Don't Fence Me In: Boundaries, Policy, and Deliberation in Maine's Lobster Commons


Describing the necessary conditions for collective action in the interest of natural resource conservation, common property theory asserts the need for clear boundaries. This pertains to material boundaries that circumscribe target resources and social boundaries that circumscribe resource user group identities. In reality, socioecological systems are rarely closed or static, so boundary imposition can generate transaction costs and perhaps reduce adaptive capacity if implemented without allowances for broad and repeated public deliberation. Participant observation, interview, survey, archival, and focus group data from Maine’s lobster fishery demonstrate that flexible, broadly negotiated, informal boundaries characterized the fishery for decades, embedded in localist institutions under de facto comanagement. Federal regulatory pressures and industry changes triggered formalization of a more statist comanagement regime, overlaying codified boundaries under the guise of resource conservation. Fishing boat captains leveraged the legal boundary-drawing precedent to consolidate fishery access and decision making away from crew, neighbors, and family. Precipitating factors included trap limits and tangles, entry limits and resource declines in other fisheries, law enforcement, abandonment of apprenticeship, recreational entry, and mail-in ballots. Instrumentalism eroded diversified, multivalent social networks, and ecological outcomes are uncertain. This evidence suggests that despite seminal contributions of common property scholarship, some policy applications might be overly reductive or sidestep democratic debate between individual and communitarian concerns. Attention to dynamic interactions across institutions can ensure that emergent political alliances and incremental changes in distributive and processual norms around resource allocation are not overlooked.

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Annals of the Association of American Geographers



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