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Science Advances: In Fishing Communities, Environmental Policies Affect Group Behavior

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New sociological evidence from a a small fishing village in Baja California, Mexico suggests that the creation of marine protected areas, which influence who gets to fish and how much of species they can take, generates both extreme pro-social and anti-social behaviors among fishers, a finding that differs from previous economic and psychology studies. The research appears in the 4 March issue of the journal Science Advances.

Humans' ability to prevent local environmental degradation hinges to a large extent on cooperation and other "pro-social" behaviors, while "anti-sociality" (such as conflict) is widely considered counterproductive to sustainable resource governance.

In a study of small fishing communities, Xavier Basurto, an assistant professor of sustainability science at Duke University and colleagues, show that the coexistence of pro- and anti-sociality in groups may be more common than previously thought, especially for fishers living in marine protected areas.

Marine protected areas tend to restrict access to fishing grounds, thus fostering competition among fishers. The establishment of marine protected areas might therefore create new social rules, norms, and practices that, according to some researchers, might alter how fishers interact among themselves and with non-fishers.

Having groups of fishers play two simple games standard in sociological research, Basurto and colleagues show that the players from marine protected areas became both more generous and more cutthroat toward competition, compared with those who did not work in protected areas. Some of the increase in anti-social behavior may even help reinforce cooperation in a group, such as when an individual calls out another person within the group for rule-breaking behavior. This can discourage further rule-breaking behavior, and thus maintains cooperation, the authors suggest.

If market diversification, social class differentiation, and income inequality continue to increase in many areas affected by marine protected areas and other conservation policies, anti-social behaviors could start to dominate and inhibit pro-social behaviors, the researchers said.

These social changes could perhaps be a detriment to the long-term survival of marine protected areas, their biodiversity, and the people that depend on them for their livelihoods, the authors say.

[Credit for associated teaser image: Xavier Basurto]


Nadia Ramlagan

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