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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Committing to socially responsible seafood

Migrant workers on a fishing boat on the Andaman coast of Thailand (Photo: Nathan Bennett)

Migrant workers on a fishing boat on the Andaman coast of Thailand (Photo: Nathan Bennett)

Five years ago when working on several projects with the UN FAO’s Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem Project in Southeast Asia, I became aware of how the global seafood industry was rife with social issues (report). These issues included slavery, welfare and safety issues, child labor, inequitable access to resources for coastal communities, lack of consideration of small-scale fishers in decision-making and ocean grabbing.

Over the past year, I was part of a working group that examined how the global seafood industry might commit to sourcing more socially responsible seafood. This initiative led to a first paper published in Science titled “Committing to socially responsible seafood“. This is just the first step in a much longer initiative.

Summary: Seafood is the world’s most internationally traded food commodity. Approximately three out of every seven people globally rely on seafood as a primary source of animal protein (1). Revelations about slavery and labor rights abuses in fisheries have sparked outrage and shifted the conversation (23), placing social issues at the forefront of a sector that has spent decades working to improve environmental sustainability. In response, businesses are seeking to reduce unethical practices and reputational risks in their supply chains. Governments are formulating policy responses, and nonprofit and philanthropic organizations are deploying resources and expertise to address critical social issues. Yet the scientific community has not kept pace with concerns for social issues in the sector. As the United Nations Ocean Conference convenes in New York (5 to 9 June), we propose a framework for social responsibility and identify key steps the scientific community must take to inform policy and practice for this global challenge. More…

Link to paper: Committing to socially responsible seafood

Eureka Alert News Release: Scientists launch global agenda to curb social, human rights abuses in seafood sector

 

 

Ocean Grabbing: Robbing Small Scale Fishers and Coastal Communities of Marine Resources or Spaces

The following open access article on Ocean Grabbing has just been published in Marine Policy: Bennett, N. J., Govan, H., & Satterfield, T. (2015). Ocean grabbingMarine Policy57, 61–68

Dark TrawlerHighlights:

  • Ocean grabbing refers to acts of dispossession or appropriation of marine resources or spaces.
  • Ocean grabbing robs fishers and communities of use, control or access to resources, land or the sea.
  • This paper presents a framework to evaluate conservation or development initiatives for ocean grabbing.
  • Three factors, governance, human security and well-being, determine what constitutes ocean grabbing.
  • A systematic program of research into the phenomenon of ocean grabbing is proposed.

Abstract: The term “ocean grabbing” has been used to describe actions, policies or initiatives that deprive small-scale fishers of resources, dispossess vulnerable populations of coastal lands, and/or undermine historical access to areas of the sea. Rights and access to marine resources and spaces are frequently reallocated through government or private sector initiatives to achieve conservation, management or development objectives with a variety of outcomes for different sectors of society. This paper provides a definition and gives examples of reallocations of marine resources or spaces that might constitute “ocean grabbing”. It offers a tentative framework for evaluating whether marine conservation, management or development is ocean grabbing and proposes an agenda for future research. For a reallocation to be considered ocean grabbing, it must: (1) occur by means of inadequate P1020882governance, and (2) be implemented using actions that undermine human security and livelihoods, or (3) produce impacts that reduce social–ecological well-being. Future research on ocean grabbing will: document case studies, drivers and consequences; conduct spatial and historical analyses; and investigate solutions. The intent is to stimulate rigorous discussion and promote systematic inquiry into the phenomenon of ocean grabbing.

The publication can be downloaded from here or here.

Ecologically sustainable but unjust? Negotiating equity and authority in common-pool marine resource management

A paper titled “Ecologically sustainable but unjust? Negotiating equity and authority in common-pool marine resource management” co-authored by Sarah Klain, Rachelle Beveridge and myself was just published in Ecology & Society. The article asks: a) whether natural resource management can be ecologically sustainable but unjust at the same time, and b) if distribution of harvesting rights and socio-economic benefits and inclusion in management is unfair, how might access to resources and governance institutions be re-oriented. We explore these questions through a case study of indigenous peoples’ involvement in commercial sea cucumber and geoduck fisheries on the central coast of British Columbia, Canada using Elinor Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework and common pool resource design principles.

Central Coast Fishing Boat

Klain, S., Beveridge, R, Bennett, N.J. (2014). Ecologically sustainable but unjust? Negotiating equity and authority in common-pool marine resource management. Ecology & Society 19(4), 52.

ABSTRACT: Under appropriate conditions, community-based fisheries management can support sound resource stewardship, with positive social and environmental outcomes. Evaluating indigenous peoples’ involvement in commercial sea cucumber and geoduck fisheries on the central coast of British Columbia, Canada, we found that the current social-ecological system configuration is relatively ecologically sustainable according to stock assessments. However, the current system also results in perceived inequities in decision-making processes, harvesting allocations, and socioeconomic benefits. As a result, local coastal resource managers envision a transformation of sea cucumber and geoduck fisheries governance and management institutions. We assessed the potential robustness of the proposed institutions using Elinor Ostrom’s common-pool resource design principles. Grounded in the region’s legal, political, and historical context, our analysis suggests that greater local involvement in these invertebrate fisheries and their management could provide more benefits to local communities than the status quo while maintaining an ecologically sustainable resource. Our research highlights the importance of explicitly addressing historical context and equity considerations in social-ecological system analyses and when renegotiating the institutions governing common-pool resources.

The article can also be downloaded from this page.

The capacity to adapt?: communities in a changing climate, environment, and economy on the northern Andaman coast of Thailand

The following article was just published:

Bennett, N. J., P. Dearden, G. Murray and A. Kadfak. 2014. The capacity to adapt?: communities in a changing climate, environment, and economy on the northern Andaman coast of Thailand. Ecology and Society 19 (2): 5. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol19/iss2/art5/

P1010346Abstract: The health and productivity of marine ecosystems, habitats, and fisheries are deteriorating on the Andaman coast of Thailand. Because of their high dependence on natural resources and proximity to the ocean, coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to climate-induced changes in the marine environment. These communities must also adapt to the impacts of management interventions and conservation initiatives, including marine protected areas, which have livelihood implications. Further, communities on the Andaman coast are also experiencing a range of new economic opportunities associated in particular with tourism and agriculture. These complex and ongoing changes require integrated assessment of, and deliberate planning to increase, the adaptive capacity of communities so that they may respond to: (1) environmental degradation and fisheries declines through effective management interventions or conservation initiatives, (2) new economic opportunities to reduce dependence on fisheries, and (3) the increasing impacts of climate change. Our results are from a mixed methods study, which used surveys and interviews to examine multiple dimensions of the adaptive capacity of seven island communities near marine protected areas on the Andaman coast of Thailand. Results show that communities had low adaptive capacity with respect to environmental degradation and fisheries declines, and to management and conservation interventions, as well as uneven levels of adaptive capacity to economic opportunities. Though communities and households were experiencing the impacts of climate change, especially storm events, changing seasons and weather patterns, and erosion, they were reactinKo Sin Hi Pierg to these changes with limited knowledge of climate change pe se. We recommend interventions, in the form of policies, programs, and actions, at multiple scales for increasing the adaptive capacity of Thailand’s coastal communities to change. The analytical and methodological approach used for examining adaptive capacity could be easily modified and applied to other contexts and locales.

This and other publications can be found here: https://nathanbennett.ca/publications/