The importance of qualitative social research for effective fisheries management / by Francisco Blaha


A recent paper that includes among their authors two people I know and like (Dr. Kate Barclay and Jeff Kinch), had in the 1st sentence of its abstract, a fundamental “truth” that I absolutely agree with: “Over recent decades it has become widely accepted that managing fisheries resources means managing human behaviour, and so understanding social and economic dynamics is just as important as understanding species biology and ecology”.

Many time in conversations (and some job interviews) I said that as a consultant, researcher and manager, I don't work with fish anymore… I work with the people that work with fish. So, I was quite happy to read their publication.

spending the day at sea with artisanal fisherman in Guatemala, my best way to get info

spending the day at sea with artisanal fisherman in Guatemala, my best way to get info

They start by recognising that until recently, fisheries managers and researchers have struggled to develop effective methods and data for social and economic analysis that can integrate with the predominantly biological approaches to fisheries management. The field is now growing fast, however, and globally, researchers are developing and testing new methods.

This paper uses three divergent case studies to demonstrate the value of using qualitative social science approaches to complement more conventional quantitative methods to improve the knowledge base for fisheries management. In all three cases, qualitative interview and document review methods enabled broad surveying to explore the research questions in particular contexts and identified where quantitative tools could be most usefully applied.

In the first case (the contribution of commercial fisheries to coastal communities in eastern Australia), a wellbeing analysis identified the social benefits from particular fisheries, which can be used to identify the social impacts of different fisheries management policies.

In the second case (a gender analysis of fisheries of small islands in the Pacific), analysis outlined opportunities and constraints along fisheries supply chains, illuminated factors inhibiting community development and identified ecological factors that are typically overlooked in conventional fisheries management.

In the third case (sea cucumber fisheries in Papua New Guinea), an interactive governance analysis assessed how well fisheries management tools fit the ecological, social and economic reality of the fishery and the trade in its products, including market influences and stakeholder values.

The qualitative approach adopted in these three case studies adds a new dimension to understanding fisheries that is not possible with a focus solely on quantitative data.

With the development of new policies on release programs (stock enhancement, restocking) and artificial reefs, and the momentum to use these interventions from recreational fishing groups, the qualitative approach will provide an important contribution to understanding their wider costs and benefits.

The case studies discussed in this paper show different ways qualitative social science can be used to help tie together the complexity of fisheries as social systems for improved governance. They cover some of the myriad ways in which social relations affect fisheries management − the interdependence of resource user groups (NSW), specific sets of social relations, such as gender, affecting natural resource use and post-harvest activities (Solomon Islands), and the interplay of factors along a whole market chain affecting fisheries governance (PNG).

Social research on fisheries may be thoroughly applied and practical in nature. Each of these case studies was commissioned by a stakeholder organisation, for purposes specifically related to fisheries management.

  • In NSW the project was requested by industry to assist in negotiations with the government and used a well-being approach.
  • In Solomon Islands it was a donor body wanting to tailor its engagement in coastal fisheries institutional strengthening incorporating a gender approach.
  • For PNG, a conservation organisation wanted to know how to best target its work in supporting a new fisheries management plan and adopted a “fish chain” approach to fisheries governance.

The wellbeing approach may be used to assess social impacts in a fishing community, and the ways in which fishing contributes to the wellbeing of the wider community. It addresses shortcomings in measuring only material standards of living, in covering also social relationships and subjective aspects of wellbeing.

Gender analysis, as used in the Solomon Islands case study, should be part of any social evaluation of fisheries, since gender norms and gender relations fundamentally shape the ways fisheries and post-harvest activities operate, the ways natural resources are used, and the community development outcomes of projects.

The interactive governance approach applied to BDM in PNG was developed as a way to tackle the complex interrelations fishing activities have with the natural world and non-fishing social and economic world. The potentially broad coverage and exploration possible with qualitative approaches enables researchers to uncover aspects of their topics they would not otherwise be able to see, providing depth and contextual understanding for quantitative findings.

These three case studies highlight the value of qualitative approaches to complement other approaches used more consistently in fisheries and would add a significant dimension to understanding the broader implications of release programs. Interviews are a key element of qualitative research fisheries scientists may incorporate to improve understanding of why fisheries operate as they do, and what the effects of policy changes are likely to be.

This means going beyond the fishers and managers themselves, to interview people with a wide range of perspectives on the fishery.

Gaining useful and reliable information from interviews is a complex research skill, it takes training and years of experience to experience to do well. Fisheries scientists may invest in developing that skill themselves, or collaborate with qualitative social researchers.


I also, totally agree with the last sentence of their conclusions, from my experience, for example I have gained much wider perspectives on artisanal fisherman by going fishing with them (exchanging skills is always a bonus!) or getting a small boat similar to theirs and heading out at sea to conduct interviews, rather than doing it at the shore.

But then that is just me :-)
My favourite Māori proverb or Whakataukī says:
He aha te mea nui o te ao (What is the most important thing in the world?) 
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata (It is the people, it is the people, it is the people)