A new study which looks at small-scale fishers and communities in Northwest Mexico provides a first step in addressing uncertainties regarding how cooperative and non-cooperative self-governance can become established and persist. Photo: K. Pellowe

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fisheries and governance

Modelling in Mexico

How modellers and field experts joined forces to develop agent-based models that account for complex human interactions

Story highlights

• Agent-based model used to study how fishers in Mexico self-organise to govern their daily fishing and trading operations

• Trust and the heterogeneity of fishers was shown to be important factors to include when planning interventions

• The study is based on a close collaboration between field experts and modellers

Small-scale fisheries in low and middle income countries are known to play a significant role in reducing poverty and providing livelihoods. No wonder then that the World Bank and others invest millions of dollars in the reformation of small-scale fisheries. The full potential can, however, only be realized if the fisheries are governed in a sustainable way. This is why centre researchers Emilie Lindkvist and Maja Schlüter decided to investigate the interplay between small-scale fishers, their communities and the fish resources they depend upon, in a so called agent-based model.

The model deals with a fisheries governance system in Northwest Mexico and is based on interviews, long-term observations, logbook data and literature. Together with co-author Xavier Basurto from Duke University, Lindkvist and Schlüter have published their results in the April issue of PLOS ONE.

“The close cooperation between field experts and modellers was perceived by both groups as an enriching and productive experience, and a promising way forward to address complex real world problems in social-ecological systems,” they write.

Instead of focusing on a few variables, agent-based models try to replicate reality with its complexity and uncertainties. Such models are common in weather forecasts and urban planning and have been described as professional versions of the computer game Sim City. In such an agent-based model, a researcher does not try to analyse whether thousands of fishers will, on aggregate, fish more anchoveta or less anchoveta. Instead, the modeler creates digital “fishers” and unleashes them in a computerised world with digital fish, digital equipment and digital money.

The results point towards the need to account for the levels of trust in a community and the heterogeneity of fishers when planning interventions to promote cooperative governance

Emilie Lindkvist, lead author

Addressing uncertainties

In Mexico and many other countries small-scale fisheries are often self-governed through informal arrangements or co-managed through collaboration between fishers, managers and scientists. To study these kinds of arrangements there is a growing need to develop models that do not underestimate the complexity of human interactions.

The paper by Lindkvist and her colleagues provides a first step in addressing such uncertainties regarding how cooperative and non-cooperative self-governance can become established and persist.

“The results point towards the need to account for the levels of trust in a community and the heterogeneity of fishers when planning interventions to promote cooperative governance,” they conclude.

However, the authors also caution against jumping into conclusions. More research is needed to understand the importance of “micro-level factors”, including fishers’ characteristics and behaviour, to explain observed differences in self-governance arrangements in different social and geographical contexts.

“With this study, we hope to stimulate further empirical work that tests these explanations and contributes to understanding the conditions under which the identified mechanisms hold,” they write.

The environment of the fishery model.The fishery model consists of fishers, fish buyers, a fish population, and a fish market. Fishers can be organized in either a patron-client relationship (PCs) by a link to a fish buyer, or in a co-op by links to other fishers (members). Click on illustration to access article.

A virtual laboratory

The model constructed by Lindkvist and her co-authors could be said to work as a virtual laboratory. In this digital laboratory they tested everything from fishers’ reliability via loyalty of fish buyers to environmental variability – and how these factors affect the likelihood that any of the two common self-governance arrangements will emerge to prevail in a fishing community (see “methods” below for details).

“We argue that this in-depth understanding is a fundamental step towards developing better, targeted policies for improving fishers’ livelihoods and marine ecosystem stewardship globally,” they conclude.

The results from the model indicate that high diversity in fishers’ reliability, and low initial trust between members, tend to make the establishment of co-ops difficult. More hierarchical non-cooperative arrangements, on the other hand, seem to cope better with such diversity because they have more flexibility in choosing whom to work with. However, once co-ops establish, they cope better with seasonal variability in fish abundance and provide long-term security for the fishers.


The study focuses on two very common forms of self-governance: hierarchical non-cooperative arrangements between fishers and fish buyers, such as patron-client relationships (PCs), versus more cooperative arrangements amongst fishers, such as fishing cooperatives (co-ops). The authors developed an agent-based model – based on interviews, long-term observations, logbook data and literature – that tests a set of key hypotheses from in-depth fieldwork in Northwest Mexico of fishers’ day-to-day fishing and trading. For an explanation of agent-based modelling, see main text.

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Lindkvist E., Basurto X., Schlüter M. 2017. Micro-level explanations for emergent patterns of self-governance arrangements in small-scale fisheries—A modeling approach. PLoS ONE 12(4): e0175532. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0175532

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Emilie Lindkvist uses agent-based models and other simulation models to understand aspects of sustainability of social-ecological systems. Her first line of research explores the emergence of self-organized governance, and the dynamics of trust among fishers.

Maja Schlüter’s research focusses on analysing and explaining the co-evolutionary dynamics of social-ecological system with the aim to develop Social-Ecological Systems theory


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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