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News Article

‘Everyone else is doing it:' how fishers justify poaching

New research examines why people break the rules

Compliance with rules protecting habitats and wildlife in regulated areas is critical for effective conservation, and non-compliance regularly negates the desired outcomes of the world's marine protected areas. Activities such as discharging waste, disturbing marine animals, or fishing in areas set aside for species conservation and recovery, harm attempts to conserve marine species. A study in the February 2018 issue of Marine Policy looks at the social components of compliance management to examine what makes recreational fishers obey or disregard the designation of no-take zones in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP).

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University asked nearly 700 recreational fishers at boat ramps in Townsville about their perceptions of poaching (i.e. fishing in no-take zones). PhD candidate Brock Bergseth led the study, and said the results were overwhelmingly encouraging, with the vast majority of fishers believing poaching to the unacceptable. For those who admitted to poaching, the study suggests that four (mis)perceptions or mechanisms are likely operative and at least partially responsible for continued non-compliance by fishers.

"97 percent of fishers thought poaching was personally unacceptable, and most supported enforcement of the rules. But a small number did not” says Brock.

Mr Bergseth said the 21 self-admitted poachers thought poaching occurred much more often than did non-poachers.

"People involved in illicit activities such as illegal drug use and drink driving are more prone to overestimate the prevalence of their behaviour in society. This 'false consensus effect' often allows offenders to justify their actions -- they think it's ok because everyone else is doing it. Our data suggest that this effect may also be occurring among poachers in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP)."

As well as the false consensus, mechanisms behind non-compliance were pluralistic ignorance, social learning, and a perceived lack of deterrence.

Mr Bergseth said 13 percent of fishers reported knowing someone who had poached within the past 12 months.

"In all, this study showed how numerous misperceptions are probably supporting the continuation of poaching on the GBR. If left unchecked, these misperceptions could lead to a cascading effect that encourages further poaching."

Mr Bergseth said the research pointed to a way of addressing the problem.

"There are three specific messages that could be communicated to poachers. First, that nearly every recreational fisher thinks that poaching is socially and morally unacceptable. Secondly, it is really important for everyone to know that almost all recreational fishers follow the rules -- poachers are just a small minority that people don't respect. And lastly, the likelihood of getting detected while poaching is high, as are the consequences -- the fine for poaching in a no-take zone is $2100."

The paper suggests that if properly implemented, these tools and approaches should not only increase compliance but also reduce support (whether active or passive) for a culture of non-compliance.

A study by this research group has also been published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (Bergseth et al., 2017). In this previous paper it was suggested that (1) between 3-18% of fishers admitted to poaching within the past year, (2) poaching activities were often concentrated at certain times (holidays) and in specific places (poaching hotspots), and (3) fishers' primary motivations to poach were the perception of higher catches in reserves and a low probability of detection. In contrast with the new paper, this earlier study said that poaching levels were higher than previously assumed.

Also from the GBRMP, Arias and Sutton (2013) did a survey on compliance with no-take zones, and found that 90% of recreational fishers complied with these zones, and that 92% reported not personally knowing anyone who had intentionally fished in a no-take zone, indicating that fishers' perceive high levels of compliance among their peers. It was suggested that compliance monitoring should be integrated into the adaptive management of the GBRMP and other protected areas. McCook et al. (2010) reviewed the benefits of no-take zones on the GBR, but suggested that fish abundances in no-entry zones suggest that even no-take zones may be significantly depleted due to poaching.

From the USA, McSkimming and Berg (2008) report on an initiative in trout streams in Pennsylvania called "Turn in a Poacher" (TIP) designed to identify and deter poachers, and assist conservation officer efforts to control this problem. The major findings suggest that fish poachers in northwest Pennsylvania are viewed as environmental thieves who pose a real danger to ethical anglers, property owners, conservation officers, and stream access. Blank and Gavin (2009) reported on compliance with regulations in red abalone fisheries in California, and estimated 29% non-compliance with the daily take limit, 23% with the minimum size limit, 19% with licensing laws and 15% with the annual take limit.

Journal Reference:

Brock J. Bergseth, Matthew Roscher. Discerning the culture of compliance through recreational fisher's perceptions of poaching. Marine Policy, 2018; 89: 132 DOI: 10.1016/j.marpol.2017.12.022

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • David Simpson
  • Date
  • 26 February 2018
  • Source
  • ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies.
  • Subject(s)
  • General Leisure and Recreation