A social-ecological trap perspective to explain the emergence and persistence of illegal fishing in small-scale fisheries

  • Laura NahuelhualEmail author
  • Gonzalo Saavedra
  • María Amalia Mellado
  • Ximena Vergara Vergara
  • Tomás Vallejos


We use the social-ecological trap (SET) concept and path-dependence analysis to explain the emergence and persistence of illegal fishing, taking the Chilean king crab fishery as a case study. The results suggest that the fishery is caught in a SET, which we label the “illegality trap”, characterized by positive feedbacks between regulation astringency, illegal access, fishers’ resistance, and fishing effort that keep the fishery in an undesirable state. As a process, illegal fishing arises as the denunciation of past poverty conditions and policies enacted to protect private rights to the sea, against traditional fishing logics. As a state of the system, illegal fishing is a relational phenomenon involving fishers, intermediaries, processors, and consumers. Over time, the different types of fishers emerge along well-structured international and local fish chains: the legal fisher, the cooperative fisher, the legal-illegal fisher, and the illegal fisher, encompassing a continuum from subsistence to competitive rationalities, which reflect adaptive strategies in the face of normative-legislative constrictions and market opportunities. Yet, the “legal” or the “illegal” is not a permanent condition, but it can be one and/or the other, depending on the circumstances. These results contend the reductionist view of the deterrence dogma which depicts illegal fishing as a matter of rational utility maximizers. On the contrary, the SET described here reflects the complexity of a problem with many edges, from legislation legitimacy to cultural responses across all the actors involved.


Resource management syndromes Small-scale fisheries Fisheries governance Environmental crime Social-ecological systems 


Funding information

This research was funded by Grants FONDAP 15150003 and FONDECYT 1190207.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centro de Investigación en Dinámica de Ecosistemas Marinos de Altas LatitudesUniversidad Austral de ChileValdiviaChile
  2. 2.Instituto de Economía, Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y AdministrativasUniversidad Austral de ChileValdiviaChile
  3. 3.Instituto de Estudios AntropológicosUniversidad Austral de ChileValdiviaChile
  4. 4.Doctorado en Ecosistemas Forestales y Recursos Naturales, Facultad de Ciencias Forestales y Recursos NaturalesUniversidad Austral de ChileValdiviaChile

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