Hakai Magazine

Fisherman with traditional dhow fishing boat at Diani beach, Kenya
When Kenyan reef fishers who are in competition for the same fish species openly discuss tools and techniques and sort through problems, their cooperation results in healthier reef ecosystems. Photo by RZAF_Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The Cure to the Tragedy of the Commons? Cooperation

When fishers communicate openly, coral reefs win.

Authored by

by Steve Murray

Article body copy

Groups whose members cooperate almost always outperform those that don’t. New research shows that these benefits can extend beyond the group to the environment around it. Specifically, the research demonstrates that cooperation among Kenyan fishing communities leads to larger fish stocks and healthier reefs.

A team led by Michele Barnes, a social scientist at James Cook University in Australia, interviewed almost 650 fishers across five coral reef fishing communities to document how they cooperated and established rules. They also looked at the gear the fishers used, the species they caught, and evaluated local reef conditions.

“Kenya is very dependent on reef fishing,” says Barnes. “And, like many places across the globe, they’re facing serious issues about the state of their reefs.”

The researchers found significantly more fish and higher biodiversity in the hunting grounds near three of the five communities. These were sites where competing fishers communicated more openly about where and how they fish. These fishers also tended to discuss their operating rules and worked to resolve conflicts. “They had less variation in their vision of the resource and had developed stronger commitments toward managing it,” says Barnes. The team was careful to rule out other environmental and social factors that might have accounted for the differences seen on the reefs.

When people are engaged both with each other and with a common resource, they tend to form cooperative relationships, says Barnes. Not all community engagement is the same, however. The study found that only cooperation among fishers who are competing for the same species results in higher reef biomass.

The study results may offer a helpful guide for conservationists. “It gives us a pretty strong road map,” says Jack Kittinger, a researcher with the nonprofit Conservation International’s Center for Oceans and a study coauthor. “The hardest thing in conservation is getting a bunch of disparate people to cooperate to ensure the perpetuation of a resource that they all depend on. When that happens, lo and behold, you’ve got better ecological success,” he says.

Malin Pinsky, an ecologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey who was not involved in the study, thinks that this research approach can be scaled to larger and more complex networks involving people and the environment. “It plays out in communities in Kenya,” says Pinsky, “and it plays out between countries on a global stage.” It may also become more relevant as the effects of climate change become starker for coastal communities. “Cooperation is getting much more difficult now that species are on the move, especially as they cross political boundaries,” he adds.