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Strengthening participation means community members are involved in identifying priority issues
Strengthening participation means community members are involved in identifying priority issues
Courtesy of SFLP 2000


Many of the management strategies used nowadays to manage fisheries - and particularly those that can be described as top down, command and control, and/or incentive blocking approaches - have not resulted in sustainable fisheries. As a result, there is growing interest in pursuing alternative approaches to management - including those that are more participatory and transparent - because of the expectation that creating the opportunity for participants to better understand the reasons for and the necessity of management measures will help to create acceptance of the measures and improve the climate for cooperation and compliance. Thus, the issues of (i) participation and (ii) transparency are, increasingly, part of discussions amongst fisheries managers, fishers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the broader category of "civil society" regarding the process and outcomes of fisheries management.

Various participative styles of management - commonly referred to as community-based management, collaborative management, cooperative management or co-management - are based on the idea of greater involvement of stakeholders in the management process and, as a result, greater transparency. The underlying premise is that the stakeholders are empowered both by this participation and by the sharing of responsibilities for resource management and substantial management with the fisheries management authority.

In terms of participation, there are two components to the debate. First, there is the issue of how to describe participant groups - not only fishers, but also other groups that may have a stake in fisheries management matters. Second, there is the issue about the extent to which these various stakeholders should and may participate, i.e. whether it is desirable or productive to increase the extent to which the participants should be included and involved in the process of fisheries management.

Some concerns regarding these issues are linked to the valid issue that greater participation of a range of stakeholders with diverging interests might become more time-consuming than productive and might raise the transaction costs of even daily management activities beyond current budgets. Other concerns are related to the issue that encouraging participation will expose uncomfortable issues or disagreements that require additional discussion and resolution, thereby raising management costs and slowing down the decision-making. There are also concerns about the possibility of conflicts of interest if certain stakeholder groups such as fishers are involved with decisions regarding the resources that they harvest and from which they make their livelihoods.

Issues regarding transparency (and the concomitant issue of accountability) are frequently related to the notion of whether it is desirable - or even necessary - to provide the general public with knowledge about the options and details (including scientific advice) on which fishery management decisions are made. Fisheries management decisions are often based on subjective choices and trade-offs, yet rules of accountability are frequently quite objective. As a result, fisheries managers are genuinely concerned that the public justification of their decisions would increase both legal and political liabilities.

Overall, there is the reasonable hope that the additional costs of greater involvement and transparency may be outweighed by the beneficial results of improved compliance and, subsequently, sustainability. The premise is that acceptance of, if not supportive legitimacy for, management arrangements will result in greater compliance, thereby lowering costs of enforcement and, in general, resulting in more effective management. There is also hope that a better informed public may generate the political support often needed to undertake difficult corrective action, and that such an informed public may even help share the risks and costs associated with fisheries management.

Possible solutions

There are two means by which participation and transparency can be increased:

  1. by creating and supporting processes that allow for greater and more clearly defined stakeholder involvement in decision-making; and,
  2. by enabling greater and simpler access to the basic principles, procedures, options, trade-offs, and outcomes of management processes.

Neither of these strategies is easy or costless.

Participative types of management, where responsibilities for resource management and substantial management functions are shared between fisheries management authorities and various user groups, are generally referred to as involving some level of co-management. In very broadly defined terms, many fisheries management systems now have some degree of co-management.

The extent to which co-management actually takes place depends on a variety of factors. Even in co-management systems where there are specific roles and tasks delegated to the various participants, the extent to which these are operationalized depends on many things: the logistical and procedural nature of the arrangement, the extent to which there is support for making the concept of co-management a reality, and the actual management tasks to be undertaken. Even the composition, the participatory skills, and the capabilities of the various interest groups involved will affect the extent to which co-management occurs.

Near one end of the spectrum there are arrangements where there are an assortment of forums for dialogue between stakeholders and the management authorities, but decisions are still made by those representing the fisheries management authority. Nearer to the other end of the spectrum, there are arrangements where the fisheries management authority has delegated much of the management responsibility to stakeholder groups, but where the management authority retains certain key or basic overall decision-making powers. If responsibilities are more fully devolved to a particular group (be it a town, an area, a group of stakeholders, or whatever), then the approach may be described as community-based management. Regardless, the objective of these approaches is to increase the participation of stakeholders and the transparency of the management process.

Much of the promise and potential of co-management systems is that they provide a means whereby stakeholders can share management issues, needs, options, and related information amongst themselves. Instead of merely being recipients of decisions made by management authorities, stakeholders are provided with the opportunity to internalise, to take up, management requirements and responsibilities. However, as with so many situations, this also requires clarification, understanding, and reinforcement of rules, roles, responsibilities, logistical mechanisms of all participants.

In many fisheries, the best - and perhaps the only - possibility of implementing any effective management system is to set up a system that captures and creates positive incentives of interest to the stakeholders. For example, if a co-management system involves stakeholders in various operational aspects of management, including enforcement, there may be a greater incentive for compliance. This may be of particular importance in situations where there are large numbers of fisheries involved and where top-down methods of compliance may be extremely costly.

The matter of enabling greater and simpler access to management issues, needs, options, and opportunities is not a simple one. Although it is relatively straightforward to publish and provide management-related information in various forms, making the substance of management information accessible to the public at large requires a special effort. New information technology can assist in this process, but it, too, takes time and energy.

Action taken

Research on participative management has increased substantially during the last decade and an abundant set of case studies and guidance is available. In recent years an increasing number of management authorities have found advantages in involving stakeholders in the management process, often taking place in the context of some form of participative arrangement. Examples of such developments can be found, inter alia, in the Philippines (San Miguel Bay), the Netherlands (flatfish fishery), Mozambique (beach seine fishery, Inhassoro) and the United States of America (Fisheries Management Councils).

The public access to information on resources and their management is also increasing rapidly, in part fostered by the progress in information distribution. New information technology (Internet, CD-ROMs) is facilitating and extending the distribution and access to information and thereby encouraging the broader participation of people in the debate.

NGOs have been very active in distributing information to raise awareness. International organizations such as FAO are developing innovative global and more accessible information systems and networks dedicated to resource monitoring from local to global levels and advancing the use of such tools as sustainability indicators. In many countries and regional fisheries management organizations, reports are both available in paper and electronic formats to make information both more rapidly accessible and available to the public at large. These are but a few examples of a rapidly growing phenomenon of using technology advances, particularly in computing, to better share knowledge.


Society is demanding more effective management of fisheries as part of working to ensure the overall health of ecosystems throughout the world. As a consequence, the authorities concerned recognize the advantages of increased participation by stakeholders and greater transparency in managing access to fisheries resources.

There are significant logistical and cultural challenges posed by participatory and transparent management approaches. There are significant challenges in building the capabilities and capacity of all involved stakeholders so that working together is productive. However, with time and dedication, these issues will be overcome. In the interim, it is important to ensure that this capacity building and information transfer occurs at all levels and throughout all communities involved with fisheries resources, so there is better recognition of rights and responsibilities and greater empowerment of all those who are involved in fisheries.

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