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"LOBSTERS ARE LIKE GOLD":
PERCEPTIONS OF RESOURCE ACCESS AND MANAGEMENT IN A MEXICAN
COMMON PROPERTY FISHERY
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
This thesis is dedicated to the lobster divers of Los Flamencos.
I thank Dr. Peter Collings, my chair, whose door was always open. I also thank my
committee member, Dr. Anthony Oliver-Smith, for making me rethink some of my
assumptions in new ways. I am grateful for their guidance and support.
I also want to thank Dr. Mark Brenner for suggesting the research site and assisting
me with initial contacts and Dr. Allan Burns for encouraging me to work in the Yucatan.
Edward W. Tennant helped me greatly with his talent for map making.
I cannot offer thanks enough to the whole community of Los Flamencos, who gave
of their time and patience with my constant questioning. I thank the fishermen who
taught me how to dive for lobsters and the cooperative staff that explained the history and
inner workings of the cooperative and fishery. The regular treat of lobster ceviche to
snack on during the long afternoons of weighing lobster tails made the research seem
more like a fiesta than work. Most of all, I thank my host family for making me feel cared
for and at home. Maybe I can eat just one more panucho.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOW LEDGM ENTS ........................................ iv
LIST OF TABLES ............. ........... ........................... viii
LIST OF FIGURES ..................................... ix
ABSTRACT ........... ................... ........... .. ................x
1 INTRODUCTION ................... .................. .............. .... ......... .......
State ent of the Problem ...........................................................................4
Research Objectives............ ..................5
Methodology ............................................. .................. .........6
Research Site .................................................8
Plan of Thesis ................................................13
2 LITERATURE REVIEW ............................................................... ... ............ 16
Artisanal Fisheries ......................................................... ................17
Com m on Property Theory .............................................................. .... ........... 18
Open Access M arine Resources ........................................ .................20
Fisheries M anagem ent................................................................................. 21
Top-down M anagement...................................... ......................... ..............21
Bottom-up (Local Management) ............................. ........23
Knowledge.................................... .. .................. .......... ........26
Luxury Export Commodities and Small-Scale Producers............... ....... ...29
Political Ecology............................. ............. ........31
Conclusion ......................................................... .................33
3 RESEARCH SETTING AND ETHNOGRAPHY ...................................................34
The C om m unity .................. ................... ................... ......................... 4
An Outline of Fishing Economies in the Yucatan............... ... ............39
Capital and Technology..................................... ........40
Use of GPS ...................................................................44
A Detailed Look at Lobstering in Los Flamencos........................ ............45
Diving Safety ......................................................... ................. 52
M management Issues............... .. .. ..... ................... ....54
Cooperative Formation and Government Involvement..................................54
A Brief Comparison of Federal Lobster Regulations: Mexico and Florida........57
"Undersized" Lobsters.................................... ........60
Impacts of Harvesting Undersize Lobsters.................................................62
The Local Fishing Cooperative ........................................ .................. 64
Lobstering outside the Cooperative..........................................67
R regional Level: Fish Exporter............................................................. .........69
C conclusion .................................................................. .................... 71
4 ECOLOGY ........................................................73
Local Ecosystem : The Gulf of M exico....................... ..................................... 73
Pollution...................................... ................... ............ .........76
Lobster Ecology ............................................... ......................80
L obster H arvesting in the G ulf ......................................................... ............... 84
Harvesting Strategies.......................... ...............84
Harvesting in Los Flam encos .................................. ............... 86
P population of the R esource........................................................................... ..............88
5 PERCEPTIONS OF AN OPEN ACCESS RESOURCE................. ...............90
Introduction .................................................................................. 90
Perceptions of Resource .............................. ........91
Research Methods............... ..... ............ .........92
Data Analysis............................................ ........93
Perceptions and K now ledge ........................................ ................. 93
Abundance, Stability and the Future .............................................. ......94
Rights to A access ........................................ .......................97
Breaking the Rules: Why fishermen take undersize lobsters..............................99
C capital Investm ent for D iving .................................................................... 101
New Technology: GPS .............. ...... ......................102
Local Knowledge........................... ............... 104
Perceptions of the Cooperative..................................... 108
Summary.................... ....... ..... ........... .110
Cooperative's Harvest Data.................... ........... ......110
Etic analysis: Contradictions and obstacles to cooperation................... ...........113
6 MANAGEMENT ....................................... .......................117
Luxury Export Commodities ............................................................................... 118
N nontraditional Export Com m odities................................. ...........................118
Nontraditional Export Commodities ................................. ........121
Luxury Export Commodities .............................. ............... 123
Exploitation of a Luxury Export Commodity......... .. .......................... ............125
Management ....................................... .. ...............128
Economizing and Rational Behavior........................... ............... 131
Why is Management Deemed Necessary? ................. ................ ....134
Local M anagem ent .................. .... .................................... ............ 138
Community and Cooperation........................ ....... ...............142
Future of Lobstering in Los Flamencos............................................144
L IST O F R E F E R E N C E S ............................................................................................ 155
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E T C H ...................................................................................... 169
LIST OF TABLES
3-1 Comparison of the regulations governing the harvest of Panulirus argus in
M exico and Florida. ................................................ ........ 58
5-1 Most interviewed fishermen felt that membership in the cooperative should
designate who may harvest lobsters. .............................. ............... 98
5-2 Respondents gave many different answers as to who they felt bore responsibility
for enforcing the rules governing lobster harvests. ..................................... 99
5-3 List of the 24 fish species named most frequently in a freelist exercise..........106
5-4 Summary of the different benefits cited for being a member of the fishermen's
cooperative. ...................................................... 109
LIST OF FIGURES
1-1 Map of Mexico showing the three states of the Yucatan Peninsula...........................9
3-1 Fishermen prepare their fiberglass fishing boat (lancha) for the opening of the
lobster season. ......................................................41
3-2 Underwater photos of spiny lobster habitat............... .................45
3-3 Each crew's compressor is uniquely painted. ................ .................. ...........47
3-4 Carapaces separated from the lobsters' tails remain in the bottom of the boat
until the crew approaches shore. ................................. ............... 51
3-5 "Opening" a lobster is the process of separating the carapace (the head) from the
meat-filled abdomen. ............................................... ....... ... ........ 61
3-6 Advertisement from a Cancun tourist publication. ......................................63
4-1 Map of the Gulf of Mexico displaying current movements...... ........................74
4-2 Photos showing the typical algae covered substrate of the lobster harvesting
4-3 Photo of Panulirus argus, or the Caribbean spiny lobster, showing the spines
covering the anim al's exoskeleton. ............................. ............... 81
4-4 Freediving to artificial habitat, known as a casita cubana, in Punta Allen,
Quintana Roo.................... ...... ................... 86
5-1 Graph depicts responses of cooperative members concerning whether they felt
that there were enough lobsters for all fishermen. ...................................... 94
5-2 Graph depicts how cooperative members feel that their harvests have changed in
the last five years. .......... .............................95
5-3 Graph shows what cooperative members think about the future abundance of
lobsters in 5 years. .................................................... ........ 97
5-4 History of total spiny lobster harvests by weight in tails for the state of Yucatan,
M exico.................... .............. ................................ ......... 112
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
"LOBSTERS ARE LIKE GOLD": PERCEPTIONS OF RESOURCE ACCESS AND
MANAGEMENT IN A MEXICAN COMMON PROPERTY FISHERY
Chair: Peter Collings
Major Department: Anthropology
This study examines how a common property resource, spiny lobsters (Panulirus
argus), is perceived and exploited in an artisanal fishing community in the Yucatan,
Mexico. Like many marine resources, spiny lobsters are principally open access.
The thesis addresses the intersection of resource management, common property
theory, globalization, and luxury resources on the global market. The classic explanation
for the overexploitation of common property resources, Hardin's Tragedy of the
Commons, fails to explain the community under study. The tragedy is usually criticized
for its assumptions about self-interested resource users in an open access environment.
This thesis demonstrates that other factors, both internal and external to a community of
resource users, must be considered in an analysis of a common property resource.
Internal factors include the short history of exploiting lobsters as a resource, local
level conflicts, the ecology of the resource, and a high rate of immigration. Factors
external to the community include an obligatory and exploitative relationship with a
single exporter and the demand on the global market by elite consumers.
The local fishermen's cooperative served as the host institution for the research.
Participant observation was the principal methodological tool. A semi-formal interview
was also conducted with 37 members of the cooperative, representing 30% of the
cooperative's population. The fishermen were asked about their perceptions of the
stability and abundance of the fishery in both the recent past and for the future, and also
about their attitudes toward the cooperative. A freelisting exercise of fish names revealed
aspects of the fishermen's knowledge of their resource.
Lobsters are also analyzed as a luxury export commodity, where their value has
been socially constructed. This construction of a commodity has a direct relationship with
how the community of producers exploits the resource.
The lobster fishery is subject to federal management, although enforcement is weak
and compliance is inconsistent. Local management has been virtually absent owing to the
recent history of exploiting the resource as well as conflicts within the community.
Although the fishermen are caught in a cycle of indebtedness and the tragedy of resource
collapse may seem inevitable, the cooperative is enacting measures within the community
to escape the cycle. Thus, as the fishermen now perceive that the future of their resource
is in question, they are beginning to take a more active role in regulating their resource.
"Lobsters are like gold," an older fisherman says to me as he explains the
competition surrounding the harvest of lobsters. He recognizes that the number of
fishermen is increasing as harvests for each fisherman decreases. Only members of the
fishermen's cooperative should be able to harvest lobster, but the catch of fish species
should be open to all, he says. Yet, he next expresses empathy that all fishermen are just
trying to make a living.
Later, while out to sea with a crew of divers, I got to thinking about his comment.
We are so far from shore I have lost sight of land. Just as I become aware of a sense of
isolation, I realize how many other boats are actually around us: seven, maybe eight?
They are spread far apart, most near the horizon, each crew careful to protect their exact
location. When a boat finds a spot that yields many lobsters, the crew is especially careful
to hide their success when another boat passes nearby, lest the newcomer record the
coordinates on their own GPS device for later investigation. The broad expanse of
coastline suddenly seems small and crowded with boats.
From our boat, I let my eyes follow the bright orange hose, the manguera, from the
air compressor to the diver below. The turbid green water of the Gulf of Mexico off the
Yucatan coast makes it difficult for me to find the diver otherwise. The manguerero, or
boat helper, turns off the noisy air compressor and suddenly everything seems silent. I
watch the diver search the spongy layer of algae that hugs the bottom, looking for cracks
and rocky structures that break up the otherwise monotonously covered substrate. Finding
no lobsters here, the diver gives up searching the area and tugs on the hose feeding him
air. The captain responds to the request by securing the diver's hose around his leg.
Slowly, he motors the boat to a new spot, pulling the diver along the bottom. A few
minutes later, the diver tugs his air line, signaling the boat to stop. He has found some
rocky structure and he wants to search there for lobsters.
Finally, the first diver of the day surfaces after more than two hours underwater.
Before taking the regulator out of his mouth, he passes up his catch, a dozen impaled
lobsters, speared together on a metal rod like a shish kebab. "No hay mucho" he tells me
as he pulls himself on board, expressing dissatisfaction that he was unable to harvest
more. Two hours of diving had yielded only what fit on one 3-foot long metal rod. The
crew's total harvest for the day would total 20 kilograms of lobster tail. The diver climbs
on board dripping seawater and immediately lights a cigarette.
The regional buyer for this community of fishermen pays roughly $251 per
kilogram of lobster tails to the fishing cooperative. The cooperative pays its members
roughly $18 per kilogram at the time of harvest, with an additional $5 per kilogram
reimbursed at the end of the year as a kind of savings bonus. The difference goes toward
administrative and production expenses of the cooperative.
Harvests are largest at the beginning of the season when one crew may bring in
more than 30 kilograms of lobster tails in one day. A handful of highly successful
fishermen harvested over 60 kilograms a day during the first week of the season, 2005,
while most other crews harvested less than 20 kilograms per day. After the first month of
1 Values are given in US dollars, based on an approximate exchange rate of 10 pesos to the dollar.
Therefore, the buyer paid 250 pesos per kilogram of lobster tails.
the season, daily harvests per boat average 10 kilograms per day. A bad day could bring
The crew I joined above will be paid roughly $360 by the cooperative for the day's
20 kilograms of lobster tails. This amount is then split into 3.5 parts, with each of the two
divers receiving one equal share. The owner of the boat, usually a diver as well, receives
one part for expenses related to the boat. The remaining half a part goes to a non-diving
crew member (the manguerero) who is often a young son or nephew of the captain.
The lobster diver, then, who does not own his own boat, earned over $100 for the
day's work. The captain, who both owns the boat and works as a diver, earned over $200.
This represents a large sum of money in a region where staples like a kilogram of beans
costs little more than $1US, and a stack of tortillas a mere 30 cents. After a four month
long closed season on the harvest of lobster, the money is much needed among the
families of lobstermen.
The high value of lobster and the virtual open access status of the fishery have led
to rapid population growth as newcomers move to the community. Diving for lobster is
not a traditional livelihood in the area. While the species of lobster is native to the area,
the practice of harvesting lobster for export, by compressed air diving, was introduced
through state-sponsored programs of rural development in 1970. Fishing for grouper and
octopus, the next most important commercial species of this area, have a long history of
harvest for local and regional markets. Now, lobster, grouper and octopus are all
harvested for national and international consumption.
Although federal laws now exist to regulate lobster harvests, a lack of enforcement
results in little respect for the rules at the local level. The cooperative official responsible
for regulation enforcement complained to me constantly that he was unable to do his job.
Most fishermen had no conscience, he said. He also bemoaned local restaurants and
black-market buyers for contributing to the problem. Undersized lobsters are, in fact,
served in the local restaurants both during and prior to the lobster season. These illegal,
small lobsters have no exchange value on the export market, but local restaurants will pay
fishermen a good price for them.
A situation has thus developed where competition is more evident than
cooperation. Fishermen complain of decreasing catch sizes and worry that there is no
future for the fishery. Fishermen also complain when others violate the federal
regulations, and then concede that they, too, must engage in such behaviors out of
material necessity. The fishermen's cooperative is obligated to sell their entire harvest to
a single exporter who controls the price paid for lobster. Many of the cooperative's
members are deep in debt to the exporter. A lack of security to the future of the fishery
drives many fishermen to harvest as much as they can today.
Statement of the Problem
Marine resources are declining globally due to over fishing and destruction of
habitat (Watling and Norse 1998; Acheson and Wilson 1996; McGoodwin 1990). This
decline in resources is occurring despite attempts at state-level management, which for
the most part, fail. Although fishing communities depend on these resources for their
livelihoods, fisheries are often overexploited to the point of collapse.
Why would a community of users overexploit the resources on which their future
depends? The decline of fisheries is usually explained by the Tragedy of the Commons
(Hardin 1968), which sees a fishery's collapse as a problem of competition for open
access resources. This explanation, however, places blame solely on local level producers
and assumes that each acts as a rational economizing individual.
Resource managers of the formal economics tradition assume that the set of
conditions exemplified in the Tragedy of the Commons model are applicable in all
common property resource scenarios. The Tragedy of the Commons model, however, is
not universally valid for all instances of common property resources. No community in
the world exists in isolation from all others, and small-scale harvesting for local
consumption does not necessarily lead to a fishery's collapse. Resource demand and
value are created and defined by the global market, well outside the local context of
extraction. Thus, the local exploitation of a luxury export commodity involves actors at
numerous scales: local, regional, and global. This construction of a resource as a
commodity influences how the resource is perceived and exploited by local users.
At the broadest level, this thesis investigates the intersection of a population, a
resource, and a market. More specifically, it addresses how global demand impacts finite
resources in a predominantly open access environment. Anthropologically, I focus on
how local perceptions of a high value global commodity have created a local situation of
competition and fuel a cycle of debt and dependence.
Consequently, this thesis has the following objectives: (1) to analyze how a
community of fishermen perceives their common property resource base, and (2) to
understand how the local use and perceptions of a common property natural resource are
incorporated into and defined by the broader regional and global system.
The perceptions and exploitation of a luxury export commodity (spiny lobster) at
the local level are connected to issues at both the regional and global level. By addressing
how local extraction is connected to the ecology of the resource, it then becomes clear
how users fit into and are impacted by the total biophysical environment in which they
reside. Ecological, economic, political, socio-cultural and historical factors are integrated
in the analysis. The fishermen do not form a homogenous group. Different interests exist
among members of the cooperative concerning the resource. Additionally, the local
knowledge of the resource within its environment as well as the local perceptions of
resource availability are analyzed within a multi-scalar political ecology framework.
Across these variables, this thesis examines a local context of resource use and
places it within the broader global system. The Tragedy of the Commons fails to entirely
explain the local situation and I suggest an alternate scenario: that local cooperation has
failed due to both external and internal factors. Very often, only internal factors are
considered thereby placing blame for resource overexploitation entirely on local, already
marginalized resource users. Ultimately, the community of users will either be unable to
prevent the tragedy of resource depletion from playing out, or they will recognize their
common interest in the future of the resource and implement successful communal
This thesis is based on fieldwork conducted over three months during the summer
of 2005. A small fishing community on the northern coast of the state of Yucatan,
Mexico, served as the primary research site. Data was collected among members of the
original fishing cooperative in the community, which served as the host institution for
this research. There are 123 members (socios) of the cooperative. There is now a new
cooperative in the community, consisting of roughly 100 former members of the original
cooperative who broke away and started their own cooperative in 2003. More detailed
information on the situation of the cooperative will be addressed in chapter 3 on local
community background. In addition to the two cooperatives, there are numerous "free"
fishermen (libres), who sell their catches on the local black market or to one of the
A sampling frame of the cooperative's 123 members was constructed to produce a
sample of 37 fishermen, representing 30% of the population. A semi-formal interview
was conducted with 33 individuals in this sample, representing participation from 89% of
the total sample. No fisherman declined to be interviewed; the remaining four individuals
from the sample were unavailable to be interviewed, as they were not residing in Los
Flamencos during the month preceding the opening of the lobster season. Four additional
cooperative members were recruited using the same interview schedule as with the
random sample participants. These four individuals were active fishermen with strong
ties to the community.
The inability to locate all of the fishermen in the random sample raises an
important point: an increasing number of Los Flamencos' fishermen reside within the
community only during the lobster season. Those who are not permanent residents reside
in nearby non-coastal communities or cities, or migrate to Cancun area resorts or to North
America for work during the closed lobster season. This migratory pattern is related to
the open nature of the resource and the ease with which people may move into the area,
even on a temporary basis, to exploit the fishery. Thus, for many fishermen, the fishery is
opportunistic in nature as opposed to being a fundamental part of membership in the
The 37 interviews were conducted during the month of June, while the fishermen
were preparing for the opening of lobster season, which begins on the first of July. Only a
handful of all members of the cooperative were fishing for other species during this
month. Others were engaged in local employment such as construction work or on nearby
ranches. The majority, however, had no form of employment at this time, and some took
out bank loans to support their families until the beginning of the lobster season.
The principal methodological tool for this study was participant observation. I was
able to join the fishermen on both fishing and lobstering trips where I learned to both dive
and clean lobsters. I talked with the lobstermen daily as they departed in the mornings
and returned with their harvests in the afternoons. I also waited in line with them for
hours in the cooperative office as they received their day's pay, one by one.
The village of Los Flamencos2, the subject of this investigation, is a rural fishing
community on the north coast of the state of Yucatan, Mexico. Along with the states of
Campeche and Quintana Roo, these three Mexican states make up the Yucatan peninsula
(Figure 1-1). While the fishing communities of Campeche focus on the export production
of shrimp and octopus, those of Quintana Roo focus on lobster and sport fishing for
tourists. The coastline of the state of Yucatan, lying between Campeche and Quintana
Roo, faces north into the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the target species of the neighboring
states overlap: lobster (Panulirus argus) and octopus (Octopus maya), as well as red
2 1 have changed the name of the community to preserve anonymity and to protect the fishermen and
cooperative from punitive actions that may result from any admitted violations of federal harvesting
grouper (Epinephelus murio) are present in quantities sufficient to support artisanal
The state of Yucatan's coastline is subdivided into two regions of fishing
cooperatives: east oriented ) and west (occidente), with roughly a handful of fishing
villages in each. Since 1990, each region has formed an umbrella federation that
incorporates all of the fishing cooperatives of that region. Most fishermen on the Yucatan
coast are members (socios) of cooperatives within their communities.
Figure 1-1. Map of Mexico showing the three states of the Yucatan Peninsula:
Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo. Map by Edward W. Tennant.
The fishermen of Los Flamencos are members of the Federation of Eastern
Cooperatives (Federacion de Cooperativas de Oriente), and the community is typical of
other member fishing communities in the federation. The first of the area's fishing
cooperatives was initiated by the state in 1970. The fishing cooperatives serve as the
intermediary between the fishermen and the regional buyer. The cooperative also
provides ice for members' fishing trips as well as the storage and transport of harvests to
the buyer in Merida. Recently, the cooperative has split into two as a result of local
conflicts. This conflict will be addressed further in chapter 3.
The community has a permanent population of roughly 2,000 people. Fishing is the
primary occupation of over three quarters of the male, economically-active population.
The remaining adult men are engaged principally in labor at nearby ranches or
construction. Because the fishing season for lobsters is closed for four months of the year
and the majority of lobsters are caught in the first month of the season, most men look for
additional work. Local labor options are limited, but include carpentry, construction, and
When the lobster season is closed or yields are low, many of the younger men leave
the community to work in the Cancun area resorts. Compared to the options to work
locally, these young men are able to make a good income, and thus invest in fishing
capital independently. This means that young men who leave the community seasonally
for work are more likely to become boat captains at a young age and with less
experience. Because of this trend, the fishermen do not represent a homogenous group
and a distinction seems to exist between those fishermen who live in Los Flamencos year
round, and those that leave the community seasonally for other opportunities.
The non-fishing population of Los Flamencos also changes with the seasons. From
July to September, the population is at its peak. During July, all fishermen are out to sea
daily harvesting lobsters. Most will even work on Sundays during the first weeks of the
season. August is the month of vacation for the many Mexican tourists who come to Los
Flamencos. Many resident families even rent their houses to these tourists, and reside
with other local family members during this time. The two restaurants are usually closed
or empty outside of this busy season. By late September, some fishermen report that as
average catches dwindle, they cease diving and leave the area for work elsewhere.
Principally, this means work in the tourist industry of Quintana Roo. This group of
fishermen, mentioned above, sees their investment to catch lobster as not worth the effort
for the returns once daily catches average 10 kilograms per day. Most fishermen,
however, elect to remain in the area with their families, although they may target other
species such as line fishing for grouper or using thejimba to catch octopus.
Many women in the community run small shops or food stalls out of their homes.
Locals will know which homes sell various things like sandwiches (tortas) or hot dogs
(salchichas). Other women may do work such as tailoring for the required school
uniforms to supplement their family's income. A few houses have small home gardens,
although these must be above ground as the entire community is built on rocky landfill.
Spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) is the primary commercial species for the
fishermen of Los Flamencos. Lobsters are harvested by diving with compressed air,
which is supplied by hose from an onboard air compressor. Fish are harvested by
spearfishing while diving for lobsters, but fish caught on lobster trips is often not sold
because of its low exchange value. Much of this fish is instead reserved for domestic
consumption. While a kilogram of red grouper is worth 16 pesos ($1.60) when sold to the
cooperative, a kilogram of lobster tails brings 180 pesos ($18), with another 50 pesos per
kilogram reimbursed to the fishermen by the cooperative at the end of the year.
Because of the difference in value, many divers also refrain from spearing fish until
shortly before surfacing. Fish are physically more fragile than the hard exoskeleton of
lobsters and are easily damaged if pulled around on a metal rod for the duration of a two-
hour dive. There are some divers who, having little success with lobsters will focus on
Diving for lobsters is the main occupation of the fishermen of Los Flamencos,
although octopus and grouper are also important commercial species in the area. Most
fishermen in Los Flamencos acknowledge making a good living from the harvest of
lobsters. However, the fishermen are feeling the limits of the resource's abundance and
watching as more people enter the fishery. Coupled with this increasing competition for
resources, the fishermen are also tied to a middleman who exercises control, both direct
and indirect, over the fishery. Thus, the small-scale lobster fishermen are tied into, and
dependent on, a global system in which they have little power.
It is also important to note that the north Yucatan coast is especially prone to
seasonal hurricanes. The lobster season begins in July, coinciding with the beginning of
hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean. This results in routine disruptions to fishing as a
livelihood. In September 2002, the communities along the Yucatan state's coast suffered
extensive flooding and structural damage from Hurricane Isidore, the results of which are
still evident. In the first month of the lobster season, 2005, while this research was
conducted, Hurricane Dennis prevented fishing for five days due to turbid water. Shortly
thereafter, the entire community was evacuated for Hurricane Emily, which caused
extensive damage throughout the eastern part of the peninsula. Altogether, hurricanes
resulted in 14 days of lost livelihood for the fishermen of Los Flamencos3 during the first
month of the lobster season, 2005. I will return to discuss the consequences of climatic
changes in chapter 3.
Plan of Thesis
As noted above, this thesis addresses the principal concerns about the intersection
of resource use, management regimes, and globalization. The remainder of this thesis
looks at these topics from multiple perspectives.
Chapter 2 consists of a theoretical overview of issues in fisheries, common property
resources, knowledge, export commodities and management. Chapter 3 presents an
ethnographic description of the fishing community, the harvest strategies for lobster, the
role of the fishing cooperative, and the relationship of the local fishermen to the regional
fish buyer. Chapter 4 consists of a summary of the ecology of spiny lobsters and the
biophysical setting of the community including climatic phenomenon.
Chapter 5 summarizes the data collected from the 37 interviews. The analysis
focuses on the fishermen's perceptions of their resource base by looking at how
fishermen interpret their rights of access to the resource and their beliefs about their
future access to lobster harvesting. Following this emphasis on local perceptions, spiny
lobster fishing is examined at the regional and global scales, where non-local actors have
differing interests in the resource.
In Chapter 6, the findings of the research are applied to the accepted principles of
resource management. Spiny lobsters are first compared to agricultural exports. I define
3 Days were counted if less than 25% of cooperative members left the port. While the fishermen report that
they do not usually lobster on Sundays, they will do so if other days have left them unable to fish.
Therefore, assessment of these non-fishing days includes Sundays.
spiny lobsters as a luxury export commodity as understood by economic anthropologists.
This concept is then applied to the issues of common property resource management. As
community resource management, or CRM, becomes more popular as an approach to the
management of resource use, many factors must be considered. The cohesion of a
community (the assumption that a community is homogenous and shares a common
interest) should not be assumed. The socio-cultural and historical variables at the local
level are important to consider if local management is to be a viable option.
The discussions and conclusions of this thesis emphasize that attempts at local level
resource management must include consideration of the total environment in which
resource extraction occurs. Ecological, economic, political, socio-cultural and historical
factors are crucial to consider for successful management of resource use. By using a
political ecology theoretical framework, the analysis incorporates these factors in order to
understand the local context of resource use.
If the goals of management are to be realized, however, the interests and
responsibilities of actors at all scales must be acknowledged. Ultimately, successful
management will necessitate the participation and cooperation of local users. Whether
Los Flamencos will, in the end, exemplify the Tragedy of the Commons remains to be
seen. In certainty, the tragedy is not an inevitable outcome.
If the goals of management are to be realized, however, the interests and
responsibilities of actors at all scales must be acknowledged. Ultimately, successful
management will necessitate the participation and cooperation of local users. Whether
Los Flamencos will, in the end, exemplify the Tragedy of the Commons remains to be
seen. In certainty, the tragedy is not an inevitable outcome.
This thesis draws on several theoretical issues, in an attempt to explain one local
context of open access resource exploitation. In the end, the problem of common property
resource overexploitation is best explained as an issue of relationships. These include
relationships within the community among the resource users and those relationships
between the resource users and agents within the broader system of which they are
Here, small-scale fisheries, and the features that typify them are first introduced.
Next, issues of common property resources are discussed, with a particular focus on the
different forms of access that govern such resources. Common property does not equate
with a free-for-all, open access. The various forms of access that govern some common
property regimes may be understood as management. The issue of management, then, is
addressed, through fisheries management, as well as top-down and bottom-up
institutions. Co-management is the meeting of top-down and bottom-up forms, and in an
ever-widening global system, may prove to be a necessary combination of resource
governance. The idea of knowledge as the basis for local management is important in
understanding the local systems of resource use that may be in place. Finally, the
construction of a resource into a commodity, and what this means for the small-scale
producers who find themselves producing for a new market is discussed.
Small-scale fisheries provide more food for more people, with a higher number
employed and a significantly lower reliance on costly fossil fuels than large-scale
fisheries (Poggie and Pollnac 1991). Fishermen are usually classified as artisanal (small-
scale) or commercial (large-scale) based on the level of capital invested and the degree of
involvement (or lack thereof) in market production. Also referred to as petty commodity
producers reflecting the kin relations within crews (Poggie and Pollnac 1991), artisanal
fisheries are defined as utilizing simple technology (both for fishing equipment and
transportation) requiring low capital investment to catch species for local consumption.
These fisheries have a greater reliance on human labor than mechanized power (Poggie
and Pollnac 1991).
In artisanal fisheries, capital is owned by those engaged in the labor process.
Artisanal fisheries may thus be described as independent, where the captains own the
means of production (boat, motor, etc.). However, captains are often deeply in debt to
moneylenders and middlemen.
In contrast to the artisanal fisheries, commercial fleets have far higher capital
investments (Sabella 1980). In commercial fisheries, the owner of capital (means of
production) is not likely engaged in the labor of fishing. Captains and crews are wage
laborers, with wages usually determined by the size of the catch.
In fact, the distinction between artisanal and commercial fisheries is better
described as a continuum than a line. Artisanal fisheries are increasingly integrated into
producing for the global market. New technologies such as motorization and GPS are
becoming more accessible to rural fishing communities. The primary distinction then, lies
with whether the owners of capital are engaged in the production process artisanall) or
Common Property Theory
A resource is anything that has value to humans (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987).
This value may be based on utility (crude oil) or aesthetics (beauty of nature). Human
communities depend on resources in their environment to provide for their needs.
Resources have a use and/or exchange value for the producer.
The term common property resource is defined as "a class of resources for which
exclusion is difficult and joint use involves subtractability" (Feeny et al. 1990, Berkes et
el. 1991). Fisheries present a good example of such resources, as it is difficult to exclude
potential users from harvesting a mobile resource living in a medium that may be difficult
to fence and patrol. Fisheries collapse is blamed on intense extraction pressure. Thus,
joint use at a high level ultimately results in subtractability in harvest size for each user.
Access to common property resources varies among human communities. Feeny et
al. (1990) identify four types of common property rights: open access, private property,
communal property, and state property. These four categories are not necessarily distinct;
combinations may be present (Feeny et al. 1990). The distinction between open access
and communal property warrant mention here, as this oversight was at the root of much
of the debate surrounding Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" (1968).
In open access resource situations, access to the resource is unrestricted. All
members of a community have rights to extraction, but so do non-community members.
Communal property resources are defined as resources that are shared by an identifiable
group. The resource is the property of a group or community that controls, in some way,
access to the resource. That is, some form of restriction exists that regulates access.
Restrictions of access may take two forms. Exclusion of non-members from access to the
resource is one such mechanism. Regulating and controlling the use of the resource by
members is another (Ostrom and Schlager 1996).
Hardin's theory of the Tragedy of the Commons (1968) is widely regarded as a
seminal work in common property theory. The Tragedy is presented as a narrative of
individual herders that continue to add sheep to their own herd. Ultimately, the herders
are able to benefit more from their individual effort than they lose due to the overall
degradation, the impacts of which are bore by all. The simplicity of the story appeared to
have an innate logic.
Critiques of the Tragedy quickly followed. McCay and Acheson (1987) point out
the Tragedy's assumption that self-interest supercedes cooperation to the point of
resource degradation. In the Tragedy, there is no mention of the social structure of the
users; they each act only as individuals with unrestricted access. Feeny et al. (1990) point
out that the Tragedy assumes a situation of complete open access to the resource, and
acknowledge that in such a case, the Tragedy may in fact become inevitable. The authors
make the point, however, that this often comes about after communal access systems
have been eroded due to external pressures.
Berkes (1992) interprets the Tragedy's assumptions as Eurocentric because self-
interest is normalized. Berkes points out that human communities are able to use common
property resources without overexploiting them, by regulating their use among the group.
In the Tragedy, the common property resource is open access and cooperation to regulate
access to the resource does not occur.
In cases of conflict, problems often arise due to a failure to recognize a shared
interest among a community or group of resource users (Fox 1993). Berkes argues (1992)
that cooperation does exist when a population realizes the advantages of cooperation.
Such systems of cooperation are a characteristic of communal property resources.
Open Access Marine Resources
Marine resources are often open access. Coastal fishing communities are often
restricted to subsistence production, due to their isolation from regional markets (Poggie
and Pollnac 1991). In order to produce for a non-local market, capital investment is
required to preserve highly perishable catches. When a resource is restricted to local
consumption, limited extraction pressure may not necessitate the imposition of rules
regarding use. Even early large-scale fishing industries saw the world's fish supply as
inexhaustible and resisted regulatory controls (Gordon 1998). We can thus assume that in
areas engaged in a communal property regime (local management, see below), such
forms of regulation only originated when the limits of a resource's abundance was
The perception of resource instability among resource users may lead to efforts of
regulation (McCay and Acheson 1987) or to maladaptive use practices. Such maladaptive
practices are often depicted as a feature of the Tragedy of the Commons narrative, as
evidenced in a rental property analogy. When the future use of a resource is not secure,
such as when land is leased, there is little incentive to protect the resource's ability to
reproduce itself (Gordon 1998). So it is assumed that with open access marine resources,
users will exploit the resource to the point of collapse (Townsend and Wilson 1987).
In the wake of a global realization that the world's resources are not infinite,
attempts to address this "crisis" are being made. Management and the conservation of
resources are usually proposed as the solution (Shotton 2000).
State level management systems work on the assumption of an open access marine
environment, even when marine resources are managed locally as communal property
(McCay and Acheson 1987). These top down, or state-regulated, management
approaches usually take the form of closed fishing seasons and catch size quotas.
Governmental management strategies are frequently enacted without involving local
knowledge of target species' ecology, which is regarded as anecdotal, and are applied
regardless of the existence of a local management system (Mackinson 2001, Berkes et al.
Management in fisheries attempts to identify the maximum level of sustainable
harvests (Gordon 1998). The theories on which fisheries management is based come from
a conventional economics framework. Fisheries managers use models, such as the
Schaeffer curve, in order to determine maximum yields. The Schaeffer curve depicts the
relationship between effort and yield (Townsend and Wilson 1987), and is a basic
concept in fisheries management. Such models plot fishing effort (the costs of capital and
labor that fishermen invest) against yields. As fishing effort increases, catch increases up
to a certain point, after which further increases in effort results in decreasing catch size.
In other words, after reaching the maximum sustainable yield, further effort always
results in lower catches. This is another expression of diminishing returns. The goal of
such models as the Schaeffer curve is to identify the point at which species may be
extracted without harming the reproductive abilities of the entire species. An individual
fisher's cost per unit of effort (CPUE) is a standard measure to determine the efficiency
(that is, economic maximization) of human labor. Management entails lowering effort to
maintain catch size (Townsend and Wilson 1987, Acheson 1981).
Top-down management strategies aim to identify the point of maximum extraction.
If too many fish are taken, the fishery will collapse. However, managers consider a
failure also to result if harvests fall below maximum sustainable yields. Then, the fishery
is regarded as being used inefficiently. In fishing, inefficiency refers to fish populations
that are not exploited at their maximum potential. That is, more of the resource may have
been extracted for the same level of investment. Overexploitation refers to fish that have
been harvested at levels that negatively impact their ability to reproduce to previous
numbers. Fisheries managers attempt to walk a fine line between inefficiency and
Several problems exist with top-down management (Gordon 1998). Such
approaches assume constant rates of recruitment and overlook the chaotic nature of
fisheries (Acheson and Wilson 1996). Fisheries are also an especially tricky resource to
manage due to their aquatic habitat which complicates efforts at determining population
Furthermore, as Durrenberger (1997) has shown, fishermen do not follow the
predictions of the Schaeffer curve and do not necessarily decrease effort as yield
decreases. On the contrary, a strong sense of occupational identity among small-scale
fishermen, and the inability to change their occupation easily, yield an increase in effort
despite a decreasing catch size. At some point, of course, a further increase in effort with
a corresponding decrease in yield must lead to the adoption of an adaptive strategy, but
this apparently happens long after it would be predicted by the Schaeffer model.
Bottom-up (Local Management)
Management is an attempt at control. A communal property resource refers to a
community of users that share ownership and regulation of the resource. A resource that
is communal property falls under a system of local management. Communal property
resources then, are locally managed resources.
Local management systems differ from conventional fisheries management
techniques. Local management strategies in small-scale fishing communities are
concerned with managing the biology of the target species as well as restricting access to
the resource in various ways (Acheson and Wilson 1996). However, local management
systems may break down due to pressure on resources from outsiders who are not subject
to local norms of regulating behavior, or be undermined when state regulations are
imposed on communities (Berkes et al. 1991).
Local management systems may come under stress due to changes from within the
community as well. When these systems break down, they are often irreparable. For
example, in a fishing village in India, all fishermen have converted to motorized boats.
The rapid change in technology has negatively impacted the local social system of
fishing. The new technology also led the fishermen to become indebted to moneylenders.
The fishermen are now driven to destructive trawling in order to harvest sufficient catch
sizes to repay loans. The fishermen are thus financially restricted from reverting to non-
motorized boats (Chacko 1998). In such cases, state-level regulations may be the only
hope to both protect local communities and manage their resources sustainably (Acheson
Among many fishing communities, local management systems exist independent of
government regulations. Anthropologists have recognized numerous strategies in small-
scale fishing communities that may be termed local management. These include social
pressure to limit technology of grouper fishing in Belize (Crawford 1995), control of
information on prized fishing locations in Brazil (Forman 1967), cooperative agreement
to regulate net mesh size in Brazil (Robben 1989), limitations on entering the fishery in
Brazil (Cordell 1978), hereditary rights to fishing zones of lobster in Belize and Mexico
(Sutherland 1986, King 1997, Cochran 1997), and communal organization to lobby for
state legislation in Peru (McDaniel 1997) and Maine (Acheson 1997, Acheson 1998).
Communal property marine resource systems may take the form of marine tenure
and are known to exist in some fishing communities (Cochran 1997), although other local
controls are more often in place that serve to limit access to the fishery. Fishing spots are
not often owned, but "information management" is in operation to restrict access to good
fishing locations (Forman 1967; Stuster 1978; Acheson 1981). Secrecy is more often
used for fixed locations of demersal (bottom-dwelling) species, as opposed to more
mobile pelagic (open-water) species, where passing on information about a school of fish
implies an expectation of reciprocity (Acheson 1981). Examples of fishing location
ownership occur with the inheritance of lobster fishing zones in Belize (Sutherland 1986)
and the exclusivity of the lobster gangs in Maine (Acheson 1987). The current increase in
use of GPS units to identify successful harvesting locations occurs with the safe-guarding
of the notebooks in which coordinates are listed.
Local management strategies are usually patterns of behavior and not conscious
attempts to fish below a recognized carrying capacity (McGoodwin 1990). Conformity of
behavior is enforced at the local level through social pressure (Acheson 1987, Berkes et
al. 1991, Acheson 1998). In these examples of local management strategies, what is
shared in common is cooperation among the group that participates in the making and
enforcement of the rules. This cooperation is crucial to the success of local management
initiatives. Identifying shared interests among resource users (Fox 1993) is necessary for
management to work without strict external enforcement.
Local management arises from within communities as an adaptation to the local
environment (McGoodwin 1990) and is reproduced daily in the actions of fisherfolk
(Robben 1989). These behaviors, while not static, are enforced locally when breached.
Penalties range from social pressure and stigmatization (Warner 1997, Acheson 1998) to
gear sabotage (Acheson 1987). Enforcement of State regulations, on the other hand, is
external to the system and may lack a consistent local presence (Berkes et al. 1991) or be
limited to fines (Warner 1997).
Sometimes, local management of resources may co-exist with State management.
Locally enforced hereditary fishing zones are in place to limit entry to the lobster fishery
in Belize (Sutherland 1986) and Mexico (Cochran 1997), while the state also regulates
this fishery by imposing a closed season and exacting punitive fines against violators.
The local, contextual knowledge of resource users is crucial within the system of
local resource management (Pomeroy and Berkes 1997). However, in order to protect the
system from disruption, there is room for state level regulation and enforcement as well.
Co-management linking the state and local levels offers a balance to this dilemma. Co-
management connects local resource users and state-level governing institutions in a
relationship of mutual responsibility for a resource (Sen and Nielsen 1996, Pomeroy and
Berkes 1997, Mackinson 2001). A system of checks and balances is provided to the local
users. Support of formal regulations in the event of local system stress is provided by
fisheries managers, while resource users are able to offer locally produced knowledge
about the condition of the resource which is necessary for on the ground monitoring of
the resource (Warner 1997). This negotiation of mutual responsibility and contribution of
both top down and bottom up is necessary for successful fisheries management.
Local knowledge represents what resource users have learned about their
environment and serves as the basis for how resources are used. Thus, local knowledge is
directly related to local management (Berkes et al. 2000).
In a comparative study carried out in Brazil and Australia, indigenous respondents
reported differences in observed fish behavior of a primary target species in each country
(Silvano and Begossi 2005). The same species may have a different habitat depending on
the local marine environment. A top down management scheme developed without
consideration of this local variation would thus not work.
Detailed taxonomies exist as part of the local knowledge of a people's resources
(Pollnac 1981, Morrill 1967). Those who have the most attuned knowledge of the marine
environment will best be able to extract resources from it. Knowledge among fishermen
may pertain to the habits of fish, such as diet and life cycle, the marine environment
itself, such as topography, composition of the substrate, tides, etc., skill with equipment,
both for fishing and boats.
Fishermen are known for secrecy of their skills (Andersen 1980, Acheson 1981, see
above). Secrecy is also used as a "spacing mechanism" which works to give a kind of
"temporary property rights" to fishermen (Forman 1967). Such information may be
shared through a code (Stuster 1978) so that reciprocal exchanges are more formalized.
Secrecy, or control of information, then, comes from personal experimentation and
understanding of the marine environment. It serves a managerial function of exclusion
directed towards some who are allowed access to the resource.
The difference in information management for demersal and mobile species
mentioned above has been criticized by Durrenberger and Palsson (1987). In their
examples where this pattern does not hold true, however, other cultural factors exist such
as social relations that instead dictate resource management. Their examples also concern
fishermen working in fully capitalist systems on a much larger scale as, as opposed to the
small-scale operation that is the focus of this thesis.
While marine species move, movement patterns are not random (Jennings et al.
2001). With time and experience, fishermen learn the movements and habits of different
species. Some learn this more than others, and this will correlate with greater fishing
success. It is this understanding of not only the targeted species, but of the marine system
as a whole, that will lead to fishery management and property systems. Such an
understanding represents a mental map of fish movements, substrate topography,
geography and seasonal and tidal patterns. This temporal and spatial map is often the
basis for resource territorial rights (Cordell 1978). Further studies of the knowledge of
fishermen would be valuable in understanding how resource management systems evolve
in particular fishing communities.
Local knowledge of the marine environment takes on certain characteristics that
differ from terrestrial ecological knowledge. For example, the understanding of lunar
tides is crucial to fishing, not only because of fish activity, but also for safety
considerations of both equipment and crew. According to Cordell (1974), fishing spots of
canoe fishermen in southern Bahia, Brazil, are not understood spatially, so much as
temporally. Tides affect water levels, and thus the location of fish populations. Each day
in the lunar calendar is named and remembered according to its corresponding water
level. Other types of fishermen do not share this attuned understanding of the subtle
alterations in the marine environment. Bottom-trawlers and nylon net fishermen who are
equipped with effort-reducing (and substrate-damaging) technology have spatially and
economically marginalized the canoe fishermen.
Another example that shows just how attuned local knowledge is to the marine
environment concerns the origin of ciguatera, which is a type of food poisoning that
occurs when certain tropical fish with high levels of ciguatoxin are consumed. These
toxins are heat-resistant, so cooking the fish does not remove them. The toxins
concentrate in fish at greater levels as they move up the food chain. The poisoning occurs
when humans consume an affected fish (usually a large, adult specimen) at the top of the
food chain. Fish such as barracuda, amberjacks and some snappers and groupers, when
greater than five pounds, are the leading culprits.
The origins of ciguatera were long a mystery to western scientists. The toxin is
named for a marine snail that was believed to cause the first recorded poisoning in Cuba.
According to a 1929 account in Samoa, the origin of the toxin was believed to be a
strychnine-like alkaloid found in the flesh of certain snappers, groupers and surgeonfish
(Jordan 1929). In the late 1960's, the origins of ciguatoxins was still being debated by
scientists. Research at this time was zeroing in on the cause (Scheuer et al. 1967). It is
now well known that ciguatera poisoning is caused by benthic dinoflagellate algae found
on some corals (Burkholder 1998). A concurrent 1967 paper by Morrill, however,
mentions a Cha-Cha fisherman of St. Thomas, who was regarded as being the most
knowledgeable in the area. The fisherman was certain from his life-long fishing
experience that ciguatera poisoning originated from algae that passed up through the food
chain. The fisherman's knowledge was due to his personal observations and experience
(skill acquisition) with the marine environment as a system (Morrill 1967). This example
speaks to the value of locally developed knowledge. Having a greater understanding of
the marine environment as a whole leads not only to better success as a fisherman, but
may also lead to more conservation-like behaviors that encourage sustainable use of the
Luxury Export Commodities and Small-Scale Producers
The literature on fisheries and agricultural producers is usually separate from one
another. Firth (1966) points out that full-time fishers must be involved in trade since they
would be unable to subsist on fish alone, as opposed to agricultural producers who may
rely completely on their own production. He also points out the more seasonal nature of
agricultural production, compared to the ability to produce fish daily. While the Malays
were able to harvest fish year-round, in the community on which this thesis focuses,
fishing does not provide a stable year-round income. Due to federal regulations on closed
seasons and the required investments in order to access fish stocks far out to sea, fishing
is more similar to the seasonal nature of agricultural producers elsewhere. Nevertheless,
there is much to compare between small-scale producers of the two groups.
Both small-scale farmers and fishers are often rural peoples, subject to structures of
power from above. Such power structures may be felt in unequal economic relationships
such as debt (Dore 2003). Landowners control peons and migratory laborers in Latin
America and the U.S. through cycles of debt. Similarly, wealthy fish buyers who act as
middlemen control fisherfolk through the control of fish prices and loans for the capital
that small-scale fishing requires for boats and motors (Chacko 1998, Djohani 1997).
Among both small-scale farmers and fishers, cycles of debt can lead to environmentally
damaging practices (Chacko 1998, Djohani 1997, Stonich 1995).
Previously producing for local or regional markets only, both rural fishers and
farmers are increasingly producing for the global market. Both groups often enter such
market relations in a marginalized position. Two types of production will be addressed
here: farming and resource extraction.
In response to rural poverty, governments and development institutions such as the
World Bank have attempted to institute production reforms at the local level. These plans
are usually designed and approved with little input or involvement by actors at the local
level. One such reform is the promotion of commodities referred to as "nontraditional
agricultural exports" (Conroy 1996) These are commodities produced for export to
wealthy nations where such commodities are in demand. The trend toward non-traditional
agricultural exports has led many rural people to cease producing subsistence crops in
order to grow luxury-export cash crops on which they could not subsist. Such non-
traditional exports, what I term "luxury export commodities" are luxury products such as
vegetables and cut flowers. Production of such goods responds to a demand by wealthy
market consumers who want particular goods year-round, as opposed to when they would
be seasonally available in their own climate (Thrupp 1995).
The problem with this shift toward producing luxury goods for the export market is
that once people give up subsistence farming, it is difficult to go back. "Once key skills
disappear by not being transmitted to a younger generation, they are effectively lost
forever" (Heyman 2005). This skill loss may be applied not only to technology eroding
knowledge, but also to a new household reliance on consumer goods.
A risky scenario results where rural communities produce commodities that do not
serve subsistence needs should the world market price collapse. Rural communities face
the very real danger of being left to survive on a crop with no exchange value and little
use value as well. This exemplifies one of the fundamental features of underdevelopment
(Frank 2000, Escobar 1995).
Local resource commodities on the global market place demands on locally
abundant resources, altering social relations at the local level based on global demand.
Frank's theory of the Development of Underdevelopment (1969 in 2000) and
Wallerstein's World Systems Theory (1979 in 2000) depict a pattern to the flow of
commodities. Natural resources move from satellite/peripheral countries to
metropolis/core countries. Technology and manufactured goods with value-added prices
flow in the other direction. The price balance between the two inevitably favors the
production of core countries. The unequal balance in trade between natural resources and
technologically produced goods is mirrored in the unequal balance in labor, where labor
is worth far more in core countries than in peripheral ones.
A political ecology analysis addresses a problem by incorporating the political
economy with a local ecological setting (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987). That is, a local
problem is understood as a socio-political and historical construction within a particular
ecological setting. A problem such as competition and overexploitation of resources is
thus addressed by examining the historical context of the community and resource use,
the political context of power relations, and the social and cultural factors that
characterize the local context (Stonich 1993). All these factors are situated in a particular
ecological system where the resource in question is produced.
Another facet of political ecology is its attention to the interests of actors at
multiple scales. Resource problems are not created in isolation at the local level. Rather,
the interests of actors at regional and global scales must be considered and their relations
with those at the local level included in the analysis. Actors at regional or global scales
may not seem to play a direct role in local processes, but the interests of such agents
create pressures that local level agents respond to. Small-scale producer communities do
not exist in a closed system. All communities are integrated in some way with actors
outside of the community. Therefore, when a community shifts production from
subsistence to export, the community becomes inextricably connected to a foreign
market. The new relations of power that arise must therefore be integrated into the
analysis of resource use. Very often, such market integration leads to the dependence of
small-scale producers on the volatile prices and preferences of a foreign market (Thrupp
A political ecology analysis of resource exploitation may thus provide a new
critique of Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons. Although a resource is predominantly
open access, thereby conforming to the assumptions of Hardin's Tragedy, users who
exploit a common property resource for the global market, are inseparably entwined with
that system. Therefore, the exploitation of the resource must be considered in its relation
to a broader system. Also, the analysis includes internal factors at the local level that go
beyond the simplicity of viewing resource users as self-interested individuals. Rather, the
history of the community's members, their local conflicts and social structure are
incorporated to reveal a more holistic view of the use of the resource.
The following chapters will introduce the practice of diving for lobsters in Los
Flamencos and the ecology of spiny lobsters. The analysis of how the fishermen perceive
their resource, including the knowledge they have of their environment, is then compared
against the system of access governing the common property resource. The construction
of lobsters as a luxury export commodity on the global market, however, impacts issues
of management. Currently, the fishermen of Los Flamencos harvest their resource in an
open access situation. Whether or not the Tragedy of the Commons plays out, however,
has to do with more than just the form of access that the resource users have.
By examining the various issues surrounding common property resource
management, the explanation of resource use must consider the internal and external
factors guiding the community of users. The relationships of community members with
each other should be considered as well as with agents outside of the community. A
political ecology approach is, thus, most suitable.
This thesis ends on an optimistic note. At the time of research, the fishermen were
planning to institute a communal property management strategy that they themselves will
attempt to enforce. The new initiative was set to be implemented after my departure from
the community. Perhaps, the dismal perceptions of the future abundance and access to the
resource that the fishermen displayed in interviews will incite successful cooperative
RESEARCH SETTING AND ETHNOGRAPHY
Los Flamencos, a small fishing community on the Gulf coast of the state of
Yucatan, Mexico, is typical of the several fishing communities of the eastern half of the
Yucatan state's Gulf coast. Around 2,000 people now call Los Flamencos home, and this
number has steadily increased since the harvest of lobsters began roughly 35 years ago,
roughly coinciding with the replacement of the community's Maya name for a mestizo
Because it is a fishing community, Los Flamencos orients its town center around
the waterfront breakwater (malecon) rather than the square central park that is typical of
most Latin American towns. The waterfront area is still referred to as the parque, and
men gather here to talk under the shade of potted palm trees when not fishing. The main
street into town ends at the malecon. It is at this intersection that the town's church sits,
facing due west, directly across from the local government offices (palacio) facing due
east, where the offices of the mayor and the small police department are located.
Interestingly, the community's six policemen are employed only part-time,
principally working on the weekends and during festivals. Enforcing the prohibition of
the sale of alcohol on Sundays and maintaining order among the cantinas' clientele are
their main responsibilities. Nevertheless, the policemen still regard fishing as their
Located in mangrove swampland, Los Flamencos has been built on top of
reclaimed, filled land. Flooding is a constant concern, but especially so during hurricane
season. The latest to severely impact the community, Hurricane Isidore, struck the area in
September, 2002 causing significant damage to village infrastructure. Many of Los
Flamencos' brightly painted wooden houses were damaged or destroyed by Isidore, but
the community has since recovered. Newly constructed, and in some cases still
unfinished, one-room concrete buildings are now common, as are large rooftop water
tanks which provide a reserve supply of water during the frequent interruptions in
The community has experienced a population boom in the last few years, owing
largely to the draw of the open lobster industry, which began in 1970. Many of the
fishermen are first generation members of the community, having arrived when they were
children or adolescents. Because of rapid demographic growth, there is an increasing
demand for housing. On the outskirts of town, bulldozers are constantly at work, clearing
and filling mangrove swamp for new homes.
Archaeological evidence reveals Maya settlements in the area, but the
contemporary population does not identify itself as Maya. Only a few elderly residents,
who claim to have learned the language as children on nearby ranches, speak Maya. The
population is now entirely mestizo.
Few of the fishermen have finished the equivalent of ninth grade, and some are
illiterate. Families move to Los Flamencos and other fishing communities along the coast
because of the availability of work in the lobster industry, which provides a lucrative
income. The ease of entry into the local fishing industry is another factor that may not
occur elsewhere. In Punta Allen, a lobstering community in the south of the state of
Quintana Roo (Cochran 1997), families with multi-generational histories in the
community control entry to the fishery. Additionally, jobs are scarce in the interior of the
Yucatan peninsula, which is dominated by ranches that rarely pay more than the Mexican
national minimum wage of roughly $4US per day. The wages offered in nearby Cancun,
only four hours by bus, draw migrants to the Yucatan from all over Mexico. Several
fishermen find work in the Cancun area resorts during the closed lobster season, leaving
their families behind in Los Flamencos. Because of this ease of access to the fishery, and
the lack of a long-standing history of resource users, the lobster fishery is largely treated
as opportunistic by those who arrive, looking for work. This will ultimately impact how
the resource is perceived and exploited.
While the year-round population of Los Flamencos is now roughly 2,000
individuals, the population swells in August with Mexican tourists on summer vacation.
Tourists come to visit the beach, see the wild flamingos, and to eat fresh seafood. Many
nonresident fishermen also arrive at this time for the opening of the lobster season.
There is no bank or post office in Los Flamencos. The fishing cooperative must handle all
finances in Tizimin, Yucatan state's third largest city and around an hour away by car.
Buses and minibuses depart and arrive from Tizimin several times a day. Most of the
roads within Los Flamencos are wide and paved. The two main roads, the one entering
the community and the intersecting one along the waterfront, have concrete planters built
into them containing palm trees.
Schools exist in Los Flamencos for children through the ninth grade. Children
choosing to go on to high school (prepa) must commute to a larger community at least 30
minutes away. Many of these boarding school students live with relatives during the
school week, returning to their parents' homes in Los Flamencos on the weekends.
A young doctor fulfilling her mandatory community service runs a small state
clinic where services and medicine are free. A second physician's office handles patients
that have state social security-sponsored health care coverage, or can afford to pay to visit
a doctor. The free medicine given by the state-run clinic is regarded as weak and inferior
to that provided by the other doctor. Most of the clinics' staff as well as the teachers are
not locals and nearly all leave the community on the weekends.
All homes have electricity, although most of the new concrete-block rooms, which
were built with relief funds following Hurricane Isidore, have yet to be wired. Water
service is intermittent for everyone, and seems to shut off unexpectedly once or twice a
week for a few hours. This does not seem to result in much disruption, as most homes
now have large water tanks on their roofs, also obtained from relief funds following
Hurricane Isidore in 2002. These tanks are filled by the municipal water supply and
provide water via gravity when the water system is not functioning.
There is little obvious socio-economic stratification in Los Flamencos. While the
houses are, overall, simpler and smaller than in Tizimin, all have refrigerators and
televisions, and most even have basic cable which offers five channels. Microwaves and
DVD players were the popular new purchases at the time of research, with the majority of
homes I visited having both. Young people are increasingly obtaining cellular phones,
which they primarily use for inexpensive text messaging. Cell phone calls are
Due to the town's small size, it is possible to walk cross-town in any direction
within 15 minutes. The streets are largely devoid of cars as few people have them.
Bicycles are common, and regularly fill up the four car parking lot in front of the fishing
cooperative office, a sure sign that a meeting is in progress. Motorbikes, a sign of wealth,
are becoming more common, although few families own one.
The standard of living appears to be fair and comfortable among community
members. Most of the indicators of wealth seem to be acquired in the short time after the
lobster season opens when money seems abundant. At this time, major purchases are
made, such as microwaves and cell phones. Finances seem much tighter during the closed
season, when occupational options are severely curtailed.
One family that I knew was unable to obtain a bank loan prior to the beginning of
lobster season. They had run out of money, and the father was unable to buy food to feed
his wife and two children. The man's sister-in-law whispered their predicament to me,
and I noticed that the family was invited to have dinner at relatives' homes. I sponsored a
torta (sandwich) party one night, and invited the family. The ulterior motive of assisting
the family was never openly addressed, but kin relations in the community exist and form
a sort of moral economy, which prevented families from going hungry or falling into
poverty (Scott 1976). The lack of an obvious stratification of wealth among community
members, however, did not seem to restrict upward mobility or the display of signs of
wealth, such as among the few people who own a car.
When the lobster season opened, the first thing this previously broke father,
mentioned above, did, was to buy a cellular phone for his son. While I hope that the man
is able to save money this year to last his family through the cash-poor closed season, I
recognized how important it was to him to provide his family with the material goods that
other families have. In a sense, the gift replaced the shame the man surely felt at not
being able to feed his family on his own.
An Outline of Fishing Economies in the Yucatan
The northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico, is dotted with fishing
communities that harvest the abundant resources of the Gulf of Mexico. Until the recent
emergence of lobstering, however, most of the fishing villages were largely domestic
producers, with a small part of their catch being sold in regional markets. Before the
emergence of lobstering, fishermen focused on line-fishing for grouper and shark,
bamboo polejimbas for catching octopus, and using nets for other species such as pico
rojo (ballyhoo), the bait used for line fishing. Except for sharks, these target species are
still harvested for sale to the regional market. In fact, some older fishermen continue to
make nets by hand, for sale to other fishermen.
In the past, sea cucumbers, conch, and other mollusks were also economically
important to the fishery. Overfishing and ecological damage from hurricanes, however,
have decimated the populations of these species. While local home consumption of
various mollusk species remains common, all species of conch and sea cucumber are now
protected from commercial exploitation by federal regulations.
Currently, the Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) has the highest value, by
weight, of all extracted marine resources in the area. Lobster is followed by octopus
(Octopus maya) and red grouper (Epinephelus morio) in both value and importance to the
Only men fish for the primary species in Los Flamencos, though women are
beginning to become involved in the production facet of the marine economy. A
woman's fishing cooperative has recently formed with 13 members, however, these
women fish exclusively for the bait used to capture octopus. During fieldwork, only one
woman was encountered harvesting lobster. Twice widowed with four children to feed,
she sells whatever she can catch to local restaurants or the black market. As she fishes
alone, she is restricted to free-diving (without compressed air) in nearby waters, so her
harvests remain small.
Capital and Technology
The fishing boats (lanchas) in Los Flamencos are 25 feet long, made of fiberglass,
and have an outboard motor (Figure 3-1). Of the roughly 120 cooperative members, 60
boats are owned. Many captains have constructed homemade tops for sun protection.
These are made from locally obtained materials. One boat captain recycled a tarp-like
banner from the last political election, proudly supporting the PAN party. Each boat also
has a large cooler for ice, which occupies the center of the boat. Regardless of target
species, this is the basic set-up for open-water fishing. Other equipment is specific to
particular target species, requiring a full-time and diversified fisherman to invest in
significant capital to remain productive year-round.
The strategies for harvesting each of the three primary target species (spiny lobster,
octopus, and red grouper) differ in technological inputs. While most fishermen focus on
only one species, some target all three, depending on the season. The majority of
fishermen focus on diving for lobster, which usually includes spearfishing (grouper and
hogfish) at the end of each dive. Harvesting lobster has the most recent history of all
harvested species. A small minority of lobster fishermen also fish for grouper with long-
lines during the closed lobster season. Another group of fishermen engages principally in
the capture of octopus. Some fishermen are now leaving their chosen fishery during the
Figure 3-1. Fishermen prepare their fiberglass fishing boat (lancha) for the opening of the
lobster season. Each lancha is equipped with a center ice box for the
preservation of a day's harvest. The air hose (manguera) is coiled in the bow
of the boat. A fisherman is attaching the regulator, used for breathing, to the
air hose. Photo by A. Lasseter (July 2005).
summer tourist season to work as lancheros, shuttling Mexican tourists to the nearby
beach, or on flamingo tours.
Fishing for octopus is the least technologically intensive of the principal harvested
species. Octopus, worth roughly $1.60 per kilogram, whole, is captured with ajimba. A
jimba consists of two bamboo poles, each extended from the bow and stern of the boat
from which lines rigged with bait are attached. The bait, primarily horseshoe crab, and
some true crab species, is often caught by women in the community, as mentioned above.
Of all the targeted species in Los Flamencos, the capture of octopus has the longest
history. The fishermen rely on the movement of the waves to rock the boat and move the
bait, fooling the octopus into accepting it. This technique of fishing is dependent on the
water movement that comes with the rougher seas of the fall months. Calm seas generally
mean poor octopus harvests.
Grouper, principally red grouper, is caught on long-lines (palangre). Other species,
including small sharks (caz6n) and yellow-tailed snapper (canane) are also captured on
the palangre. While the technique of fishing with a long-line is not nearly as
technologically intensive as lobstering, the fishing grounds are the farthest from shore of
all the targeted species, necessitating long fishing days and a greater dependence on fossil
fuels. All fishing boats are motorized; I observed no sailboats in all of Los Flamencos.
Compared to octopus and grouper fishing, the technological investments for the
capture of lobster remain the highest of these targeted species. These investments are
relative, however, and lobstering is still comparatively small in scale and heavily
dependent on human labor.
Unlike grouper and octopus fishing, lobster diving requires an air compressor,
hose, regulator, mask and fins. This system, known as "hookah" in the U.S., is less
expensive but more dangerous than SCUBA. SCUBA would require the additional
investment in tanks, and more expensive air compressors than the ones currently used in
Los Flamencos. The onboard use of inexpensive air compressors, however, place divers
at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from the boat motor's exhaust fumes. Many
captains neglect to buy the $40US filter for the air compressor, or fail to regularly change
the cotton and carbon filling.
The use of compressed air allows the divers to reach greater depths and to dive for
longer than free diving alone. Lobsters are not found in abundance suitable to commercial
harvesting in shallower waters. At the beginning of the lobster season, divers' depths
average 10 meters. The divers move into deeper waters as the season wears on and
lobsters become more scarce in the shallower waters. Some divers reported that they dive
to over 20 meters, searching for lobsters, although they acknowledged this as dangerous
behavior. Because lobsters are more abundant at greater depths in this region, prior to the
introduction of air compressors for diving in the 1970's, lobsters were not exploited in
the area as a commercial resource.
Although boat owners once relied on intuition and landmarks from shore to find
productive fishing sites, nearly all captains now use a GPS device to relocate successful
spots. Diving also requires a glove and gancho, a hook attached to a metal rod with which
the divers pull out the lobsters from their hiding places.
Divers also spearfish while lobstering. While this practice violates Mexican federal
regulations (spearfishing is not permitted when the hunter is relying on compressed air),
the cooperative accepts, and the regional distributor purchases, speared fish. The practice
is, therefore, ubiquitous. Many fishermen do not sell their speared catch at all, reserving it
for home consumption. When speared fish is sold, it is worth roughly $1.60 per kilogram
per whole fish. A crew may spear five to ten kilograms of fish a day, which does not add
much to the day's overall wage. Other crews focus on spearing fish rather than lobstering,
and may harvest 40-60 kilograms per day. Thus, a crew's wage, which must be divided,
may total roughly $70-90.
Use of GPS
Nearly all crews now use GPS devices to find lobsters. Lobsters aggregate in
cracks and caves in the ocean substrate. These cracks and caves are random, and
interspersed with wide spaces of sandy bottom covered in a thick layer of algae (Figure
3-2). Such rocky structures may cover a small area or extend along as a long crack in the
substrate. The fishermen spread out along the coast where it is only possible to see the
haze of shore. Using only natural navigational clues such as triangulation makes finding
the cracks and caves very difficult. The advantages of allowing crews to mark and return
to caves where lobsters were found are obvious.
While these repeated returns to cracks and caves that have previously yielded lobsters
have increased fishermen's harvests, many fishermen have voiced concerns about their
use. Only one fisherman interviewed in the study sample claimed he does not use, and is
against the use of GPS devices. He felt that reliance on the devices was undermining
fishermen's awareness of environmental information. Several fishermen reported that the
previous season was their first time using a GPS device. These fishermen acknowledged
that utilizing GPS was beneficial to them personally, but would lead to over harvesting.
The coordinates of successful spots are written in small notebooks and are closely
guarded. The captain and boat owner owns the GPS device and always keeps the
coordinate notebook. While fishermen may change boats, they may not take the
coordinates they may have found with them. The notebook and coordinates remain with
Figure 3-2. Underwater photos of spiny lobster habitat. (A) Divers seek out cracks in the
substrate as seen here, which are ideal hiding places for spiny lobsters. The
presence of reef fish signals such structures. (B) Lobsters usually aggregate in
groups within the caves and cracks. Photos by A. Lasseter (July 2005).
A Detailed Look at Lobstering in Los Flamencos
For roughly four months before the beginning of lobster season there is little
activity on the docks. Only 12-15 fishermen harvest grouper by long-lines during this
time. Fishermen reported that because the price of grouper has dropped and fuel costs
have increased, it is difficult to make grouper fishing worthwhile.
.. ....... .. ,* .
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Boat owners and crewmembers have different responsibilities in preparing for the
opening of the season. Boat owners are responsible for the boat and diving equipment.
Wetsuits, fins, and masks are the responsibility of the individual diver. Air compressors
are painted and parts replaced before the season starts. During the last few weeks of the
closed season, many fishermen take out loans to cover their expenses before the opening
of lobster season.
The dock and malecon are crowded with fishermen on the day before the season opens.
The freshly painted compressors are loaded on the boats, secured and tested (Figure 3-3).
Carpentry skills are shared as each boat constructs a stable place to secure the heavy air
compressor. A few crews are still scrubbing their boat's bottoms with muriatic acid, a
task most others completed the week before. Tools, equipment and advice are shared
readily, and everyone seems anxious and excited.
The typical lobstering crew is made up of three individuals: two divers and a helper
(manguerero). Typically, one of the divers is also the owner of the boat. The helper is
often a son or nephew of one of the divers, or a newcomer to the community who is
learning to lobster. He is in charge of turning on and off the air compressor, and for
feeding the air hose (manguera) to the diver. Profits from a day's trip are divided evenly
into 3 1/2 parts: one part goes to the boat, one part to each of the two divers, and the
remaining half part goes to the helper. The boat owner must purchase oil and fuel and
maintain the boat with the designated share. Numerous variations exist on this model,
such as two brothers co-owning their boat, or two divers who do not use a helper.
Figure 3-3. Each crew's compressor is uniquely painted. Stripes, streaks, or polka dots of
any color combination of available paint are more common than those
compressors painted a solid color. The loading of the compressor onto the
lancha is a communal activity. Compressors are loaded the day before the
season opens. Photo by A. Lasseter (June 2005).
Most fishermen leave from port around 7 a.m., and return between 3 and 6 p.m., the
exception being opening day, when everyone departs at 6 am. Because the lobsters are
caught by sight, daylight is necessary and restricts an earlier departure.
With the beginning of lobster season, several food stalls open in the early morning,
selling tortas to those fishermen whose wives did not prepare their lunch. The most
popular of these stalls is run by a fisherman who claims there will be no future in
lobsters, so he is investing his money now in a restaurant. His morning torta shop
becomes a taqueria (taco shop) in the evenings. He still fishes occasionally, and I saw
him one day, when the crew I was fishing with visited his crew's boat. He was proudly
showing off an enormous cherna grouper he had just speared.
The lobster grounds are roughly 45 minutes to an hour from the port. When the
crew reaches the selected dive site, one diver prepares to descend. The two divers will
dive in turns of between 1 V2 to 3 hours each. Three turns occur each day, with the divers
alternating on diving first. On the first day, then, one diver will dive twice and the next
day, when he occupies the middle slot, only once.
Some divers use wetsuits. While the surface water of the Gulf is warm, a
thermocline exists, and the water on the bottom is much colder (24oC). The hose
(manguera) from the compressor has a regulator attached, which reduces the compressed
air to human breathing pressure. The hose is tied to a weight belt. The diver puts on the
weight belt and rests the hose over his shoulder so the regulator is waiting in front of his
mouth. A mask and fins comprise the rest of the dive gear. Additionally, the diver carries
a gancho, a spear, a metal rod with a bluntly pointed tip, and a spear gun. The diver wears
a special glove (guante) for picking up the spiny lobsters.
The diver, seated on the side of the boat, waits for the captain to tell him when to
jump in. The captain steers the boat according to the coordinates he has programmed into
the GPS, signaling to the diver when they are directly over the recorded spot. Once the
diver is in the water, it is the manguerero's job to feed out the hose. The manguerero
must also remember to start the air compressor when the tank gets low, and to shut it off
again when full.
After the diver descends to the marked cave, he will either ascend with a lobster
harvest if the spot was fruitful, or request that the captain move the boat. The diver does
this by tugging on the hose he is breathing from. The captain then secures the hose
(around his leg or by sitting on it) and begins moving the boat, towing the diver along the
bottom. The diver tugs on the hose again when he has found a cave to investigate.
Most of the time, the first diver of the day will begin by hunting for an octopus.
The first month of the lobster season occurs during the last month of the closed season for
octopus, so this octopus will not be sold. It will usually be consumed at home or used for
hunting the following day. Once an octopus is found and caught, it is impaled on a spear.
If a lobster moves deep inside a cave where a fisherman is unable to reach it, he will
thrust the spear with the octopus inside the cave and shake it around. This will scare the
lobster out of its hiding place. All fishermen recognized that lobsters are scared of
octopus, and reported using an octopus in this way.
Once a cave or crevice is found containing lobsters, the diver will catch them one
by one by sliding the gancho, with the hook facing upward toward the lobster's body,
under the animal, hooking it on the carapace and slowly pulling the animal out.After
pulling a lobster out of its cave, the diver grasps the anterior side of the animal and kills it
by impaling it on a spear. Owing to the sharp spines that cover the body of the lobster, he
always does this with the hand protected by the guante. Up to 20 lobsters may be stacked
in this way on the rod. The advantage of the rod is that the diver is able to remain on the
bottom, signaling to the captain to move the boat in search of new caves, and to carry his
catch with him, without having to surface.
If the diver finds a large number of lobsters aggregating in a single cave, as may
occur early in the season, he may choose to gather them together by their antennas after
killing them, and ascend. After delivering the lobsters to the boat, he will continue his
The divers usually reserve spearfishing for the end of their dive, so as not to
damage the fish by being dragged through the water. Hogfish and different species of
grouper are the most commonly speared fish species. Other octopus will also be caught as
The manguerero is also responsible for "opening" the lobsters. Opening the lobsters
refers to separating the tail from the carapace. In Los Flamencos, as is true among all the
artisanal lobstering communities along the Yucatan coast, only lobster tails are sold.
Some communities in Quintana Roo harvest live lobsters. Live lobsters generate a higher
price by weight than tails alone, but require more preservation in the form of filtered
seawater and tanks. When the manguerero has some time between compressor duties and
feeding the line to the diver, he will open the lobsters. The carapaces will be stacked in a
corner of the bottom of the boat, and the tails will be placed on ice in the cooler (Figure
The carapaces are never dumped overboard where lobsters are caught. When the
boat approaches the mainland on the return trip, the carapaces are dumped overboard. All
but one fisherman, when asked for an explanation for this practice, reported that the
lobsters get scared away and don't return to areas where there are carapaces. I was told
that the presence of lobster carapaces is a sign of mortal danger to a lobster. One
fisherman offered a different answer and reported that the carapaces would attract
groupers and octopus, the top two predators of lobster in this area.
Figure 3-4. Carapaces separated from the lobsters' tails remain in the bottom of the boat
until the crew approaches shore, when they are thrown overboard. On the left
are the empty carapaces. On the right are the lobsters waiting to be "opened."
Photo by A. Lasseter (July 2005).
After returning to the docks, the lobster tails are unloaded for delivery to the
cooperative. Only now are lobsters measured to ascertain legal size status. Undersized
lobsters, octopus (during the month of July) and any fish designated for home
consumption remain on the boat and are retrieved later. The rest of the catch is carried to
the waterfront reception area to be weighed, recorded and frozen. General boat cleaning
duties are also carried out, usually by the manguerero.
The cooperative reception area contains a large garage opening for the delivery
truck, which regularly brings shaved ice from the ice factory for the fishermen. The
fishermen pay for ice through the sale of their catch: each kilogram of catch is nominally
reduced in price to cover the cost of ice. This price is part of the difference between what
the cooperative pays the members, and what it sells their harvests for to the regional
distributor. The normal price of one-half of a peso (5 cents) per kilogram of a fishermen's
catch goes to the price of ice. Because a crew pays for the ice out of what they produce,
they do not pay for the ice used on a bad day where little was caught. Behind the ice truck
is the reception area, with a desk for the recording of lobster weights, a large and small
scale, and two tables for cleaning and measuring the lobster tails.
One fisherman brings in the total product from his crew. Once the tails and fish are
weighed, the fisherman is given a receipt for the total catch. The crew may then collect
the money from the nearby cooperative office later that evening and the captain will
divide the parts for each crewmember according to the agreed on arrangement.
The lobster tails are stored in a walk-in cooler, on ice water mixed with salt, until
the next trip to the regional fish buyer in Merida, approximately four hours away. During
the first month of the season, the cooperative will send the truck to Merida roughly every
Diving on compressed air presents specific hazards. Many of the boat owners do
not buy filters for their compressors. This poses the potential problem of carbon
monoxide from the outboard motor entering the air tank and poisoning the diver. As the
boat motors are usually running while the compressor is filling the tank, the risk of
carbon monoxide contamination is high. Because the partial pressure of a compressed gas
such as carbon monoxide increases at depth, the divers' risk of injury increases. Extended
bottom times and failure to ascend slowly, thereby allowing for decompression, increases
the risk of decompression sickness. Other risk factors for decompression sickness include
dehydration, alcohol consumption, fatigue, and smoking (Germonpre et al. 1998).
All divers interviewed possessed knowledge of safe diving practices to avoid
decompression sickness and were aware of the behaviors they needed to take to avoid it.
Nevertheless, only seven divers in the sample reported always doing decompression stops
before surfacing and only 12 expressed taking some care in ascending. Fourteen divers
(38%) interviewed reported taking no care when ascending and simply rise to the surface
when they are ready. An additional four fishermen in the sample do not currently dive;
they are either in training or have ceased diving. Given that all fishermen interviewed
reported diving between 3 and 6 hours a day (and were observed diving between 1 V2 and
5 hours a day) to depths of up to 15 meters, the incidence of decompression sickness may
be predicted as high. Research has shown that long bottom times at depth without taking
the time for slow ascents are the three primary risk factors for decompression sickness
(Germonpre et al. 1998).
Many divers laughed at how many times they have been rushed to the
decompression chamber after returning to port. The nearest hyperbaric chamber is
roughly an hour's drive away. In the 2004-2005 dive season alone, one in four members
of the fishermen's cooperative were sent to the decompression chamber with symptoms
of the "bends" (decompression sickness). Several of these were sent to the decompression
chamber more than once. Luckily, none suffered permanent physical damage, likely
owing to the relative proximity of a hyperbaric chamber. Among fishermen who spend
many months out to sea, such immediate care is unavailable, resulting in a higher
incidence of death or permanent paralysis (Bernard 1967). Membership in the
cooperative requires that members pay for subsidized health insurance that covers trips to
the hyperbaric chamber. The cooperative also pays part of the cost that is uncovered by
the insurance, with the government covering the rest.
Cooperative Formation and Government Involvement
Prior to the 1970s, the limited marine resource economy of Mexico targeted
domestic, local, and, occasionally, regional production. This state of affairs was due
largely to a lack of infrastructure. Refrigeration to preserve catches, and dependable
transportation to urban markets simply did not exist. During the 1970s and 1980s, the
Mexican government began a series of agricultural distributive reforms aimed at aiding
the rural poor (Fox 1993). As part of this process, the government encouraged the
formation of community fishing cooperatives (Poggie 1980). The government was
involved in both the formation of cooperatives as well as aiding in the construction of
facilities for the preservation and processing of marine resource production (U.S. Library
of Congress 1997).
In some areas, fishing communities had already taken steps to organize themselves
and manage their resources. One example of such "bottom-up" organization (discussed in
chapter 6) is found among the lobster fishermen of Punta Allen, in the state of Quintana
Roo. There, the fishermen have instituted a system of local management consisting of
private marine fishing zones within which individual fishermen are allowed to catch
lobsters. In time, no further fishermen were allowed to enter the fishery, and the private
fishing zones are now transferred via inheritance (Cochran 1997).
This example of local organization and management, however, seems to be the
exception rather than the norm in Mexico, and most communities are effectively open
access. The prevalence of open access regimes could be due to any of a number of
factors. It has been suggested that the need for local management and organization may
not exist when pressure on a resource is low, as has been the case in much of Mexico, at
least until recently. The fishermen of Punta Allen were already harvesting lobsters for
commercial export prior to the initiation of cooperatives in the rest of the country. This
could be due in part to their proximity to the lobster fisheries of Belize, where private
lobster zones and fishing cooperatives preceded those of Punta Allen (King 1997,
Sutherland 1986). In other areas, where the infrastructure and organization for
commercial export did not exist, production would have been lower as it was limited to
local or regional distribution. Marine resources are very fragile, rendering preservation
necessary for commercial exports.
When the government initiated cooperative formation in Mexico, such programs
were not matched by species regulations. In fact, no fisheries were regulated before 1994,
although local management existed in various forms, as mentioned above. This lack of
regulation was based primarily on the government's emphasis on increasing yields, not
limiting harvests (Hernandez and Kempton 2003). Cooperatives, not individual
fishermen, were granted a number of government permits and capture of the various
species was limited to the permit holders within the cooperative. In other words, to
capture particular species, a fisherman was supposed to have a permit and be a member
of the respective cooperative. The permits were not valid outside of the institution of the
While the cooperatives were created as independent institutions, they are obligated
to report catch totals to the federal state. Additionally, they are aided financially by the
state. The political ties of various cooperatives to particular political entities also confer
financial advantages. These associations will become important in the case of the Los
In the case of the Caribbean spiny lobster, the cooperatives along the northern
Yucatan coast originated around 1970, when the fishermen of Los Flamencos organized
with 27 starting members (socios). In 1974, the first government spiny lobster concession
was granted for a term of 20 years. Additional permits could not be granted within this
time, and all permits were restricted to fishermen within the cooperative.
The termination of the first concession in 1994 coincided with the first
governmental regulations concerning catch controls, as well as the beginning of the new
concession. These new catch controls were instituted for several fisheries throughout
Mexico in the form of NOM-006-PESC-1993 (Norma Oficial Mexicana), the first such
legal specification of marine species extraction. The catch controls varied according to
In the spiny lobster fishery, these new controls consisted of a minimum size limit
and season closure for the entire fishery. Gear specifications exist but pertain to trap use,
which is not utilized among the artisanal lobstermen of the north Yucatan coast, so is not
addressed here. (Commercial lobster fleets based out of Progreso target spiny lobsters in
the deeper waters of the gulf, and do use traps. One fisherman in Los Flamencos
complained to me that the Progreso lobstermen are partly to blame for locally decreasing
lobster harvests.) The new regulation continues to grant extraction rights only to
cooperatives and their members. The regulations further specify that recreational lobster
harvesting is not permissible in Mexico, as is popular in Florida. Recreational fishing in
Mexico is limited to line fishing for sport fish.
A Brief Comparison of Federal Lobster Regulations: Mexico and Florida
There are two primary restrictions governing the harvest of spiny lobster in
Mexico: a closed season and a minimum catch size. A closed season (veda) prohibits the
harvest of spiny lobsters in Mexican waters from March 1 until June 30 each year. This
season coincides with the main spawning season of the species. There is also a minimum
catch size set at a length of 13.5 cm for the tail of an individual. While these regulations
were enacted in 1994, enforcement remains virtually nonexistent.
The closed season and minimum size restrictions closely approximate similar
regulations in Florida, which has the most profitable spiny lobster fishery in the U.S.
Florida regulations specify that imported lobsters must also conform to domestic size
restrictions. This is the strongest factor in the designation of Mexico's minimum size for
spiny lobsters, as much of Mexico's harvest is exported to the U.S. market. The state of
Florida, however, has numerous regulations on the spiny lobster fishery that do not exist
in Mexico (Table 3-1).
In neither location does a maximum size limit exist. Because lobster fecundity
increases as size increases, prohibiting the harvest of large individuals could be a
valuable management tool. Fishermen would surely resist such a regulation, as lobster
value is determined by weight. Large individuals bring a very high price.
In Mexico, only members of a cooperative have the right to harvest lobster. Florida,
however, grants recreational access to the lobster fishery. While recreational fishing
regulations in Mexico are aimed specifically at a foreign tourist industry, in Florida, the
Table 3-1. Comparison of the regulations governing the harvest of Panulirus argus in
Mexico and Florida. (Regulations are presented for Florida and not the U.S.,
thus comparing regulations for the same species.) Included here are those
regulations that are relevant for comparison to Mexican lobster divers.
Closed Season: March 1 June 31* April 1 August 5 (excluding recreational
No recreational extraction of lobsters Recreational permits, including
Minimum Size: 13.5cm (5.3 inches) Minimum Size: carapace 3" or tail of 5
No maximum size limit No maximum size limit
Artificial habitat may be constructed to Prohibited to take lobsters from ANY
attract lobsters artificial habitat
Lobsters may be killed underwater Lobsters may NOT be killed underwater
Lobsters may NOT be "opened" at sea;
Lobsters "opened" while at sea whole lobster must return to shore with
carapace and tail intact.
Effort limit of 250 lobsters per day per
No effort limit for divers vessel, regardless of number of licensed
No more permits granted since 1994 (20 No more commercial permits granted from
year concession) Concessions granted to Jan.1 2005 July 1 2010
coop with permits for 20 years
No legal support for regulations; Strict enforcement including aerial support
guidelines only. No enforcement.
recreational regulations impact use by local residents. Recreational access in Florida
includes a "mini-season" before the official commercial season opens. For two days at
the end of July, recreational divers who have purchased a license from the state may
catch up to six spiny lobsters of legal size, per day.
In Mexico, there are no maximum catch limits on spiny lobsters. Among the rural
lobster communities on the northern Yucatan coast, it is a virtual open access resource. In
Florida, however, commercial divers may take no more than 250 individual spiny lobsters
per boat, per day, regardless of how many licensed divers are working on a single boat.
Another difference between the Florida and Mexican regulations lies in the use of
artificial habitat. In Florida, it is forbidden to harvest any lobster found within or nearby
any form of artificially created habitat. In Mexico, some fishing communities harvest
lobsters entirely from constructed lobster habitat (casitas cubanas), such as in Punta
Allen (Cochran 1997). Various lobstering communities along the northern Yucatan coast
have experimented with the use of artificial habitats for attracting lobsters. The topic of
artificial habitats will be addressed in the following chapter on species ecology.
Nevertheless, the important distinction is in the complete prohibition of using artificial
habitats in Florida, while in Mexico, such use remains under experimentation.
The government of Mexico restricts and regulates the capture of many marine
resources, including lobster, octopus and grouper, the three main target species of the
fishermen of Los Flamencos and the entire Yucatan state coast. Closed seasons now exist
for each of the three species, with 2005 being the first year for the implementation of a
one-month closed season for grouper fishing. Additionally, both grouper and lobster
share a minimum catch size. While the administration of federal regulations is a step in
the right direction for the management of such resources, they remain top-down only
directives. Without proper enforcement and support at the local level, such regulations
are virtually ineffective. Additionally, such top-down regulations often fail to consider
variations and change within local ecosystems.
Everyone in Los Flamencos is aware of the closed season and minimum size
regulations, whether or not they harvest lobsters. Despite this awareness, poaching during
the closed season, and the taking of undersized lobsters is common. Even within the
cooperative, standard practice contradicts federal regulations. For example, throughout
Mexico, spear fishing is prohibited while relying on an artificial air source. Nevertheless,
carrying a spear gun is routine for all lobster fishermen, and the cooperative buys all
speared fish of commercial species.
In Florida, lobsters must be measured where they are found in the ocean and their
bodies kept intact until brought to shore. In Mexico, there is no formal restriction on the
killing of lobsters while underwater or out at sea. It is standard practice among the
fishermen of Los Flamencos to kill the lobsters underwater and then "open" (abrir) them
on the boat. To "open" a lobster refers to cutting the carapace away from the abdomen,
thereby separating the head and tail (Figure 3-5).
Divers in Florida are required to carry a measurement tool with them at all times
when in the water. Mexican divers are unencumbered with such a regulation. While
fishermen in Mexico should determine the legal size status of a lobster where it is found,
the reality is that the lobsters are killed underwater without adequate measurement. Some
fishermen claim that they are able to select only lobsters of legal size, and feel certain
that they can make this determination underwater. Other fishermen concede that they take
undersize lobsters because if they do not, the next diver surely will.
It is noteworthy that, due to an optical phenomenon with the use of a mask
underwater, everything is magnified by 25%. This may result in the harvest of undersize
lobsters that appeared to be of legal size while underwater.
Only after the lobsters are killed and the carapaces removed do the divers of Los
Flamencos measure the lobster tails to determine those of legal size status, and thus those
that may be sold to the cooperative. This practice obviously precludes the safe release of
undersized lobsters. Small lobsters are not purchased by the cooperative, as the
Figure 3-5. "Opening" a lobster is the process of separating the carapace (the head) from
the meat-filled abdomen. Usually, this duty belongs to the manguerero, who
wears a glove for protection from the lobster's spin covered body. Fishermen
complain that an irritating acid is released from the animal's body fluids,
which also necessitates the use of a glove when opening the lobsters. Photos
by A. Lasseter (July 2005).
distributor is unable to purchase them for export. Nevertheless, the cooperative does not
penalize fishermen for submitting undersized lobsters. The undersize lobsters are
returned to the fisherman, who is left to sell the undersized individuals to local
restaurants or to consume them at home. Sometimes, the worker in the production facility
who is in charge of measuring the lobsters will keep the undersize ones for his own
consumption. Workers in the production facility are fishermen serving two year elected
terms for the cooperative. They are unable to fish regularly while serving as a cooperative
official, and for this reason, are often given fish or lobster by other fishermen.
The harvest and sale of undersized lobsters is illegal in Mexico. Nevertheless,
restrictions are often more lax in Mexico than in the U.S. It is fairly common and simple
to order fresh lobster in restaurants out of season. Undersized tails are usually served.
Regional resorts will even advertise the opportunity to feast on "mini" lobster tails in
tourist publications (Figure 3-6).
Impacts of Harvesting Undersize Lobsters
While it is certain that Mexican lobster divers, at least occasionally, harvest undersized
lobsters, the impact of this practice remains unknown. There is no evidence as yet that the
reproductive capabilities for the population are impacted. As will be discussed further in
the next chapter concerning lobster ecology, large individuals are responsible for a
disproportionate amount of the fertilized eggs that make it to the planktonic mass. Intense
fishing pressure that eliminates all large individuals may, theoretically, have a greater
negative impact than the harvest of undersized lobsters.
It is possible that the capture of small lobsters may negatively impact the following
season's harvest, although this also has not been proven. Marine biologists know that
spiny lobsters undertake long benthic marches across the bottom of the Gulf (Herrnkind
Looking for the freshest sef arou L Cueva
del Pescador is the place for you Featunng all the
favorite catches direct from the sea, "the Cueva'can
satisfy the cravings of any seafood lover!
Ownec( and operated by fishermen, the staff at the
Cueva has extensive knowledge or the sea as well as
each of her jfoal-ng, jasures. A few of the house
speci Include jumb rimp, borled fanbbean
King esbLmini-ltobster a nd the fish filet. Each is
available fried, killed, sautled in garlic and butter, and
some are also available with curry or with a mushroomrn
sauce. A tasty opbotn For tht frisn filet is me Veracruz
style wrapped in foil and baked witn tomato. onion,
and pepper. Have a land-lover in the group? Have no
fear The Cueva also offers vorne outstanding options
"not from the sea'
A FavontE raopl -hour hangout for locals, the Cueva
offer a rn. p-ht-.r atirrosphere that only gets better
as vyiu lFip ofif your Sanddl- and put vour feet in the
sanJ The- cocktail; 3rer purotn. the (iquorsc are choice,
and the service i- nrompt so you will not go dry' Be
sure to try a pitcner cof Ganrilo'i ran ttus margantas to
ensuree yaiur party' fcIs no pain
For those wvF)O love io ri.;h ur mavbe wishing to reel in
their own dinners, trI a 6ishinc trip. 'Hook It ana Cook
It is the motto of Li Cuea del Pescador, and there is
no Better ending toc a avy spent fishing than having
your catch rransfoirrala into a delicious meal witn no
ivork involved ogr vaur part
For a festive nignt ann succulent seafood,.stop by La-
Cu1e0a del Pescador loc-ated across from Akumal Bay in
Plaza L hana I.
Figure 3-6. Advertisement from a Cancun tourist publication. The resort offers "mini-
lobster tails" (circled) as one of its house specialties. Undersized lobster tails
may not be sold for export, as it is illegal to import them to countries such as
the U.S. Rather, the "mini" tails find a ready market in the tourist resorts of
the Cancun area.
1985). Whether small lobsters that avoided harvest remain in the local area to be captured
later as larger individuals is, as yet, undetermined.
The federal regulations in place governing the size and season for lobster
harvesting are efforts at controlling extraction pressure. The regulations themselves may
be ineffective due to lack of enforcement at the government level, and lack of compliance
at the local level. Additionally, whether or not the controls are an effective means of
achieving the goal of sustainable future harvests may also be in question.
The Local Fishing Cooperative
The fishermen's cooperative serves as the intermediary between the fishermen and
the regional exporter in Merida, the state capital, roughly four hours away by ground
transport. The cooperative's socios deliver their harvest to the cooperative production
facility, where it is weighed and a receipt given in return. The cooperative pays the
fishermen less per kilogram for each species than it receives from the regional fish buyer
in Merida. These expenses go toward the cooperative's expenses, and a new budget is
presented by the cooperative each year.
The officers of the cooperative are elected every other November to serve a two-
year term. During this time, they are paid a year-round salary, as they are unable to fish
regularly. Positions include president, treasurer, secretary, head of enforcement, and
health director, in charge of the social security program (IMSS). Numerous stories abound
about corrupt officials, although the cooperative has taken steps to minimize this
problem. During my time in the community, the current cabinet of officials was
collecting evidence to charge a former treasurer with stealing. That particular individual
is one of the more successful fishermen. I observed that his always hefty daily lobster
catch was docked a large percentage every day as restitution to the cooperative. The
cooperative refrained from expelling the fisherman despite his egregious behavior,
deciding that it was better to recover some of the financial loss by allowing him to
continue harvesting lobsters.
It is the duty of the head of enforcement (Presidente de Vigilancia) to ensure that
members only sell their catch to the cooperative, and also to make sure that the federal
regulations are observed. The serving officer during my stay in the community found his
efforts thwarted at every turn. He received reports in the weeks leading up to the opening
of the season that fishermen were seen diving for lobsters. He would notify the
CONAPESCA authorities, but they would never arrive until the following day. The
authorities, with no resources for patrolling the waters, would walk to the end of the
docks, look around, and report that they had observed nothing. In their defense, there is
little to be done without the resources to conduct proper patrols.
The local official also complained to me that he knew the illegally harvested
lobsters ended up in both the local restaurants. Yet, he felt he could do nothing, especially
after acknowledging that the restaurant owners are kin to some of the socios. The owner
of the larger, waterfront restaurant, directly next door to the cooperative's production
facility, is the brother of two members of the cooperative, one of which is the current
officer in charge of social security. As the production facility workers clean and weigh
the lobster tails that are brought in, much lobster meat accumulates on the cleaning tables.
Someone will inevitably collect the good pieces of meat and send it next door in a large
bowl. The bowl returns in about half an hour, with a large bag of fresh totopos (tortilla
chips) and the lobster meat made into ceviche, a coastal specialty of seafood pickled in
lime juice and cilantro. In reciprocity, the owner of the restaurant frequently visits the
production facility where he picks out the fish he wishes to buy.
Los Flamencos had only one cooperative until 2003, at which time it split into two.
Fishermen reported that prior to the split, the cooperative had developed two internal
factions. Tensions ran high, leading to violence. As a result, even separate bars (cantinas)
now operate in the community, catering to the members of each cooperative and their
I was alternately told that the conflict centered on the rivalry between the
supporters of the PAN or PRI political parties of Mexico, or that it revolved around two
rival families in the community. These two explanations are likely related and
inseparable. From what I could piece together, one large, extended family had a sufficient
number of kin members and supporters to maintain possession of the elected positions of
the cooperative. This resulted in a conflict for control of the cooperative, and for access
to resources and power that control of the cooperative offered. Thus, the relationship
between the family rivalry and the political rivalry are connected when a political party
promises financial resources in exchange for allegiance.
All interviewed fishermen felt that the split was a positive solution to the conflict,
and nearly all felt that the causes of dispute were irreparable. Nevertheless, it was
difficult to get people to talk about the conflict that resulted in the division of the
cooperative. Perhaps, there is discomfort in discussing such a deep schism in the
community given that kin relations sometimes cross the dividing line of the cooperatives.
It is also possible that many in the community are not even sure of what actually
transpired. While people were extremely open and willing to talk about all other aspects
of the community and fishing, it became clear that I would need to spend more time in
the community to understand this conflict.
Despite the existence of separate cantinas, the division was most apparent among
the officers of the cooperatives, as opposed to the general fishermen. One time, at the
regional distributor's office in Merida, a representative from each cooperative was in the
waiting room of the wholesaler, waiting to be paid. They never acknowledged the other's
presence, although each chatted with the other representatives from neighboring
communities, who were also in the room.
At the time of the cooperative's division, an agreement was made that membership
would be capped at 225 members collectively between the two cooperatives. The original
cooperative still holds all of the government concessions as well as the majority of the
members: 127 to 98. This alternate cooperative must still file paperwork with the original
cooperative due to the government regulations concerning the permits in order to sell
lobsters for export. It is also the responsibility of the fishing cooperatives to report their
members' production yields of each species to the appropriate government agency,
CONAPESCA (Comisionado Nacional de Acuacultura y Pesca).
The original cooperative served as the host institution for this research, although
informal interviews and one lobster fishing trip were conducted with members of the new
cooperative. All data presented from interviews refers to respondents who are members
of the original, host cooperative.
Lobstering outside the Cooperative
Although legally it is necessary to belong to a cooperative in order to capture
lobsters, numerous "free" fishermen (libres) are active, both on their own boats and
working on the boats of cooperative members. In this way, there are many more than 225
fishermen of both cooperatives, working in Los Flamencos. The cooperatives will buy
lobsters from any fisherman, although non-members receive a lower price per kilogram.
Additionally, there are three local individuals who buy fish and lobster, including
undersized tails, from any fisherman. These individuals have their own trucks and sell
regionally, principally to restaurants. All fishermen in the community are aware of their
activities. The cooperative's stance toward these buyers varies: sometimes, cooperative
members blame these buyers for what they see as resource overexploitation by free
fishermen; at other times, cooperative members themselves will sell their catches if a
higher price is offered than at the cooperative. This, the opportunistic nature of the
fishery is reinforced.
The cooperative officially prohibits its members from selling their harvests
elsewhere. If a member is caught selling their harvest outside of the cooperative, they are
first given a warning. If caught a second time, they are fined by the cooperative. A third
offense brings termination of membership. There is a wait list for entrance to the
cooperative, and membership entails benefits such as access to the social security system.
Nevertheless, while the cooperative formally prohibits the outside sale of members'
harvests, the rules are sometimes changed. Occasionally, the regional buyer will lower
the purchase price, and the cooperative will allow members to sell their harvest
elsewhere. Prior to the beginning of the lobster season, the price for grouper was lowered,
and the cooperative stopped buying it completely. It was not economical for the
cooperative to make trips to the distributor for the price he was offering. The few
fishermen that continued to work sold all of their harvest to the local black market
buyers. Therefore, while some fishermen begrudge the black market buyers, the buyers
offer a consistent venue for fishermen to sell their harvests to the regional market.
Regional Level: Fish Exporter
With the introduction of lobster diving and the increase in capital investments that
it entails, a system much like debt peonage has formed between the fishermen and the
regional fish buyer (Dore 2003, Knight 1986). Once thought of as a coercive
arrangement, debt peonage was later understood as a basically voluntary, although
exploitive, system that came about as rural communities began to produce for a capitalist
market (Knight 1986). A system of debt peonage is thus evidenced in the relationship
between the peon, who is dependent on the landlord for access to consumer goods and
production capital, and the landlord, who controls the price paid for what the peon
In Los Flamencos, the regional buyer (the landlord) owns both of the buildings
where the cooperative's office and production facility are located, as well as the ice
factory. The cooperative is contractually obligated to sell all lobster produced to this one
buyer, representing a form of monopsony. Additionally, it is the cooperative's financial
responsibility to deliver the product to the buyer's facility in Merida, a four-hour drive
The buyer, in turn, loans the capital needed for new boats and repairs to the
fishermen (the peons). Given the technological intensity of lobster diving, these expenses
can be considerable and numerous fishermen owe huge sums, effectively ending any
hope for dissolving the relationship. This same buyer has similar arrangements with the
other cooperatives of the eastern federation, and thus has virtual economic control over
most of the northern Yucatan coast's lobster industry.
The buyer also dictates the price paid to the cooperative for lobster, and it is on this
point that the fishermen feel most exploited, and the comparison to debt peonage is most
evident. Cooperative meetings often focus on members' frustrations at being committed
to a single exporter. They are well aware that their lobsters would bring a higher price if
sold to another buyer in Cancun.
Through this relationship of obligation, the fish buyer is able to control the
community of fishermen. The cooperative and its fishermen have little recourse when the
price of lobster and fish drops. The buyer is the link between the local fishermen and the
global market and he has managed to secure his position as the sole buyer for several
communities. He is a very successful businessman, adept at making a profit.
One of the cooperative officers told me (with dripping sarcasm), that the Merida
buyer is a really smart man. The buyer knows how to lower the price at just the right
time, and charge the fishermen more for boats and motors, he told me. The buyer also
sends end-of-the-year turkeys to the cooperative, to distribute to all members as a kind of
bonus. This officer told me that he knew who really paid for the turkeys. The fishermen
did. Those were very expensive turkeys, he said.
The fishermen, aware of their exploited position with the regional buyer, are
collectively attempting to change the situation. They are now requiring that fishermen
pay a set amount toward their debt, everyday, although this has not been enforced by the
cooperative treasurer. The cooperative officials, along with the officials of the other
neighboring cooperatives of the federation (but neglecting the inclusion of the secondary
community cooperative of Los Flamencos) have negotiated a grant from the government,
matched by a bank loan, to build their own production facility. The cooperative's
representative to the federation told me that the cooperative would still be obligated to
sell 50% of their catch to the distributor in Merida for some time to come, but he hoped
that within a year or two, the cooperative would be able to begin exporting their own
lobsters. He also acknowledged a pessimistic future of lobstering, but had hopes that the
community would be able to begin shrimp or tilapia farming. Such a change would be
easier, he felt, if the cooperative owned their own production facility.
While the current situation of the Los Flamencos fishermen appears to be one of
debt peonage, a successful end of their obligations to an exploitative landlord would
represent the community's ability to cooperate. Such empowerment will hopefully see the
community uniting around their resources, instead of viewing them as supplying
The fishermen of Los Flamencos harvest spiny lobster principally for export to the
global market. Lobster's high value and status as a luxury commodity mark its complete
integration into the global capitalist system. Therefore, capitalist concepts such as supply
and demand, economic rationality, maximization, and competition, will be applied to the
local context of resource exploitation in the analysis to follow.
The links to agents at both the regional and global level are necessary to consider
when developing an explanation of resource use and perceptions. The local fishermen
interact with non-local actors through the cooperative, of which they are members. Their
attitudes toward and interaction with this organization are important.
The cooperative did not originate from a community initiative. Actors outside of
the community designed the organization to serve as the framework for the new
production of an export commodity. Now fractioned in two, the community has a
difficult time identifying common interests. As Fox (1993) puts it, "collective action by
social actors requires two minimal conditions: the perception of shared interests or
identities and the opportunity to act as a group." The cooperative provides the
opportunity to act as a group. Unfortunately, the fishermen struggle to identify shared
The local situation appears to be one of intense competition. The cooperative is
viewed as a means of profit, rather than a way of uniting the community around a
common shared resource. Additionally, the stability of access to the resource is not
secure. There are far more fishermen than lobster permits, and the number of new
fishermen, although not cooperative members, increases each year. The open access
nature of the resource, where newcomers to the community are able to harvest from the
fishery with relative ease, perpetuates the perception of instability concerning the future
of the resource.
The next chapters focus on specific facets of the lobster economy, beginning with a
discussion of lobster ecology. Then, the perceptions of the lobstermen concerning the
stability and future access to their lobster resources are addressed. This analysis of the
fishermen's perceptions aims to relate the predominating open access situation to the
perceptions of the resource users themselves. Finally, a two-part discussion where (1)
spiny lobsters are analyzed as a constructed commodity of high value, and (2) the concept
of management of this commodity is discussed as it applies to the perceptions of the local
The particulars of a local ecosystem necessitate different strategies of resource
exploitation. The method of and technology for harvesting spiny lobsters among the
artisanal fishing communities of the north Yucatan coast differ from techniques used to
harvest the same species in other parts of its range. This chapter presents an overview of
the local marine ecosystem of the research community, a summary of current knowledge
ofPanulirus argus ecology, the techniques that Los Flamencos fishermen use to catch
spiny lobsters, and the management issues confronting Los Flamencos' fishermen. Just as
strategies of exploitation are particular to the local environment, so must attempts at
management consider the specifics of a local context. This necessarily involves local
participation. In particular, the combination of the history of exploitation of spiny lobsters
and the current ecological conditions have potential to result in a classic Tragedy of the
Commons situation that complicates the ability of local users to manage their resource.
Local Ecosystem: The Gulf of Mexico
The Gulf of Mexico is a relatively warm body of water with little current,
compared to the colder waters of the nearby Caribbean. A northward current moves up
the coast of Quintana Roo, entering the Gulf of Mexico through the Yucatan channel,
ultimately connecting with water moving out from the Gulf of Mexico through the Straits
of Florida (Figure 4-1). This outward flow forms the beginning of the Gulf Stream, the
current that flows northward up the eastern coast of the United States.
Figure 4-1. Map of the Gulf of Mexico displaying current movements as water enters the
Gulf by the Yucatan Channel, where it moves in slow, circular patterns within
the Gulf. The water exits the Gulf through the Straits of Florida. This water,
now warmed, forms the beginning of the northward flowing Gulf Stream.
Current movements adapted from Ehrhardt (2000). Map by Edward W.
Because it is nearly land-locked, the water in the Gulf stews around slowly, much like a
An additional feature of the Gulf is evidenced in the broad continental shelf of the
north coast of the state of Yucatan, which is far wider than that found off the coast of
Quintana Roo. Known as the Campeche Bank, the depths of the shelf increase far more
gradually on the north coast, providing a wider stretch of shallow water in which to
harvest lobsters. Unlike the clear waters of the Caribbean, the waters of the Gulf tend
toward turbidity. The relative lack of current allows for the accumulation of a benthic
layer of algae (yerba) that covers much of the shallow substrate where the lobsters are
harvested (Figure 4-2). When present in large quantities, this bottom layer of algae
accumulates in the caves and holes that spiny lobsters aggregate in. Storms routinely
Figure 4-2. Photos showing the typical algae covered substrate of the lobster harvesting
zone. (A) depicts what most of the substrate looks like until a diver is able to
find a break in the algae as seen in (B). Photos by A. Lasseter (June 2005).
"clean" the substrate of this alga, or alternately, distribute it. The presence of excessive
yerba makes the caves in which the lobsters take refuge more difficult for the divers to
find. Even when the fishermen are able to locate caves, an overabundance of algae may
prevent divers from successfully capturing the lobsters.
The warm waters of the Gulf contribute to another hazard for the fishermen:
hurricanes. As occurred during the record hurricane season of 2005, storms tend to
intensify rapidly when they reach the Gulf of Mexico. The warm waters stimulate the
lower pressure that fuels storms (Bengtsson 2001). Hurricane Isidore in 2002, for
example, devastated the northern Gulf coast of the Yucatan with both flooding and
structural damage. The mangroves surrounding the town of Los Flamencos have yet to
recover from Isidore and are littered with debris, including both dead mangroves and
household trash. Furthermore, the fishermen report that the once abundant populations of
conch and sea cucumbers have largely disappeared since the hurricane struck. There is
currently no commercial fishery for sea cucumbers, which in the past, has brought a high
price for export to Asia. Despite the fishermen's claims, the commercial fishery for both
sea cucumbers and conch had ceased prior to Hurricane Isidore, which served to further
decimate the already overexploited populations of these resources. Federal regulation
now bans conch harvesting on the northern Yucatan coast, although conch ceviche is
available at local restaurants.
The Gulf of Mexico serves as the watershed drain for most of the central U.S.
(Goolsby et al. 2001, Alexander et al. 2000). Due to the extensive area of drainage,
pollution into the gulf from industry and agriculture is a significant problem (Hill 2004,
Goolsby et al. 2001). Heavy metal pollution involving mercury, phosphorus, lead and
cadmium in sediments, for example, are creating new environmental dilemmas in the
Gulf (Garcia-Hernandez et al. 2005). Methyl-mercury bioaccummulates in many marine
species and poses an additional hazard for human consumption (Morel et al. 1998).
Additional pollution in the Gulf occurs from oil spills (Patton et al. 1981), but the mere
presence of oil platforms has also been shown to impact local populations of benthic
organisms (Hernandez Arana et al. 2005).
The bulk of the pollutants that reach the Gulf occur in the form of nitrate nutrients,
principally from agricultural land (Goolsby et al. 2001). An estimated 16% of all nitrate
fertilizer used on crops along the Mississippi River watershed, for example, eventually
ends up polluting the waters of the Gulf of Mexico (Hill 2004).
One specific phenomenon associated with nitrate pollution is the Dead Zone that
forms every spring in the Mississippi delta region of the Gulf of Mexico (Rabalais
2002b). A Dead Zone is an oxygen depleted area of water, and the one that forms in the
Gulf can grow up to the size of some small American states (Hill 2004). Excessive
nutrients (nitrates) cause a population bloom in phytoplankton, the decomposition of
which leads to a depletion of oxygen in the water (Rabalais et al. 2002a). Due to the lack
of oxygen, fish species are forced to move from the huge algal bloom. Benthic species,
which are not nearly as mobile, often suffer high mortalities (Rabalais 2002b).
Existing in all natural bodies of water, populations of algae are particularly prone to
booms and busts. When food is abundant, the population swells; when sustenance is
unavailable, populations decrease. For aquatic algae, excessive nutrients in the water
result in population explosions often referred to as "blooms" Today, terrestrial-based
runoff from agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, but also including sewage, is the most
common cause of excessive nutrients in the marine environment. These nutrient-caused
blooms can have many harmful effects on aquatic ecosystems (Goolsby et al. 2001).
Algal blooms, also referred to as "red tides," can be either toxic or non-toxic. The
Dead Zone of the Gulf of Mexico, discussed above, is an example of a non-toxic algal
bloom. While marine mortalities may result from the Dead Zone, it is due to the hypoxic
water and not to a toxin produced by the algal organism. Other types of non-toxic algal
blooms also have negative impacts, such as an algal mass that blocks out sunlight, killing
benthic sea grasses that are dependent on the sun for photosynthesis.
Sometimes, the impacts of algal blooms are not readily apparent. A seemingly
benign episode may have indirect repercussions on economically important species. As
an example, an algal bloom in the south of Florida indirectly caused spiny lobster
juvenile mortality by killing the sponge habitat in which the juvenile lobsters took refuge
(Hermkind et al. 1997). The affected sponge species represented the bulk of non-
anthropogenic habitat available to spiny lobster juveniles at that particular life stage. This
relationship was only recognized because the bloom occurred during an experiment by
Herrnkind et al. (1997) on the effect of artificial habitat on the recruitment of juveniles.
The research team's control group of juvenile lobsters disappeared when their sponge
habitat was destroyed, while the individuals taking shelter in the artificial blocks placed
by the research team survived.
Herrnkind et al.'s study demonstrates the complexity in the set of relationships
between a species of high commercial value and any of a number of other species on
which it depends. Algal blooms may or may not affect the mortality of lobsters directly,
but they may also impact other species on which lobsters depend, either for food or
habitat. In terms of local human exploitation, the lobster fishermen of the northern
Yucatan coast do not know where the "nursery" is for their juvenile lobster population
and would not know if an approaching algal bloom posed a threat.
Toxic algal blooms are most often caused by species from three classes of
unicellular algae: dinoflagellates, diatoms, and cyanobacteria (Van Dolah 2000). Of the
85 toxic algal species that have been discovered, 37 of these are found in the waters of
the Gulf of Mexico (EPA 2006). Some of these classes of organisms are in the same
genera that lead to some common shellfish and fish poisonings. The dinoflagellate
responsible for ciguatera, the most common marine toxin affecting human consumption
of fish, is one such organism. Ciguatera does not occur as an algal bloom. Rather, it is an
organism which bioaccumulates in fish that have fed on it, climbing the trophic levels of
ever larger fish species and causing gastrointestinal and neurological problems in humans
when contaminated fish are consumed.
The local fishermen of Los Flamencos are well aware of the possible impacts of
these algal blooms, or red tides, on their catches and livelihoods. The mere rumor of the
presence of a red tide makes the regional news (Briceno Perez 2005, Tzec Valle and
Briceno Perez 2005, Ucan Salazar 2005) and generates much local gossip. This is due in
part to a lack of knowledge and understanding, both at the local and scientific levels, of
the causes and impacts of each new algal outbreak. Los Flamencos' fishermen, for
example, reported that sometimes, a marea roja, or red tide, left them unable to fish for
weeks and caused respiratory problems among people in the community. Others reported
that the fish killed as a result of the red tides polluted the beaches or decreased the
populations of commercial species, such as grouper. No fisherman with whom I spoke
purported to know the cause of the red tides; fishermen reported only that the aguas
malas, or bad waters, wash in from elsewhere.
While there is no evidence at present that the pollution cited above is currently
impacting the harvest of spiny lobsters in Mexico, the slow circular movements of the
Gulf waters, its relative isolation, and the known migration patterns of many
commercially important fish species should lead us to suspect transnational connections
in regards to Gulf activities and contamination. Further research on transnational issues
of pollution is needed.
Panulirus argus, or the Caribbean spiny lobster, is one of the 33 species of
commercially important spiny lobsters of the genus Palinuridae (Lipcius and Eggleston
2000). P. argus is the only lobster species of commercial abundance along the north coast
of the Yucatan peninsula and most of the Caribbean. This species is also the primary
species caught in the waters off south Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean islands, and as
far south as northeastern Brazil (FAO 2002). Half of all commercial spiny lobster
harvests worldwide are of the species Panulirus argus (Lipcius and Eggleston 2000).
Spiny lobsters are members of a genus distinct from the clawed lobsters, such as
Homarus americanus, which is found in the cold waters off the coast of New England.
Spiny lobsters do not possess edible front claws; only the tail is eaten. Instead of claws,
the exoskeleton of the Caribbean spiny lobster is covered with countless spiny defenses
The spiny lobster has a complex life cycle, consisting of numerous stages of
different habitat and dietary requirements (Kanciruk 1980). Research and debate about
Figure 4-3. Photo of Panulirus argus, or the Caribbean spiny lobster, showing the spines
covering the animal's exoskeleton. Note the distinct horn-like spines over the
eyes, and the antenna spines evident in the animal's shadow. The sides of the
tail also have spines on each segment, which the animal may contract in
defense with much force while still alive. Photo by A. Lasseter (July 2005).
the length and number of these stages is ongoing and much of the published data
concerning the life cycle of the spiny lobster is contradictory, representing how much has
yet to be learned about the species (Herrnkind 2005, Lipcius and Eggleston 2000, Arce
and de Leon 2000).
Fertilized eggs are carried under the tail of the female until they are released into
the open ocean. The early stages in the life cycle of the spiny lobster involve a series of
up to 11 planktonic larval stages lasting from 6-24 months (Arce and de Leon 2000,
Lipcius and Eggleston 2000). These planktonic stages serve to disperse the larval lobsters
(Cobb 1997) and, as such, mobility is subject to water movements. The length of time in
which the larvae spend in the water column allows for their distribution throughout the
Atlantic Ocean (FAO 2001). This ultimately means that larvae produced in one area of
the species' range likely results in offspring reaching maturity far from the parent
Larval dispersal thus presents a complex scenario for regional attempts at
"managing" the species: the efforts of control in one area may be limited by the activities
of users in other countries. An underlying point in this thesis is thus reinforced: when
addressing issues at the local level, we must consider that the local does not exist in
isolation from the total system. The interconnection of disparate parts suggests causal
relationships may involve distant actors.
At the end of the planktonic larval stages, spiny lobsters enter the puerulus stage,
where they actively swim toward potentially suitable habitat on which to settle (Arce and
de Leon 2001). The settlement times for the puerulus stage differ among the regions of
commercial abundance. This settlement occurs from September to December in the
Caribbean and Yucatan, but in February and March in the south of Florida (Arce and de
At first, post-larval juveniles live solitarily, adopting algal or sponge habitats in
shallow coastal waters (Phillips and Sastry 1980) before moving into crevice structures
where they live socially (Childress and Herrnkind 1996). While juveniles usually prefer
coral crevices, they have also been found in mangrove habitats in areas where coral
options are limited (Acosta and Butler 1997). This would likely be the case on the
Yucatan's Gulf coast, where mangroves predominate. As the juveniles grow into sub
adults, they seek out crevice-type habitat in deeper waters, where the preferred habitat is
easier to find.
Another feature of spiny lobster ecology, important to the commercial exploitation
of the species, is the difference in reproductive success among individuals. Larger
individuals produce exponentially more eggs and sperm than smaller, reproductively
mature, individuals (Arce and de Leon 2000, Macdiarmid and Kittaka 2000). This means
that smaller individuals are only marginally responsible for the reproduction of the
species. This fact of lobster reproduction is important, yet it is almost entirely overlooked
by spiny lobster resource managers. Both Florida and Mexico have government
regulations specifying a minimum harvest size for lobsters. This protection allows
smaller lobsters to remain in the population, preserving the following years' legal size
harvest. These smaller lobsters could only minimally contribute to the overall recruitment
of the species.
Neither Florida nor Mexico places a maximum size on individuals that may be
caught. Lobster is valued according to its weight, putting high extractive pressure on the
largest individuals. A conflict is thus created for resource managers: larger individuals
are heavily targeted for their high value, but the extraction of these individuals may
negatively affect recruitment of future generations.
On the other hand, new research proposes that the heavy exploitation of large
individuals may ultimately favor the selection of reproductively viable smaller
individuals (Wahle 1997). That is, natural selection will favor smaller individuals that are
able to reproduce prior to mortality. This microevolutionary perspective is further
supported in a study that compared a fishery and sanctuary population of P. argus in
south Florida (Bertelsen and Matthews 2001). Bertelesen and Matthews demonstrated
that small lobsters raised in a sanctuary were not observed carrying eggs, while in the
fishery zone, the same sized individuals were frequently observed carrying fertilized
Lobster Harvesting in the Gulf
Panulirus argus is recognized as a single species with an extensive range despite
habitat variation ranging from coral reefs to mangroves. As a result of such differing
habitats, harvesting strategies depend on the specific local environmental conditions.
Commercially abundant populations of lobster on the east coast of Mexico are limited to
the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan. Given the differences mentioned above between
the two bodies of water, communities that harvest from the Gulf adopt different strategies
than those harvesting from the Caribbean.
Owing to the complexity of their life cycle and stage dependent dietary needs,
lobsters remain beyond the reach of aquaculture (Kittaka and Booth 2000, Phillips and
Evans 1997). The dietary necessities of larval lobsters change with enough frequency to
thwart attempts to cultivate them. All lobsters on the market, therefore, are caught by
either traps or diving.
Divers may harvest lobsters from either artificial habitat, specifically constructed
for attracting lobsters, or from natural formations, such as cracks and caves in the ocean
substrate. Divers may free-dive in shallow water, using only a mask and fins, or use
compressed air, either by SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) or
"hookah" (compressor and hose). Regardless of the method employed, lobstering is both
labor and technology intensive.
An alternative to diving for lobsters is found in the use of lobster traps, or "pots,"
as have been used in Caye Caulker, Belize since at least the 1930s (King 1997,
Sutherland 1986). The use of traps seems to be predicated on a local availability of
lobsters in shallow waters. Elsewhere, fishermen report difficulty in finding an
abundance of legal size lobsters in such shallow waters. This observation offers support
for studies reporting the movement of sub-adult individuals into deeper waters to find
appropriate habitat (Childress and Herrnkind 1996).
Where commercial quantities of lobsters do exist in shallow waters, diving is the
preferred method of catching them. In some places, artificial habitat has been created to
attract the lobsters. With the availability of appropriate habitat in shallow waters, the
lobsters remain in the area rather than seeking out habitat in deeper waters. The idea of
using artificial habitats, called casitas cubanas, (little Cuban houses) came to Mexico
from Cuba (hence the name) where they had been in use since the 1940s (Baisre 2000).
The casitas are extensively used in Punta Allen, a fishing community in the south of
In Punta Allen, the fishermen have partitioned the Bahia de Ascensi6n, a large,
nearly enclosed bay, into private territories. Within the hereditarily owned territories, the
owners have constructed hundreds of casitas made of wood and concrete that serve as
artificial habitat for the lobsters. The abundance of available habitat may explain the
resultant abundance of lobsters that remain in the bay (Childress and Herrnkind 1996).
Without the artificial habitat, there are few natural formations in which the lobsters could
take refuge. The shallow waters of the bay in which the lobsters are found (2-3 meters
deep) allow the fishermen to freedive to the casitas with only mask and fins (Figure 4-4).
This eliminates the need for expensive and dangerous compressed air equipment.
Figure 4-4. Freediving to artificial habitat, known as a casita cubana, in Punta Allen,
Quintana Roo. Lobsters will aggregate beneath the concrete structure. The
diver lifts the slab and scoops out any resident lobsters with his net. Photo by
A. Lasseter (July 2005).
By utilizing hereditary territories, newcomers are excluded from the fishery. This
provides security to the resource, and stability of harvests. Data does not exist to state
with certainty that the control of access results in greater harvests for those fishermen
engaged in a closed access situation. Other factors, such as currents and the recruitment
of lobsters into the Bay must be considered.
Harvesting in Los Flamencos
The natural presence of a commercially abundant population of lobster, then, is
likely determined by the availability of suitable habitat. The shallow waters near Los
Flamencos, and along the north coast of the state of Yucatan, do not generally have
abundant crevice habitat, forcing lobsters to range to greater depths.
The fishermen of Los Flamencos claim that it is unfeasible for them to use traps for
lobsters due to the abundance of algae on the substrate, which would clog the traps. Traps
may only be used in deeper waters, one fisherman said, where the larger commercial
fleets based out of Progreso go to harvest lobsters. These commercial fleets are setting
traps in waters up to 80 meters deep, beyond the shallow shelf of the Campeche Bank
(see Figure 4-1).
Fishermen report that the algae that makes trap usage unfeasible is also the reason
they are reluctant to use artificial habitats. It should be noted, however, that the
construction of casitas would require time and financial investments by fishermen who
would not be guaranteed exclusive rights to harvest from them. Hence, the open access
situation of the resource is likely a better explanation for not using artificial habitats at
Roughly five years ago, a few of the casitas were placed in shallow waters near the
port of Los Flamencos by a group of researchers from Merida. When I observed the
casitas while on a dive shortly before the opening of the lobster season, most of the
casitas had lobsters within them. Algae did not appear to pose a problem to accessing
lobsters within the casitas. When I returned to shore, numerous fishermen asked me if I
saw lobsters in the casitas, and one crew whispered to me that they planned to stop there
on the first morning of the open season.
One drawback to the use of the casitas results from hurricane damage. Hurricane
Isidore damaged the handful of experimental casitas in Los Flamencos, which
discouraged the fishermen from building more. The concrete A-frame structures rise only
inches above the sandy bottom, and differ only slightly from those of Punta Allen. During
the hurricane, they either broke apart or were buried in the moving sand. The fishermen
of Punta Allen, on the other hand, accept that repairing storm damage to their casitas is a
routine part of their workload.
Population of the Resource
Species' population cycles fluctuate just as harvest yields fluctuate. Such changes
in a species population are related to the system of interdependencies within the
ecosystem as a whole (Arreguin-Sanchez 2000). Spiny lobsters are a part of their total
ecosystem, and so are related to the population dynamics of other species. Octopus and
red grouper populations off the Yucatan coast are known to fluctuate in multi-year cycles
(Arreguin-Sanchez 2000). Both octopus and grouper are known predators of lobsters, so
we can hypothesize relationships among the cyclical populations of each of these species.
Berger and Butler (2001) found that spiny lobsters actively avoid areas, such as caves,
where octopus are known to live. The hard exoskeleton of a lobster is no match for the
sharp beak of an octopus. The fishermen of Los Flamencos were also aware of lobsters'
fear of octopus. The frequent molting of a lobster's exoskeleton renders it soft and
defenseless to carnivorous fish species such as grouper.
These complex relationships point to the difficulty in determining target harvest
yields. The population of lobsters is difficult enough to determine. The relationship of
lobsters with other species, each with their own population dynamics, further complicates
managers' attempts to identify a quantifiable extraction quota. Harvesting at maximum
yields represents unsustainable practice, not just for the resource, but also for the human
populations that depend on them. When the target population decreases, whether due to
excessive fishing pressure or natural species population cycles, the human populations,
which have come to depend on previous yields, tend to overexploit the resource to meet
material needs. This pattern, based on open access resources, leads to maladaptive
extraction practices when the future exploitation of a resource is unstable and
unpredictable. All common property resources are not open access, a point that will be
developed further in the following chapters.