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Fishermen and ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 August 2009

Fikret Berkes
Associate Professor, Institute of Urban and Environmental Studies, Brock University, St Catharines, Ontario L2S 3A1, Canada.


Fish populations are classical examples of commonproperty resources and tend to decline over time. According to the conventional wisdom, they decline through a process popularly known as ‘the tragedy of the commons’, whereby selfish users are locked into a deterministic mechanism in which they are both the villains and the victims. However, the commons paradigm is not the model of reality for all fisheries. There are many sustainable fisheries, and detailed studies of some of them indicate that they do not fit the commons paradigm because there are factors which violate some of the hidden assumptions of the commons paradigm.

In many community-based and small-scale fisheries, there are unwritten regulations or customary laws that prevent individuals from maximizing their private gains at the expense of community interests. Far from being owned by no one and freely open to any user, many of the fish stocks of the world are under claims of ownership by communities of fishermen who exercise use-rights and who control access to the resource. As seen in examples from Oceania and North America's west coast, open-access and common property conditions were created, and the ‘tragedy’ started only after the destruction of such traditional marine tenure systems.

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Copyright © Foundation for Environmental Conservation 1985

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