and the seascape continues seawards with beds of seagrass and algae and small coral reefs at the outer border of the bay. You can get a glimpse of its biodiversity when wandering through the vast sandy plains that are revealed at low tide, finding different species of seagrass, red algae, green algae, brown algae, mussels, snails, sponges, polychaets, crabs, hard corals, soft corals, sea urchins and a variety of birds foraging on the seabed. To see the pelagic biodiversity of the shallow Bay you just have to visit a local market and you will find all groups and sizes of fish like rabbitfish, kingfish, eels, parrotfish, emperors, and rays, just as octopuses and squids. A handful of villages spread around the coastline of the bay, with a total population of around 10.000 people and all kinds of fishery (traps, nets, lines, spears, …), gleaning and seaweed farming are the main source of either income or protein or both for the local people. Yet, the current situation is less idyllic than it seems at first sight. The fish catches
keep decreasing for decades and overfishing plays a big role therein. The shrinking fishery yields result in a threat for the biodiversity, local people’s livelihoods, well-being, and, which is just as crucial, as I discuss more in detail later, social functioning. This is where my thesis topic comes into play. A number of previous studies has examined the management failures in Chwaka Bay, and relate it to aspects like dysfunctional institutions, inefficient instruments of the government, poverty and social mistrust (see De La Torre-Castro & Lindström 2009, an interesting paper on the cognitive dimensions of fishery management in the bay). If you recall my last article, however, trust, shared regularities and other forms of social capital are exactly the ingredients needed to solve the fundamental dilemma of the use of common natural goods! The situation in Chwaka Bay has become complicated and tensioned, as I already noticed in my first weeks here and during my first interviews with locals. In this first feature I want to describe you visually how difficult implementing sustainability can be with some anecdotes from Chwaka Bay that I have experienced during observations and conversations. I will cover the quantitative part of my study, social dilemma experiments, and its results in another article, after having conducted them in probably November and December. Of course, numbers mean nothing without context.
I myself am living in a small house in Marumbi, a tiny fishing village, with a local family. The father is going out for fishing almost every day. He is using a special technique called dema: handcrafted basket traps that are baited and then placed on the Bay’s seafloor over night. Fish swim in, but cannot find out and are extracted in the morning. Local ecological knowledge on how to construct, bait and place the traps is enabling this kind of fishery. In contrast, in the neighbouring village, Chwaka, most people go fishing in larger groups and with nets. That is the root of a conflict which has lasted for many years now and is costing the people of Marumbi and Chwaka a lot of peace and the bay a lot of its sustainability – just like more fishery-related conflicts within and among other villages in the bay do.
The general problem is, that fishery allows for plenty diverging views on when to fish, where to fish, what to fish, how to fish and how much to fish. Not only that this poses a problem when negotiating a shared view on a fishery resource, but also, as it is the case in Chwaka Bay, gears and techniques can be incompatible: Nets being dragged over the seagrass beds destroy the traps being placed in there, as well as the habitat in general. Fishers using bigger mesh-sizes are jeopardized by others fishing away the recruits of their target species. Consequently, verbal arguments, fights (even with a fishermen being killed in the 90s) and manipulations of gears still occur on a regular basis. For instance, nets are cut or fishing grounds of dema fishers are secretely invaded during the night by net fishers. The declining catches further fuel the conflict. The government and its Fishery Department are well aware of the problematic situation in Chwaka Bay, but all formal efforts to regulate the situation have failed. The beach recorder, a local patrol in charge of enforcing and monitoring a village’s fishery does not fulfill his job properly. Often, he is poor and part of the village himself and the financial support of the government is too small to enable him to go out to sea regularly. Other measures, like state laws which prohibit gears and mesh-sizes are not followed. The participatory idea to build fishermen committees has led to no instances of collective action or innovations. How do local people see the problem of a declining fishery and the social conflicts, its causes and potential solutions?
Most strikingly to me was to see: people know they fish too much and in a bad fashion. All people I asked independently stated there are less species of fish and much smaller fish than years ago, and that fishing is the principal reason. A guy engaging in a very harmful inshore drag-net fishing, rowing over the grasses with a very small-meshed net, catching juvenile fish 1/3 of the adult size, told me after bringing in his catch: Sure, you shouldn’t do that. “But”, he said, “there is a too small amount of fish for a too large amount of people”. A fisherman from Marumbi who acknowledges that there is too much fishing pressure, when asked if there are some agreements of how much fish traps to put per fisher said “there are no rules. It just depends on your capital and how much traps you have.”
So, interestingly, the currently practiced habits of fishing, although seen as a danger for the fishery, are not changed or restricted. Although people have an understanding of some ecological consequences, there is no adaptation.
There is a single major reason for this, it seems to me, and that is poverty. Apparently, poverty is forcing people to make their living unsustainably and with costs for the ecosystem. No fisher I asked wants his children to become fishermen too. People want to exit the fishery: “I can imagine doing farming”, one said for example. Yet, they can’t exit, because, the alternatives are missing. It seems people agree that the problem has to be solved by the government. A fisher said: “What would it help if I tell the others to stop fishing with small nets? They won’t listen to me. They have to do it to live.” Another one said: “I cannot fish less now, when there are less fish. I have to fish more!” The informal institutions, the habits and norms that people follow when fishing, are in an equilibrium, though a very bad one. Further keeping or even increasing the fishing effort or targeting smaller fish is the single best option if poverty does not allow you to start a new career and if competition for the declining fish stocks is strengthening. Additionally, a regular fisher, even without an own boat, can easily make 3-4 times a local teacher’s salary on a day. But “it is gambling. It is a game of luck every day”, one fisher put it. How can you develop foresight when tomorrow is almost the most important day for you and always uncertain?
Although there seems to be some agreement on the harm of overfishing, as described, there is no common sense at all on which techniques to ban or how fishermen or government should best proceed, as I will show with some examples. Governmental actions proposed by local people to exit this overfishing-poverty trap were (1) giving out big boats to fish outside the bay in deep waters, (2) to provide more education and training to fishermen, (3) to create new employments or (4) to install more patrols and controls on the sea. A fishermen from Chwaka told me people from the other village were envious and thus made trouble. On the other hand, another Chwaka fishermen explained me the trap fishers catch much more fish and thus are the richer ones. A Marumbi fishermen, however, said the net fishers are “taking everything out of the sea”. Another Chwaka fisherman told me drag-net fishing is alright with the appropriate mesh-size, which totally contradicts law and most other opinions. Obviously, a lot of people have their very personal story of fishing, with a particular strong divide emerging between the communities.
Theorizing this situation, one can speak of an institutionalized conflict in governance, the lack of meta-governor, a governor of governance, a shared criteria of valuation how proper behavior should look like (see Kooiman 2008 for a theoretical framework on the components of interactive governance). Community-based management needs to draw on a set of shared perceptions, knowledge, norms and visions, which is exactly where its strength lies, compared to other forces that steer decision-making:
“In contrast with states and markets, communities more effectively foster and utilise the incentives that people have traditionally deployed to regulate their common activity: trust, solidarity, reciprocity, reputation, personal pride, respect, vengeance, and retribution, among others.“ (Bowles & Gintis 2002)
Community-governance is thought to be particular relevant in fishery, which is such an economically and ecologically complex endeavor that feedback, involvement and information of the resource users is crucial for success. But, as I explained above, when there is no homogeneous “community” and no efficient informal institutions that can be built upon, bottom-up emergence of sustainability is hardly possible. Rather, it seems the expectation of competition and self-interest is crowding out beliefs in reciprocity and fairness and thereby informing a destructive behavior of local resource users.
Certainly there are norms and agreed upon in the bay, for me it looks like religion and soccer (unlike politics) are institutions unifying people across villages. In maintaining muslim rituals and organizing their soccer teams and matches, I see the people of Chwaka Bay exhibiting a degree of collective coordination that could be wished to be the same in fishery. To me this demonstrates that cooperation on a higher level is possible. This is the case once the common goal is acknowledged and a set of opportunities is created that allows to leave the institutional lock-in, the social-ecological trap they suffer from at the moment. The creation of this set, in my opinion, needs an outside mode of governance and involvement of the government (might the upcoming elections bring some improvement?), but also negotiations and understanding on the local level. No external force can create bridging social capital or compliance from scratch. Institutional change is a complex interactive process of individuals, informal and formal institutions. Once some certainty and benefits are achieved it can nevertheless be self-reinforcing. People like routines – this is just as much a problem as a chance.
I am looking forward to test the influence of the local people’s heterogeneity, of their perceptions and their socioeconomic situation on collective action when they are exposed to increasing incentives for cooperation, when they gain explicitly more for further restraining themselves – that is what I will do in my game experiments. Can an environmental stimulus like scarcity be an initiating force for an adjustment change in collective behavior?
Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2002). Social capital and community governance*. The Economic Journal, 112(483), F419-F436.
De la Torre-Castro, M., & Lindström, L. (2010). Fishing institutions: Addressing regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive elements to enhance fisheries management. Marine Policy, 34(1), 77-84.
Kooiman, J., Bavinck, M., Chuenpagdee, R., Mahon, R., & Pullin, R. (2008). Interactive governance and governability: an introduction. The Journal of Transdisciplinary Environmental Studies, 7(1), 1-11.
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.