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Reviewed by:
  • Adaptive Governance: The Dynamics of Atlantic Fisheries Management
  • Mark Axelrod
Webster, D. G. 2009. Adaptive Governance: The Dynamics of Atlantic Fisheries Management. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sushi lovers worldwide are accustomed to hearing that our tuna supply is currently subject to massive overfishing. Despite the decline of a once abundant fishery, successful management efforts have been introduced for some Atlantic tuna species. This surprising result cries out for explanation, and Adaptive Governance attempts to provide just such a framework.

Studies of global environmental governance usually center around the negotiation of multilateral treaties, or perhaps the Protocols and amendments that modify those agreements. International relations scholars tend to explore these negotiated outcomes and countries’ compliance records, while neglecting any interim phases. D. G. Webster’s new book examines the important—but often overlooked—step of negotiations within treaty bodies. As she makes clear, some of the most relevant management decisions are made by countries at that stage. Her analysis of such actions within the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) sheds light on the process in a theoretically and empirically interesting manner.

Webster’s “vulnerability response framework” suggests that national positions are based on the degree to which that country will suffer from a decline in the particular stock addressed. As national fleets increasingly confront an inability to compete in the fishery, or to shift fishing effort to different locations, their governments’ negotiators will support increasingly strict regulation of the fishery in question. As the stock declines, governments move from unwillingness to pay the costs of regulation, all the way to acceptance of regulatory costs faced by other, less vulnerable, fleets. The former situation mirrors the classic tragedy of the commons, while the latter recalls Russell Hardin’s k-groups that willingly provide a public good due to their overwhelming benefit from its provision.1 This shifting position over time provides a rare example of a dynamic theory to explain temporal changes in international relations. The framework is tested through eight species case studies that provide general—though not unwavering—support for these hypotheses.

Although the hypotheses are quite interesting and logically supported, a few important theoretical shortcomings remain. First, there is very little discussion of the process by which a delegation adopts its external bargaining position. While it may be clear why a domestic fishing industry supports these particular positions, the model does not address how that message reaches the government or why the government should privilege that particular goal over other constituents’ opinions. This concern is most evident in the sudden shift from separate (and sometimes conflicting) European positions to a unified EU [End Page 146] negotiating stance based on the “stronger” Spanish interests after 1997. The absence of domestic politics also limits attention to recreational fishery participants, despite their clear impact on marlin and bluefin negotiations.

The lack of domestic political variables raises a second related concern about the intensity of party preferences. Webster notes differing behavior based on “magnitude of concern” (p. 117) but the model does not account for these variations. For instance, in the bigeye tuna case, US and Canadian negotiators limit their bargaining efforts because bigeye “remains a small alternative source of revenue for a relatively minor industry” (p. 56).

In the other direction, mildly vulnerable fleets—those facing little competition and few geographical constraints—are generally expected to oppose regulation. Their high level of flexibility would seem to allow them to shift effort elsewhere in the face of increased regulation, meaning that they should not be too adamant in their opposition. The same group, however, includes countries primarily fishing another species who nonetheless take significant bycatch in the targeted fishery. These bycatch participants should be—and often are by these accounts—much more eager to avoid regulation because they may be more vulnerable in the other fishery. Unfortunately, the model does not account for this variation of preference intensity even though it plays a significant role in the empirical case studies.

Finally, in operationalizing vulnerability, Webster relies on GDP as a proxy for competitiveness. Despite the increasing operating costs that follow higher incomes, industrialized countries would seem to bolster their competitiveness through the introduction of new cost saving...


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pp. 146-148
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