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Marine Protected Areas Intensify Cooperation and Competition

10 March 2016

US - Marine protected areas generate both extreme cooperation and extreme competition among fishers. When these behaviors remain in balance, they can lead to better conservation of marine resources, according to a Duke University-led international study by researchers at three institutions. However, if competition among fishers increases while cooperation declines, it could threaten the long-term survival of marine protected areas (MPAs), their biodiversity and the communities that depend on them.

"In Baja California, Mexico, you have these towns where the people have been fishing for generations; fishers are friends to one another and help each other at sea, but at the same time compete with each other to see who catches the most," said Xavier Basurto, assistant professor of sustainability science at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.

Previous studies have considered the impacts of only one behavior or the other, but the new research demonstrates that they are not mutually exclusive.

"It's really fascinating to listen to fishers convey what we would call friendly rivalry," Basurto said. Friendly rivalry among fishers is one example of how the seemingly opposing behaviors can co-exist and be beneficial.

From a theoretical perspective, friendly rivalry might seem like a contradictory behavior, particularly when trying to explain how fishers are able to avoid the so-called "tragedy of the commons," or depletion of a commonly managed resource, Basurto said.

But the new study underscores that friendly rivalry can result in equitable management of community-based fisheries as it does not necessarily undermine collective action, which is vital for better conservation of ocean resources.

Basurto and colleagues from Innsbruck University, the Duke University Marine Lab and the University of Marburg used a multi-method approach that included controlled economic experiments which were based on game theory, to study prosocial and antisocial behaviors among fishermen and non-fishermen in four communities in Baja California.

The primary fishing grounds for two of the communities were adjacent to MPAs. The fishing grounds for the other two communities were located outside the influence of MPAs. All of these local economies, though still dependent on fishing, had begun to diversify.

One of the study's key findings was that in fisheries influenced by MPAs, community members -- fishers and non-fishers alike -- show elevated levels of both cooperation and competition than in fisheries outside the influence of protected areas.

"The elevated levels of simultaneous cooperative and hyper-competitive behavior we measured might be due to political processes related to the establishment and implementation of the MPAs and to the economic diversification taking place as a result," Basurto said.

"Hyper-competition can be useful in maintaining group cooperation and reinforcing overall successful collective action when hyper-competitive individuals help enforce rule-breaking behaviors," he said.

"Our survey results show that these outcomes do not derive from higher fish abundance and catches in the fisheries near MPAs."

For policymakers and fishery managers, one of the study's key take-away messages is that because MPAs positively affect the behaviors of fishers and non-fishers alike, their impacts should not be underestimated.

"This research indicates that when marine protected areas are established, special attention should be paid to the impact they have on social inequality," Basurto said. "Social inequality can lead to a loss of social cohesion in a community, increasing competitive behavior while cooperative behavior declines."

More importantly, the results suggest that any type of policy intervention, including the creation of MPAs, has the possibility of generating extreme prosocial and antisocial behaviors, particularly if the processes they create lead to market diversification, social class differentiation and income inequality, he said. These extreme behaviors might not necessarily be a bad thing if they remain in balance, but when income inequality becomes an issue, anti-sociality could dominate and the system could unravel.

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