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


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.

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

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Nahuelhual, L., Saavedra, G., Mellado, M. et al. A social-ecological trap perspective to explain the emergence and persistence of illegal fishing in small-scale fisheries. Maritime Studies 19, 105–117 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40152-019-00154-1

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