Fishing for Fairness

The problem of resource depletion has been one of the most salient dilemmas of our century. Although environmental stewards encounter this threat, the distribution of knowledge and work practices among their communities is what truly determines perspectives on “the commons,” a term typically referring to natural resources that possess no clear owner.  More often than not, exploitation of the commons is viewed in a vacuum. The acts that sustain and detract from our shared resources are cultural, predicated specifically upon cognitive preferences that underpin our daily work practices.

While roughly 70 percent of fisheries are threatened by resource depletion, fishing is still a widespread occupation practiced over many generations.[i] Advancements in fishing skills are kept secret, constrained by hierarchical arrangements and the delineation of fishing territories by competing groups. In these communities, fishing knowledge is a culturally framed public good. Much like their relations with the sea, fishermen manage their encounters with their peers and fish to help protect a commonly held resource.

Fishermen possess a shared understanding of the rules behind resource distribution, and cognitive psychologists Pascal Boyer and Michael Petersen argue that this system interacts with the evolved conceptions of fairness and punishment embedded in our cognitive architecture.[ii] The roles of fairness and punishment are essential to fishing as a conservation strategy, to the extent that when one of these factors is compromised, both fishermen and conservationists face challenges maintaining a healthy fish stock. And yet, most conservation policies fail to take into account how important these psychological mechanisms are to fishing as a whole.

In Maine and Iceland, very different encounters with the commons are produced by approaches that arise from the different fishing contexts found in these locales. These cases suggest that fishing communities have a complicated relationship with the commons. The examples of Maine and Iceland show the value of matching environmental sustainability initiatives to the local milieu, a practice that reinforces fairness and punishment if implemented collaboratively.


Managing the Commons: The Rules of Fishing

Fishermen have their own way of approaching environmental conservation. For different groups, sustaining resources hinges upon how fishing is learned and practiced, as well as the rules governing the communal pot. As these workers encounter the sea, they process new information about the ways to manage their work and themselves. A fisherman’s breadth of knowledge and ability are believed to exemplify his success as a highliner or skipper in Maine and Iceland, respectively.[iii] In these environments, fishermen learn to play a culturally constrained public goods game (PGG) in which the communal pot is not always equally shared. PGGs occur when a pot has been added to by multiple stakeholders. They are evenly divided up in the most ideal circumstances. For fishermen, the true public good that they add to is a base of fishing knowledge and how this repository of information is divvied up connects with perceptions of fairness and punishment in their communities.

The information provides a conceptual tool for grappling with and adjusting fishing approaches in the different environments these workers encounter. They are “…widely distributed in the minds of the members of the group” and endowed with rules that reinforce secrecy to determine which groups receive essential information. Through limiting the knowledge of their peers, fishermen abide by conservation measures – whether intentional or not.

Some fishermen may share hypotheses about prior working conditions or specific information about the location of ideal fishing spots. When a fisherman gains a nuanced understanding of fishing and the best approaches to catching their stock, their success in harvesting fish stock is, inevitably, increased. From an economic psychology approach, one could argue that this differential advantage leads to a major victor who beats out the others and exploits the environment at a dramatic rate. However, a cultural and cognitive view on this problem shows how environments, working conditions, and community structure sustains and detracts from the fish population.

Maine fishermen operate on a small-scale basis with a clear commons management pattern that contains rules premised upon fairness and punishment. However, Icelandic fishermen have a large-scale operation and overexploit their stock due to competitive economic need. In this environment, fairness is disregarded among leading fishermen, however, collaboration happens at the level of the crew. Due to the lack of fairness within the system, the size of the operation, and the transient nature of cod, which has now become the main type of fish harvested from their scarce stock. Boyer and Petersen’s claims can be extended to suggest that small-scale fishing operations make for the fairest working conditions and management practices.



In Maine, anthropologist James Acheson noted that lobstermen operate their own boats independently. Men fishing in the same region form “harbor gangs,” which compile shared instructions for the best way to fish.[iv] Fishermen learn by doing, imitating one another, yet the practical knowledge each gang possesses is a vital commodity that signifies their power in the wider community. Although these power relationships are informal, they allow for increased control of the lobster population, with fewer independent fishermen possessing the skill to obtain them.

The most impactful environmental control and demonstration of a punishment system is the informal sanctioning of fishing territories by rival harbor gangs. Fishing areas associated with specific gangs are marked onshore with points such as coves, trees, or rocks and offshore with radar. Lobstermen are first verbally warned when they intrude and attempt to fish in another territory. If they continue to violate this rule, they face the risk of having their traps cut or destroyed entirely.

Fishermen gathering nets in Maine. Source: National Geographic.
Fishermen gathering nets in Maine. Source: National Geographic.

Maine fishermen learn their craft through direct experience, experimenting with different technologies to determine approaches to tasks like trap placement. They typically place their traps in deeper regions where they can capture a large amount of lobsters without risking the loss of their traps. Generally, two broader approaches to lobster fishing are identifiable, specifically the placement of lobster traps in demarcated areas (an approach called “pin-point bombing”) as well as random positioning of the traps (“saturation bombing”). After analyzing such practices, Acheson discovered that “pin-point bombing” exhibited much higher incomes and fishing success. His findings suggest that strategy has a significant relationship to fishing skill and accomplishments.

Performance between harbor gang members is highly scrutinized, with “highliners” serving as the designation of the most accomplished and competitive, while “dubs” do not produce large catches and are subject to open ridicule. The conditions under which certain catch totals are met are kept extremely discrete, except among highliners, who are constantly discussing advancements in their practice.

Maine is a highly competitive environment because of the limitations on where lobstermen are permitted to fish. Fairness is highly valued and territorial boundaries must be respected or punishment will ensue. With smaller fishing areas, fishermen are able to closely monitor and determine the best approach for their location. Less successful dubs cannot move to a new location if theirs holds no promise. Their sole option is searching offshore, where the stock is smaller and fewer, for a better place to put their traps. While more productive highliners are also unable to move easily, their increased skill optimizes their catch while allowing for sustainable harvesting in one concentrated spot.



Icelandic fishermen also deploy a specific set of knowledge to work collaboratively, with a number of key differences from Maine lobstermen. Anthropologist Gísli Pálsson, who studied these fishermen, noting that they work in interdependent crews led by a captain called a “skipper.” Fishermen must learn the ideal time and location for the highest density of fish stock, a skill that is deemed to be inherent within talented skippers. Cod is the primary catch throughout the winter season. Between January and March, fishermen place weighted longlines adorned with baited hooks that span up to 12 miles in length.[v]

As fish ‘steal’ bait, lines are drawn regularly to mitigate increasing pressure placed upon the stock. From March to May, the cod’s prey increases, making the bait less appealing. As a result, fishermen tie together gill nets, creating a barrier around the boat called a ‘trossur,’ which fish swim into and become caught in, dying shortly thereafter due to limited mobility.[vi]

These fishermen have a shared body of knowledge regarding how the system functions, which contributes to certain expectations regarding how the fish will act when they encounter their nets at different points in the season. However, skippers operate at a much larger scale than lobstermen, therefore, their fluid, unpredictable stock makes it much more challenging to manage the resource sustainably. The skipper’s crew takes on many of the responsibilities that a singular lobsterman would typically handle, allowing the skipper to rely upon his refined skillset to catch fish successfully.

Source: Express.co.uk
Fisher boat in Iceland. Source: Express.co.uk

Skippers attribute their environmental knowledge and ability to hunches and dreams, claiming that they can ‘see’ fish by using electronic gear, yet their true ability to locate them is “in the blood.” Successful skippers are said to follow premonitions from a “fishing mood,” in which they receive a “whisper” about ideal approaches and the locations of large schools of fish.[vii] These explanations intentionally mystify their skills to guard their practice from rival skippers. The ideology of the “skipper effect” suggests that a skipper’s skills, such as the tracking of school movement and the ocean current, influences the size of his catch.[viii]

Fishermen on different boats frequently compete for greater recognition of their ability or protection of their given territories. At the same time, they reinforce a hierarchy of knowledge by exchanging valuable information with a limited group of their peers, however, these conversations are deceptive and lead to an unequal passage of information.

Boyer and Petersen highlight that “…commons management implies definite judgments about distributive justice, about which divisions of resources count as acceptable, given different agents’ contributions or needs.”[ix] When skippers of other boats talk with each other, these conversations only occasionally discuss valuable “skilled/knowledgeable models” of fishing. Through relating this to Boyer and Petersen’s discussion of distributive justice, it appears that skippers deceive competitors through moving their equipment to more productive areas away from their individual trossur. While low class skippers may offer information to others, many believe that the details are false; therefore the information is discarded.[x] Skippers sequester information to access more resources and, ergo, financial gains. When the overall catch rates of particular boats are made publicly available, a skipper may access bigger boats, stable crews, sophisticated equipment, and additional financial support.

In this environment, punishment and deception are not balanced by the element of fairness that governs Maine’s harbor gangs. Commons management needs to be fair in distribution for key stakeholders to recognize its value.

Harbor gangs exhibit distributive justice through competitively sharing and occluding information along in-group and out-group divides. Most significantly, their practice of laying out traps is fair and failing to follow this rule will result in repercussions. Icelandic skippers also share information, but the details are subject to manipulation. Knowledge comes from “senses” that a skipper has and these are valued more than the precise methods of a lobsterman’s “pin-point bombing.” The variance between these contexts demonstrates that what is used to promote sustainability in small-scale environments cannot be transferred seamlessly to large-scale commercial fisheries. The divide between fisheries in Maine and Iceland is also tied to the ways conservation laws have impacted those working in each area.


Cognitive Science and Commons Management

Through establishing an environment of cooperation and competition over fishing knowledge, fishermen not only negotiate a commodity, but most significantly, their relationships within the commons management paradigm. Commons management is more persuasive when it matches the cognitive systems for fairness and sanctioning, suggesting that intuitive systems in the mind bear heavily upon collective action dilemmas.

Rational choice theory has served to reinforce this notion, suggesting that individuals acting rationally aim to maximize their individual outcomes, leading to the depletion of publicly held resources.[xi] Yet Maine’s successful industry complicates these contentions, with lobster catches steadily rising since the 1980s despite increased harvesting. Acheson attributes this partly to fishermen’s adherence to federal and state conservation laws, as well as the informal territorial sanctions established by fisheries themselves. The lobster industry has collaborated with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recently to form a reasonable co-managed conservation plan tailored to their needs. This system fulfills a social cognitive model that symbolizes fairness, thus satisfying our evolved understandings of distributive justice effortlessly.[xii]

Co-management of Maine lobsters began with the introduction of a “Zone Management Law” in 1995, which limited trap amounts to 1200 traps, established a trap identification program, and implemented lobster licenses as a prerequisite for fishing. Surprisingly, this measure increased trap counts as the amount of full-time lobstermen competing to achieve highliner status rose. While formal conservation strategy in Maine does not consistently match informal commons management approaches, fishermen tend to endorse conservation laws, therefore, they take sanctions against individuals of different harbor gangs who disobey catch limits.

Conservation policy in Iceland has been far less promising, as shown by the ongoing threat to the capelin industry. As of 1980, the Ministry of Fisheries began imposing increasingly downward trending quotas upon capelin stocks in spite of fishermen insisting that their numbers remained strong. [xii] As a result, those fishing capelin transitioned to cod fishing, causing increased competition among fishermen who were already pursuing this resource. Governmental bodies started to focus upon ensuring fish health, requiring net fishermen to use fewer nets.

In response, fishermen started to disguise their net count; something that was easily accomplished in small communities with less regulatory monitoring. In this competitive environment, one skipper noted, “‘Too much cooperation during fishing can be a disadvantage…It is better to have a chat between fishing trips…If you are telling some mystery you can also use less amplification (of the radio).’”[xiii] Although Icelandic fishermen act more self-interested through constructing larger nets, they have maintained altruistic intentions. Pro-social group relationships and comments from skippers demonstrate that such motivations may coexist.[xiv]

While these practices have served to their benefit, Icelanders are constantly pressured by a formal management scheme whose set quotas allow only larger, more prosperous skippers to benefit. Icelanders remain without a means to punish the differentially advantaged skipper. Therefore, his free riding on the quota system remains unchecked. Further, skippers are deemed deserving of such merit, a belief that feeds into our evolved intuitions about worthiness, but many do not easily accept the benefits he is afforded by the formal system. Arguably, these conditions provide a glimpse into why Icelandic commons management faces more challenges than Maine. Formal norms fail to match the mechanisms of distributive justice playing out at the informal level; therefore, government-dictated commons management policies are less influential among fishermen. The formal systems, which tend to accompany larger scale operations, can actually encourage an environment in which punishment and deception fuel prosperity.[xv]

In spite of problematic formal systems, commons management is cognitively persuasive because it aligns with our evolved psychology. Psychological intuitions about justice, equality, and the partitioning of a commonly held resource are culturally transmitted with a set of consistent features because our beliefs tend towards endorsing “packages of informal and formal norms.”[xvi] However, fishermen’s informal norms sometimes clash with those of the formal policies. In Maine, commons managers and fishermen are more co-operative because formal parties act in the best interests of all fishermen, who are compelled to follow their decrees for stock maintenance and health. Maine fishermen incorporate the formal system into informal norms because it increases the lobster stock.

Conversely, formal commons management in Iceland is far more volatile, as managers set laws that conflict with the interests of many. As a result, fishermen must contend with a public good whose distribution may not prove to be equal. The commons is managed effectively when rules are implemented that mitigate conflicts over its exploitation. Fisheries in Iceland and Maine enforce such rules through heavily sanctioned spatial and hierarchical arrangements, but fairness is truly essential for these groups to “buy-in” to sustainability.

Fishermen do not merely exploit fish. Instead, they manage their stock strategically as if they’re playing a game. A more egalitarian game provides for less pressure and more prosperity for fishermen, therefore, the best approach to the harvest is through a consideration of how informal rules can work within new, formal regulations surrounding conservation. This analysis of Maine and Iceland only provides a glimpse of two very different fishing societies. But this glimpse demonstrates how environmental regulations must be shaped through collaboration and coalition-building with the local fishermen, who have an extensive understanding of their stock.

Sustainability is a value that appeals to all groups of individuals regulating the sea due to the cognitive appeal of commons management. While fishermen must maintain their fish populations to sustain their livelihood, conservationists hope to prevent the endangerment of certain species. Although they approach the problem of the commons differently, their goals are essentially the same.

[i] James Acheson, Lobster and Groundfish Management in the Gulf of Maine: A Rational Choice Perspective, Human Organization 65(3), 2006, pp. 240-252.

[ii] Pascal Boyer and Michael Bang Petersen, The naturalness of (many) social institutions: evolved cognition as their foundation, Journal of Institutional Economics 8(1), 2012, pp. 1-25.

[iii] James Acheson, The Lobster Gangs of Maine, University Press of New England, 1988. Gísli Pálsson, Coastal economies, cultural accounts: Human ecology and Icelandic discourse, Manchester University Press, 1991.

[iv] See Acheson (1988) above.

[v] Gísli Pálsson and Paul Durrenberger, To Dream of Fish: The causes of Icelandic Skippers’ fishing success, Journal of Anthropological Research 38(2), 1982, pp. 227-242.

[vi] See Pálsson / Durrenberger (1982) above.

[vii] Gísli Pálsson, Models for Fishing and Models of Success, Maritime Anthropological Studies 1(1), pp. 15-28.

[viii] Thorolfur Thorlindsson, The Skipper Effect in the Icelandic Herring Fishery, Human Organization 47(3), 1988, pp. 199-212.

[ix] See Boyer / Petersen (2012) above.

[x] Joseph Henrich and Francisco J. Gil-White, The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission, Evolution and Human Behavior 22, 2001, pp. 165-196.

[xi] Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter, Cooperation and punishment in public goods experiments, American Economic Review 90, 2000, pp. 980-994.

[xii] Joseph Henrich et al, Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment, Science 327, 2010, pp. 1480-1484. James Acheson, Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to manage the Maine Lobster Industry, University Press of New England, 2003.

[xiii] See Palsson / Durrenberger (1982) above.

[xiv] Paul Durrenberger and Gísli Pálsson, Ownership at Sea: Fishing Territories and Access to Sea Resources, American Ethnologist 13(2), 1987, pp. 508-522.

[xv] Gísli Pálsson and Agnar Helgason, Figuring fish and measuring men: the individual transferable quota system in the Icelandic cod fishery, Ocean & Coastal Management 28(1-3), 1995, pp. 117-146.

[xvi] See Boyer / Petersen (2012) above.

Chelsea Hayman received her MSc in Social Anthropology from The London School of Economics. She has worked at community-based nonprofits in her hometown of Baltimore for over three years and currently manages a program called Housing Upgrades to Benefit Seniors, which is based at the organization Civic Works. Her main focus throughout her work has been employee development and coaching, an interest that grew from her concentrated study of the work practices of fishermen in different contexts. Chelsea can be reached at chelsea.e.hayman@gmail.com.