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Environmental and institutional degradation in the globalized economy: lessons from small-scale fisheries in the Gulf of California

Feb 7 2019

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Timothy H. Frawley, Elena M. Finkbeiner and Larry B. Crowder

External drivers increasingly impact small-scale fisheries worldwide. As globalization accelerates the flow of information, commodities, and capital across geographic space, neoliberal reforms have fueled the development of the international seafood trade. Small-scale fisheries traditionally driven by local forces and market demands are increasingly nested within the broader structures of global markets and international institutions. Building on existing work that integrates social-ecological systems thinking and critical social science theory, we address how globalization has transformed the social fabric of coastal fishing communities and consider the implications for institutional and environmental integrity. Using small-scale fisheries across the Gulf of California as an empirical example, we extend a theory of small-scale fisheries interactions proposed by development scholars to incorporate global market forces, considering how drivers operating at multiple temporal and geographic scales have influenced outcomes in one of the world’s most diverse and productive marine ecosystems. We suggest that neoliberal reforms promoting the growth and development of an export-oriented seafood industry have restructured the relationships between small-scale fishermen, coastal communities, and the marine environment. As the benefits of trade liberalization have been captured by local elites, small-scale fishermen have been left increasingly vulnerable to the shocks and uncertainties associated with political, economic, and environmental change. By situating our findings within an emerging body of scholarship documenting parallel dynamics across diverse geographies, we argue that efforts to avoid and/or mitigate the tragedy of the commons within small-scale fishery systems must address the relationships between global markets, social and economic inequality, and local capacities for self-organization and collective action.

Key words: globalization; Gulf of California; neoliberal reform, small-scale fisheries; social-ecological systems