Fishing for fairness

Chelsea Hayman
October 30, 2015

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.

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.

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.

All by
Chelsea Hayman