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.