Voluntary Conservation Success Story

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Dale Rodmell argues that criticisms of voluntary approaches to conservation in the marine environment are missing the point. A bigger more important issue is at stake.

Critics tend to dismiss voluntary approaches to marine conservation as a pale imitation of what is actually required to protect sensitive habitats and species. Poor compliance and mixed levels of uptake of voluntary measures are two of the most serious criticisms levelled.

However, in the last few years voluntary approaches to conservation and fisheries management have had their supporters, not least because during an era of budget cuts and fiscal constraint, they been seen as a way of cutting red tape and the costs to business, and government.

Beyond the Binary

I believe that it is unfortunate that the debate for and against voluntary measures has been posed in these stark polar opposite terms because something important is lost in the heat and froth of the argument. This is that the evidence from around the world strongly suggests that irrespective of whether measures are legal requirements or based on voluntary agreements, the success of any measure is closely linked to the views and interests of those who are affected by them. In the jargon this is buy-in.

At its best a voluntary approach represents something more important than just a code of behaviour without legal sanction. It signifies that those subject to management have had the opportunity to come forward and be part of the solution to a marine management or conservation issue. By definition, involvement means some level of buy-in has been achieved to the objectives of management.

Contrast this with an approach applied through only a top-down process that may simply ban an activity, or dictate how it should be carried out. Experience suggests that top-down approaches will almost invariably generate unintended consequences, due either to poor design or a fundamental rejection of the intent of the rules by those who are subject to them. To function such an approach generally has to be underpinned by costly “police state” style surveillance. That can’t be desirable or efficient.

In contrast, where there is buy-in to management, meaning willing participation in the design and ongoing implementation of the voluntary measures, then there is likely to be a high level of compliance and some level of self-policing of that activity. That is not to argue that government should always refrain from adopting legal management mechanisms over volunteerism – in fact there are those occasions when those who choose to adopt a voluntary code of behaviour may feel their efforts are protected by having a system of legal sanctions in place against transgressions by a minority which may undermine their actions or put them at a disadvantage. But critically, the balance between legal measures and a voluntary approach will depend on the specific circumstances in which a voluntary approach is being applied. What it does demonstrate, though, is that management has been achieved through a truly bottom-up dynamic that is invariably more successful than legislation alone at the implementation stage.

Start Bay

A great example of this is the inshore potting agreement area in Start Bay, south Devon. This started out as a means to manage gear conflict between static and towed gears through a gentleman’s agreement that defined areas and seasons when fishing is reserved for static gear operators. This arrangement was later legally codified by Devon Sea Fisheries Committee (now DSIFCA). The form of management was recognised for providing conservation benefit to the benthic ecology of the area and was subsequently selected as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ), and the management regime is now being given consideration towards formally meeting the conservation objectives of the site.

Spurdog, Cod Recovery and Lobster V-notching

In a previous blog, I reported on an alternative approach to the conservation of spurdog by enabling voluntary avoidance of the species through a system of fishing fleet communication and incentivised through a reintroduction of a by-catch allowance consistent with continued recovery of the stock. This follows on the back of similar avoidance approaches such as the catch quota arrangement which is still helping to rebuild the cod stock in the North Sea. The pilot has now received approval from the European Council and has been getting underway managed by the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation with the support of Cefas.

Yet another example is the largely unrecognised behaviour of many lobster fishermen who undertake voluntary v-notching of the tails of lobsters which contributes to the conservation of the stock. This behaviour is supported by a legal instrument banning v-notched lobsters from being landed.

Government’s Role

All of these examples point to an important role for government to provide an enabling framework that incentivises and gives the latitude to marine users to come up with, or at least inform, the choice of management arrangements themselves, and where necessary underpin this with a legal back up to enable voluntary behaviour to prevail as the norm. As such, the voluntary approach is an expression of a fruitful dynamic between regulators and the regulated that can represent some of the best examples of conservation that are also economically sustainable and socially just. It shouldn’t be shunned as being second rate.