Background and aims of our project. The impact of globalization and the effects of climate and environmental change on ecosystems and the human societies embedded in them, presents new challenges for global sustainability. To meet these challenges social-ecological systems (SES) research proposes a complex adaptive systems lens to better understand what these changes can mean for society and the natural resources they depend on. Thus developing management approaches that equip societies with the capacity to deal with change has become a critical part of the global sustainability challenge. While important factors such as strong leadership, social cohesion, and incentives, have been associated with sustainable collaborative management of natural resources, questions remain over how such factors interact in the long-term to contribute to social and ecological sustainability. This is particularly challenging in low-income countries as they often suffer from data-paucity, which radically limits applicable methods to analyze change compared to those in data-rich contexts. The goal of this project is to 1) address this methodological gap and 2) to increase our understanding of short- and long term sustainability related outcomes in data-poor SES accounting for spatial and temporal dynamics.


Photo by Adaoma Wosu.

A prime example of this conundrum is small-scale fisheries (SSF) in low-income countries. These SES are critical for food, nutrition and livelihoods worldwide particularly in remote coastal and island locations, and frequently cited as necessary for poverty alleviation. The diversity of interacting stakeholders, fishing methods, fish species and their exposure to shocks and pressures; such as coral bleaching, coastal development, sea-level rise, conservation imperatives, and the growing international seafood markets, is undoubtedly a challenge for natural resource management and for sustainability and resilience scholars. Combined with participatory methods and fieldwork this project will apply computational agent-based modeling to collaboratively (with stakeholders) explore the likely outcomes of a new fisheries governance strategy: periodic octopus closures. These closures are of key interest due to their novelty, their catalytic quality for co-management capacity, the gender dynamics they entail (with women as the traditional octopus hunters), and the obscurity surrounding their long-term impacts for ecological sustainability and human wellbeing. The diversity of actors including fishermen, fisherwomen, traders, exporters and women processors, all stand to be affected differentially from these interventions. To this end, the aims of the project are:

  1. To collaboratively scope, design and build a set of stylized models of a particular social-ecological system reflecting the key questions of concern, blind spots and/or assumptions around the longer-term outcomes of management interventions.
  2. To create a process which involves co-learning between researchers (based in Sweden and East Africa), stakeholders and fishery managers through the exchange and production of multiple knowledge types that will help decision makers in making better policies accounting for dynamics related to gender and climate change.
  3. To help develop the capacity amongst stakeholders in small-scale fishing communities to manage their natural resources in the face of complexity and to increase their resilience to major system changes
  4. To provide a novel methodological approach, which can help address the challenges of complexity such as uncertainty and unpredictability coupled with multiple interests and understandings within the system.

We illustrate our approach with case studies of fishing communities selected at various stages of closure adoption in Zanzibar as a means to identify key mechanisms and processes underway at different points in time. As such the Zanzibar cases will generate important longer term insights around issues for closures which are happening or already adopted in Madagascar (where they first started in 2003), and other Western Indian Ocean (WIO) nations with a mandate to build adaptive capacity for sustainable management and poverty reduction in SSF communities.

The Phenomenon of Success


Photo by Adaoma Wosu.

A key phenomenon which this project sets out to study is the “success” of the temporal octopus management initiative- in terms of income and management capacity building for the communities and reduced fishing pressure on other marine resources for the environment. However, key questions arise when interpreting success such as; why are these closures perceived by actors at different levels (community, market, governmental, business, academia) as successful and what constitutes successful for the various eyes involved? Why are they a success for the local fishing communities and how do the various interests and perceptions define this success? Implementation projects have had the chance to learn from failures in the early cases where for example gender dynamics and export level actors where not incorporated. However, the most pertinent question to ask from a sustainability perspective is whether these stories of periodic fishery closures will still be successful in the future? There are few accounts in the literature analyzing the successes of small-scale fisheries, and the critical factors that may explain long-term success. This leads us to ask:

  1. What factors and processes such as gender, perceptions of closures and closure locations, will allow the fishing community to evolve towards equitable and sustainable outcomes?
  2. What are common trade-offs between human-wellbeing, ecological health, and gender equity for short- and long-term outcomes?
  3. How can actors in the fishing community adapt their behavior (e.g., trade- and fishing arrangements) to become more resilient towards shocks and pressures?
  4. What is the nature of decision-making and benefit sharing from octopus closures for different actors involved (e.g. small-scale male traders, women processors, large male exporters)?

Significance and scientific novelty

This project set out to contribute to understanding the interactions between biophysical and human processes, as well as those related to human behavior, towards building a general understanding of why and why not certain drivers of change (e.g., closures) lead to sustainable outcomes. We will use a novel methodological approach by iterating between fieldwork and agent-based modeling to develop hypotheses about archetypal mechanism is social-ecological systems. By working closely with the NGOs Mwambao and Blue Ventures as well as communities, academics and decision makers at multiple levels who have deep knowledge of various types and long-term experience both on the ground and in governance (specifically with these closures) this project attempts to move beyond modeling single cases to make appropriate generalizations useful for adaptively co-managing the seascape for heterogeneous actors in small-scale fisheries dealing with various system-level changes and shocks. We will use the mechanism-based approach to iteratively analyze results from the field and the agent-based model to identify critical mechanisms to refine hypotheses about successful and equitable mechanisms.

A key focus of this project enacted through collaboration with Dr Rosemarie Mwaipopo is that of gender. Octopus management offers a unique chance for the project and also stakeholders involved, both at local and higher levels, to directly address gender relations in small-scale fisheries due to womens’ traditional relationship with the fisheries. This subject has been very poorly dealt with by fishery management as well as researchers and donors in the past. This project will deal with and be aware of biases enacted through research design, participation with the community, within the community and interactions with various actors on the ground. The novelty of this approach will be to highlight how gender biases in research and management strongly play into gender biases in the community and fishery interventions, where gender norms are already constructed.

We hypothesize that the iterative approach between model design, fieldwork, participatory workshops and the mechanism-based interpretation will provide novel insights for generalizing within and between cases to build hypotheses that can be further explored in other social-ecological systems and small-scale fisheries contexts. More specifically we hypothesize that:

  • The short- and long-term impacts of closures will benefit actors differently; certain groups will benefit more in the short-term and others more in the long run due to access inequalities where gender roles may play a part.
  • The level of perceived success will differ among actors as well as between communities at different establishment stages.
  • Distribution of benefits will be more equal between genders in recently established closures compared to those that were established in the initial phase.

Planned papers

The research team will produce the following planned papers: Lindkvist will lead three papers exploring;

I) Mechanism for explaining trade-offs in small-scale fishing communities: implications for gender equality, ecological and human wellbeing.

II) Fishers’ perceptions of marine closures determine their success or failure–Modeling human behavior in fisheries.

III) Proposing a novel approach for building theory from the bottom-up: A methodological approach to build and refine hypotheses iterating between agent-based modeling and fieldwork.

Drury O’Neill will lead

IV) What defines success in the success case of periodic marine closures? Differences and similarities between actors along the value chain

V) Mapping perceptions of periodic octopus closures–how do perceptions change over time?