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Capturing the Commons: Social Changes in the Territorial System of the Maine Lobster Industry

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Acheson, James M.; Brewer, Jennifer F.
Conference: Constituting the Commons: Crafting Sustainable Commons in the New Millennium, the Eighth Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property
Location: Bloomington, Indiana, USA
Conf. Date: May 31-June 4
Date: 2000
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/1917
Sector: Fisheries
Region: North America
Subject(s): IASC
common pool resources
property rights
Abstract: "The Maine lobster fishery has been highly territorial for a number of decades. To go lobstering at all, people need to get a license from the state of Maine. They also need to gain admission to the groups fishing from a particular harbor, and once they have been admitted to such a group, they can only go fishing in the traditional territory of that group or 'gang.' Repeated violations of territorial boundaries are met with surreptitious destruction of lobstering gear. In the past, lobster fishing territories were relatively close to shore. Further offshore, the sense of territoriality was weak or non-existent. "The traditional lobster territorial system was a completely decentralized institution, unrecognized by the state, upheld by activities that were illegal from the point of view of the government. Changes in territorial boundaries, when they occurred at all, were the result of political competition between harbor gangs or the result of one harbor gang taking over the territory of an island when the islanders moved to the mainland. "In recent years, the widespread adoption of new, larger, and better equipped boats has made it possible for people to fish many more traps. Many, but not all, fishermen are now placing traps in offshore areas which had previously been fished by people from several harbors, if they were fished at all. This expansion of the area fished for lobsters is behind many of the current changes in the territorial system. "Changes in the territorial system have come about by three different processes, two of which involve the government. First, those fishing offshore areas discovered productive spots, to which they sought to lay claim by incorporation into the traditional territorial system. The process involved first occupying the spot for long periods and later defending it against other fishermen who sought to fish there. This process probably mirrors the way in which the traditional territories were established in the 19th century. "Second, two islands have sought to defend their traditional fishing territories from incursions of mainland fishermen by lobbying the state government to make those areas special conservation zones. In 1984, Swans Island was successful in creating such a zone, and in 1995 Monhegan followed suit. In both cases, the islanders agreed to abide by conservation rules in an area around the island that were far stricter than those imposed in the state as a whole, with the stipulation that the state wardens enforce those rules and prohibit people from other harbors from fishing in the zone. "Third, boundary change has come about as a result of the 1995 passage of the Lobster Zone Management law, true co-management law. Under this law, the coast was divided into zones and the lobster license-holders in each zone are empowered to pass management rules for the zones with a 2/3 vote on three contentious issues: the number of traps that can be used, the times that fishing can be done, and the number of traps that can be used on a single line. Even though the zone lines were drawn to coincide with existing territorial lines, the imposition of formal lines has resulted in a lot of conflict. In some cases, fishermen want to fish across the zone boundary in spite of the more restrictive zone rules in force in the other zone. In other cases, they have sought to change the zone boundaries with access to good fishing grounds in mind. "Two important features underlie these processes involved in boundary change. First, in all instances, people involved in these disputes have artfully constructed 'traditional' boundaries giving them more prime fishing bottom. Second, boundary change is generated as a byproduct of conflicts over access to lobsters. Conservation is a secondary concern. This substantiates Knight's contention that the primary source of norms is distributional conflicts."

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