Unsustainable fishing can be surprisingly persistent despite devastating social, economic, and ecological consequences. Sustainability science literature suggests that the persistence of unsustainable fisheries can be understood as a social-ecological trap. Few studies have explicitly acknowledged the role of historical legacies for the development of social-ecological traps.
Here, we investigate why fishers sometimes end up in social-ecological traps through a reconstruction of the historical interplay between fishers’ motivations, capacities, and opportunities to fish. We focus on the case of a Swedish fishery targeting the critically endangered European eel (Anguilla Anguilla) in the Baltic Sea. We performed the case study using a unique quantitative data set of social and ecological variables that spans over eight decades, in combination with earlier literature and interviews with fishers and fisheries experts. Our analysis reveals that Swedish archipelago fishers are highly dependent on the eel to maintain their fishing livelihood. The dependence on the eel originates from the 1930s, when fishers chose to intensify fishing for this species to ensure future incomes. The dependence persisted over time because of a series of changes, including improved eel fishing technology, heightened competition over catch, reduced opportunities to target other species, implementation of an eel fishing license, and the fishers’ capacity and motivation to deal with dwindling catches.
Our study confirms that social-ecological traps are path-dependent processes. In terms of management, this finding means that it becomes progressively more difficult to escape the social-ecological trap with the passage of time. The longer entrapment endures, the more effort it takes and the bigger change it requires to return to a situation where fishers have more options so that unsustainable practices can be avoided. We conclude that fisheries policies need to be based on the premise that unsustainable fishing emerges through multiple rather than single causes.
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