How the popularity of sea cucumbers is threatening coastal communities

Coastal communities are struggling with the complex social and ecological impacts of a growing global hunger for a seafood delicacy, according to a new study from the University of British Columbia.

“Soaring demand has spurred sea cucumber booms across the globe,” says lead author Mary Kaplan-Hallam, who conducted the research as a master’s student with the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) at UBC.

“For many coastal communities, sea cucumber isn’t something that was harvested in the past. Fisheries emerged rapidly. Money, buyers and fishers from outside the community flooded in. This has also increased pressure on other already overfished resources.”

Sea cucumber can sell for hundreds–sometimes thousands–of dollars a pound. The “gold rush” style impacts of high-value fisheries exacerbate longer-term trends in already vulnerable communities, such as declines in traditional fish stocks, population increases, climate change and illegal fishing.

“These boom-and-bust cycles occur across a range of resource industries,” says co-author Nathan Bennett, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC. “What makes these fisheries so tricky is that they appear rapidly and often deplete local resources just as rapidly, leaving communities with little time to recover.”

Sea cucumber fishing season 2016 (Dzilam de Bravo, Yucatan, Mexico). Credit: Eva Coronado, National Polytechnic Institute, Mexico.

Sea cucumber fishing season 2016 (Dzilam de Bravo, Yucatan, Mexico). Credit: Eva Coronado, National Polytechnic Institute, Mexico.

The researchers based their findings on a case study of Río Lagartos, a fishing community on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. For the past 50 years, small-scale commercial fishing has been the dominant livelihood of the community.

The town’s first commercial sea cucumber permits were issued in 2013, a significant economic opportunity for fishers in the region. The leathery marine animals are a delicacy in many parts of Asia, and as stocks have depleted there, demand has rapidly depleted fisheries across the globe.

A host of new challenges emerged in Río Lagartos as the sea cucumbers attracted outside fishers, money and patrons, according to the researchers’ interviews with community members.

“Resource management, incomes, fisher health and safety, levels of social conflict and social cohesion in the community are all impacted,” says Kaplan-Hallam. “The potential financial rewards are also causing local fishers to take bigger risks as sea cucumber stocks are depleted and diving must occur further from shore, with dire health consequences.”

Unfortunately, say the authors, this isn’t an isolated situation.

“There are many examples around the world where elite global seafood markets–abalone, sea urchins, sharks–are undermining local sustainability,” says Bennett. “If we want to sustainably manage fisheries with coastal communities, we need a better understanding of how global seafood markets impact communities and how to manage these impacts quickly. Think of it like an epidemic: it requires a rapid response before it gets out of control.”

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The study “Catching sea cucumber fever in coastal communities” is published in Global Environmental Change

The research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, MITACS, the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship program, and the Liber Ero Fellowship program.

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New article: An appeal for a code of conduct for marine conservation

An appeal for a code of conduct for marine conservation - Bennett et al 2017 Marine Policy

A group of colleagues and I have just published an open access paper titled “An appeal for a code of conduct for marine conservation” in Marine Policy. In this paper, we propose that:

  • Poor governance and social issues can jeopardize the legitimacy of, support for and long-term effectiveness of marine conservation.
  • A comprehensive set of social standards is needed to provide a solid platform for conservation actions.
  • This paper reviews key principles and identifies next steps in developing a code of conduct for marine conservation.
  • The objectives of a code of conduct are to promote fair, just and accountable marine conservation.
  • A code of conduct will enable marine conservation to be both socially acceptable and ecologically effective.

Abstract: Marine conservation actions are promoted to conserve natural values and support human wellbeing. Yet the quality of governance processes and the social consequences of some marine conservation initiatives have been the subject of critique and even human rights complaints. These types of governance and social issues may jeopardize the legitimacy of, support for and long-term effectiveness of marine conservation. Thus, we argue that a clearly articulated and comprehensive set of social standards – a code of conduct – is needed to guide marine conservation. In this paper, we draw on the results of an expert meeting and scoping review to present key principles that might be taken into account in a code of conduct, to propose a draft set of foundational elements for inclusion in a code of conduct, to discuss the benefits and challenges of such a document, and to propose next steps to develop and facilitate the uptake of a broadly applicable code of conduct within the marine conservation community. The objectives of developing such a code of conduct are to promote fair conservation governance and decision-making, socially just conservation actions and outcomes, and accountable conservation practitioners and organizations. The uptake and implementation of a code of conduct would enable marine conservation to be both socially acceptable and ecologically effective, thereby contributing to a truly sustainable ocean.

Press releases and coverage

Policy Brief: An appeal for a code of conduct for marine conservation (PDF LINK)

Reference: Bennett, N.J., Teh, L., Ota, Y., Christie, P., Ayers, A., Day, J.C., Franks, P., Gill, D., Gruby, R.L., Kittinger, J.N., Koehn, J.Z., Lewis, N., Parks, J., Vierros, M., Whitty, T.S., Wilhelm, A., Wright, K., Aburto, J.A., Finkbeiner, E.M., Gaymer, C.F., Govan, H., Gray, N., Jarvis, R.M., Kaplan-Hallam, M. & Satterfield, T. (2017). An appeal for a code of conduct for marine conservationMarine Policy, 81, 411–418. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2017.03.035 [OPEN ACCESS]

 

What is environmental governance?

Environmental governance is a topic that has received a fair amount of attention in the academic and applied literatures on conservation and environmental management in the last few years. However, there remains a significant amount of confusion about what governance is, how governance is different than management, and what topics and questions governance scholars examine. In this open access extended review in the journal Conservation Biology, I provide answers to these questions while reviewing Peter Jones’ book “Governing Marine Protected Areas: Resilience through Diversity“. Excerpts from the text of “Governing marine protected areas in an interconnected and changing world” follow below.

What is governance?  – “Governance is an umbrella term that refers to the structures, institutions (i.e., laws, policies, rules, and norms), and processes that determine who makes decisions, how decisions are made, and how and what actions are taken and by whom.”

How does governance differ from management? – “Although the umbrella of governance facilitates (or undermines) effective environmental management, it can be differentiated from management as the resources, plans, and actions that result from the functioning of governance (Lockwood 2010). The objectives of both environmental governance and management are to steer, or change, individual behaviors or collective actions and, ultimately, to improve environmental and societal outcomes. Without good governance combined with effective management, [environmental management and conservation initiatives] are unlikely to succeed socially or ecologically (Bennett & Dearden 2014).”

What topics do environmental governance scholars examine? – “Scholarship on environmental governance has grown significantly over the last few decades, ranging in ecological scale from individual species (e.g., whales) to resources or ecosystems (e.g., forests, coral reefs) to global concerns (e.g., climate, oceans). Specific policy realms (e.g., fisheries, agriculture, or MPAs) are also the subject of governance analyses and planning. Environmental governance studies focus on 2 central and interrelated areas: governance design and implementation and governance performance…Environmental governance can be evaluated either or simultaneously on whether processes are fair and legitimate and whether outcomes are socially equitable or ecologically sustainable…Disagreement remains about whether outputs of governance analyses should be descriptive or prescriptive.”

What questions do environmental governance scholars explore? – “Questions and ideas that have been taken up by environmental governance scholars…[include]: How are individual and collective behaviors shaped by different governance institutions? What is the ideal governance structure for managing people and resources: community based, top down, or comanagement? How and why do governance institutions change and to what effect? What decision-making processes are more socially acceptable and lead to better ecological outcomes? What are the roles of different actors and organizations (e.g., governments, NGOs, private sector, local stakeholders, and resource users) in shaping governance processes and determining outcomes? How can governance address interconnected social-ecological systems and interactions across ecological, social, and institutional scales? How can governance be designed to fit different sociopolitical and ecological contexts? What limits are placed on governance by different social, political, and ecological factors? What norms or ideals (e.g., transparency, accountability, trust) should guide governance? What is the appropriate scale for governance to occur? How can collaboration and cooperation be facilitated most effectively? How can governance be designed to be stable and also to adapt to mounting social and ecological changes and unpredictable circumstances? These are not merely academic concerns. Insights provided by answers to these questions would help in the formulation of appropriate, acceptable, and supportive environmental governance policies and processes, enabling more effective management and ultimately enhancing…social and ecological outcomes.”

The full text of the article can be downloaded from the blue links below:

Bennett, N. J. (2015). Governing marine protected areas in an interconnected and changing world. Conservation Biology, 29(1), 303–306. http://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12458 [OPEN ACCESS]