Knowledge For the Public Good: Learning Territoriality and Resource Management in Fisheries


Fishing is one of the most globalised work practices in the world, yet its form and execution varies greatly across cultural contexts. Learning to fish is often accomplished through “situated learning” in communities, which occurs both on the boat and through conversation with other fishers. However, the inculcation of skill and strategy is also constrained by secrecy within fishing economies, which may or may not coincide with the demarcation of fishing territories by competing groups. What does the dual distribution and occlusion of knowledge and space mean in these economically strained communities? These norms underlie a form of public goods game that provides for resource management models among fishermen due to the naturalness of its formal and informal rules of conduct.
    Environmental degradation has been widely conceived of as a “tragedy of the commons,” an idea first introduced in ecologist Garrett Hardin’s influential 1968 essay of the same name. In his paper, which has served as a polemic in environmental and anthropological circles alike, he suggests that ecosystems like seas can no longer be conceived of as infinite and harvested as such. Although Hardin’s contentions, combined with conventional models of behavioural economics, convey individuals as self-interested and maximising, cognitive anthropologists have tested economic games cross-culturally only to discover that the theory of rational choice is not universally applicable. Among these games, the public goods game most closely approximates a commons management model due to the publicly held character of many sea ecosystems. While the “tragedy of the commons” is a compelling notion, economic behaviours in fishing economies are more effectively characterised as a culturally framed public goods game. However, fishing economies “play” the game differently depending upon the way work practice is structured.
    Rather than disregarding their effect upon the environment, fishers take into account the conservationist rhetoric of resource managers. As the works of Palsson and Acheson have indicated, a fishermen’s culturally framed management strategies are also deployed in relationship to the social cognition of the fishing aggregate in question. Here I suggest that a “fishing schema” among fishers is invoked as fluid practice in the workplace, organising work knowledge and governing how resources are distributed. This is a critical psychological mechanism that contributes to resource management norms through allowing for a delineation of the fishing commons. I elaborate upon this to illustrate how a multitiered cultural model of resource maintenance informs intuitively appealing commons management systems that coincides with our evolved cognitive architecture. Evidence indicating the effect of such models in differently structured fishing economies is discussed, with a comparative focus on the inshore lobster fishers of Maine and offshore, heavily commercialised fishers of Iceland.


After reading this over, I realize that a lot of it is contra some of the things that Palsson has said about ownership and senses of it in Iceland. However, I think my argument is a bit more nuanced. I am not necessarily stating that I think the sea is 'owned,' but rather I am suggesting that the sea is instead 'managed' by these mechanisms of territoriality. I hope that is clear by what I am saying. Anyways. I have spent so much time and effort on this and I think this argument is the best one I've got. Many people have criticized the use of the 'public goods' approach to understanding economic behavior, but I do think it is valuable if culturally framed. This means discounting some of the rational actor ideas behind it and viewing it as a model for understanding phenomena like the Harambee and other collectively shared resources across cultures. Hopefully this makes sense and is complex enough for the purposes of this paper.

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Comment by Abraham Heinemann on August 20, 2012 at 8:09pm

When do we get to see the full thing? Sounds great and am wondering how you are going to demonstrate

multitiered cultural model of resource maintenance informs intuitively appealing commons management systems that coincides with our evolved cognitive architecture.

Comment by John McCreery on August 19, 2012 at 4:09am
[sic] the creek was unpolluted (not unpopulated).....multiple schema (not scheme)
Comment by John McCreery on August 19, 2012 at 4:01am
Chelsea, I grew up in York County in Tidewater Virginia, at the head of Patrick's Creek, a tidal estuary that flows into the Poquoson River, which flows into Chesapeake Bay. When I was a kid and the creek unpopulated, we ate a lot of crabs and oysters from what was, in effect, an extension of our back yard. A big childhood memory is how every couple of years, Dad would buy a truckload of oyster shells from a commercial oyster house and have them dumped in the creek and spread themd across what would be the mudflats exposed when the tide went out. Why? Oyster shells from big oysters have little oysters growing on them. So, as a result, we always had lots of oysters in the creek. My mother made oyster stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey and was proud to share her recipe: for a twenty pound bird, start with a quart of freshly shucked oysters. When her friends asked her where she got them, she say, "I just tell Jim to go get me some" and point at the creek.

But, changing subjects, I was thinking about how to illustrate multiple, similar scheme and board games came to mind. All over the world, we see similar scenes, two players sit on opposite sides of a board and take turns making moves with their pieces. Consider, however, four examples, chess, checkers, shoji (Japanese-also Chinese and Korean-chess) and Go. In the two varieties of chess, the pieces are differentiated and the goal is to capture the opponent's king. In contrast, in both checkers and Go, the pieces are undifferentiated and the goal is to capture territory (the whole board in the case of checkers). But checkers and Go differ in the number of pieces, where they are placed (in squares or on the intersections of lines) and restrictions on their movement. Checkers move around on the board; Go stones are immobile once they are placed. I imagine a similar way of describing different kinds of fishing: line or net, inshore or deep sea, etc. The constraints imposed by the different types of fishing will affect how the public game is played.....
Comment by Chelsea Hayman on August 18, 2012 at 12:06pm

Hey John - some great points and I appreciate your comments!

I am definitely on the same page as you and I am seeing this more and more as I go along. I am currently working my way through the schema section and I think I am characterizing it as closer to adaptable strategies - sort of how you were describing that the fishermen kind of just did what felt right to them at the given moment. In the case of Maine lobstermen, who use a lot of different strategies to approaching lobstering, I am saying something along the lines of what you're implying - that there are different approaches that can be done depending upon the season, the inclinations of the fisher, etc. So many different variables involved and I need to parse them out.

Where did you grow up in the states? I have lived in Maryland for most of my life and I also grew up near the Chesapeake Bay. My Grandfather fished a lot, but for him, it was more a hobby. But my family is very seafaring - my uncle and father own a sailboats and my other uncle is a boat builder. Thank you for sharing your stories about your family - really insightful and interesting! One major regret I have about this dissertation is not being able to go and talk to these watermen themselves. So I am always to happy to hear peoples' stories about fishing. There's been some really interesting work done by Anthropologist Michael Paolisso on the Chesapeake Bay watermen and their cultural models - he deals a lot with folk models of environmental conservation among the watermen. Definitely worth checking out if you're interested!

Thank you again. :)

Comment by John McCreery on August 18, 2012 at 2:31am
"Here I suggest that a “fishing schema” among fishers is invoked as fluid practice in the workplace, organising work knowledge and governing how resources are distributed."

Chelsea, I like your abstract a lot and this sentence, in particular. The one question I have is why the singular, why the "a....schema"? Why not multiple schema?

I ask for two reasons. First, I have been much impressed by the work of Gary Klein on what he calls recognition-primed decision making. In Klein's model, expertise is a stack of cognitive models that may or may not apply to the situation at hand. Experts make decisions by grabbing the model closest to the top of the stack that seems to apply to the situation but are ready to discard it and move on to another model if incoming evidence suggests that it isn't appropriate. Shallow expertise has only a few, relatively abstract, models in its stack. Deep expertise has more and more concrete models to work with.

Second, I grew up on Chesapeake bay, with a dad who was an avid fisherman and a younger brother whose lifelong hobby has been playing at being a Chesapeake Bay waterman. Fishing has never been his major source of income, but he owns his own fishing boat and has run pound nets and strings of crab pots and sold the catch to make a bit of extra money on the side. When I think about them and the schema involved in their fishing activities, I see multiple schemes that range from "hop in a boat and ride out to the head of the creek to see if the rockfish are biting" to "get up early in the morning to check the nets (or crab pots) before going to work and repeat in the evening." I see fishing for fun, fishing to catch enough fish for a church fish fry, fishing with an eye to selling the catch to make some extra cash. I think about variations in "ownership" that range from not crowding another boat that seems to be catching a lot of fish, respecting its right to the spot where ths fish are biting (basic sport fisherman etiquette) to rage over the discovery that someone has been stealing from your pound nets or crab pots, seen as criminal enough to warrant at least talk of sitting out by the net or pots with a shotgun. As I write, I have just read a mornings paper here in Japan where the front page news is tensions between Japan and China over some tiny islands between Okinawa and Taiwan that the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese the Diaoyudai and both claim are their national territory and between Japan and South Korea over an island that Japan calls Takeshuma and Korea Dokto. Both disputes have to do with who gets to control the 200-mile marine resources exclusion zones around the islands in question and there has already been a lot of saber-rattling rhetoric by fervent nationalists on all sides of these disputes.

Anyway, to me at least the question of whether the schema you mention is best conceived as a single, multilayered game or a stack of similar games, with different ones played depending on the circumstances is an interesting and possibly important one.


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