Centre researchers have previously warned that the current management of ecosystems is unsustainable, and there has been a growing appreciation that the health of ecosystems - like the oceans - and human wellbeing are closely linked.
Unfortunately, typical governance arrangements do not effectively link these two essential elements.
Reversing fish depletion
Based on a successful experiment in Chile, centre researcher Per Olsson and science director Carl Folke along with researchers from ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University say a new approach to marine tenure could help to reverse the maritime "tragedy of the commons" which has led to the depletion of fish stocks worldwide.
A combination of fisheries collapses and the move to democracy in Chile, quite by chance, provided the opportunity to try out some new arrangements for looking after fisheries, involving a partnership of fishers, scientists and managers.
- There was a general recognition that Chile's fish stocks were in trouble. Things were turbulent and people were looking for answers and that made them open to new approaches. There was also good scientific understanding of the coastal ecosystems of the region on which to base a new management plan, says centre researcher Per Olsson.
A revolutionary national system
Fishers and scientists had been working together on the problem for some years, sharing knowledge and building trust.
This led to the testing of new co-operative models for fishery management, based on the latest that science can reveal about the state of fish stocks and the surrounding marine ecosystem.
The result is a revolutionary national system of marine tenure that allocates user rights and responsibilities to collectives of fishers.
A vital ingredient in the change was the move by Chile to democracy after a 17-year dictatorship. This opened the way for reform of the laws governing fishing rights.
The new laws gave exclusive ocean territories to local and small-scale fisheries, and excluded the big industrial fishing fleets, which had their own exclusive fishing zone.
Scientists and small fishers then worked together to understand and rebuild the decimated fish stocks in their zone, leading to a shared vision and voluntary agreements on how to manage them. Fishing pressure was reduced in the industrial fishing zone by cutting the number of big vessels.
Centre science director Carl Folke believes that the Chilean experience contains lessons which can potentially apply anywhere in the world where a fishery is in trouble and there are good scientific data on the marine environment.
- You need a shared recognition that something has to be done, you need a good understanding of the marine ecosystem and how to regenerate it, you need a strong rapport between scientists and fishers, and you need a political moment when sweeping changes can be brought in, he says.
- If you have all those things, there is a good chance you can avoid the marine "tragedy of the commons" which has been a feature of fisheries around the world in the past half century.
The research indicates the key to managing fisheries may depend on creating agreements that are voluntary and flexible enough to cope with changes in the ocean environment, leading to fisheries that are both ecologically and socially sustainable.
See video with Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom explaining the concept thinking behind the tragedy of commons and how to go beyond it: