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The emergence of export markets for high-value seafood products tends to produce a predictable pattern of serial depletion of resources and social disruption in coastal communities, a phenomenon described as 'the tragedy of the commodity'. The sea cucumber trade epitomizes these challenges, with cases of rapid growth followed by fishery collapse documented across the Indo-Pacific and the majority of assessed stocks worldwide overexploited. Is this 'boom-bust' sequence inevitable? We examine three cases of resistance to the sea cucumber trade from Palau, Pohnpei, and Yap. Despite the overwhelming short-term financial incentives to export, fishers, youth, elected and traditional leaders, and civil society organizations coordinated to ban the trade at its peak, using public protest, court battles, and customary and statutory law. We show that, like the tragedy of the commons, Indigenous peoples and local communities can organize to resist the tragedy of the commodity. They do so by asserting Indigenous values, rights, and institutions, recommonizing the resource and preventing fisheries collapse. These cases challenge the inevitability of the tragedy of the commodity and the narrative of poor fishers as vulnerable and disempowered.
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Global Environmental Change 73 (2022) 102477
Available online 1 February 2022
0959-3780/© 2022 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
The tragedy of the commodity is not inevitable: Indigenous resistance
prevents high-value sheries collapse in the Pacic islands
Caroline E. Ferguson
a
,
*
, Nathan J. Bennett
b
,
c
, William Kostka
d
, Robert H. Richmond
e
,
Ann Singeo
f
a
Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
b
The Peopled Seas Initiative, Vancouver, Canada
c
People and the Ocean Specialist Group, Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy, International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN CEESP),
Gland, Switzerland
d
Micronesia Conservation Trust, Pohnpei, FSM, Canada
e
Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii at M¯
anoa, Honolulu, Hawaii, Canada
f
Ebiil Society, Ollei, Palau
ARTICLE INFO
Keywords:
Trade
Resistance
Social movements
Commodity sheries
Sea cucumber
ABSTRACT
The emergence of export markets for high-value seafood products tends to produce a predictable pattern of serial
depletion of resources and social disruption in coastal communities, a phenomenon described as ‘the tragedy of
the commodity. The sea cucumber trade epitomizes these challenges, with cases of rapid growth followed by
shery collapse documented across the Indo-Pacic and the majority of assessed stocks worldwide overexploited.
Is this ‘boom-bustsequence inevitable? We examine three cases of resistance to the sea cucumber trade from
Palau, Pohnpei, and Yap. Despite the overwhelming short-term nancial incentives to export, shers, youth,
elected and traditional leaders, and civil society organizations coordinated to ban the trade at its peak, using
public protest, court battles, and customary and statutory law. We show that, like the tragedy of the commons,
Indigenous peoples and local communities can organize to resist the tragedy of the commodity. They do so by
asserting Indigenous values, rights, and institutions, recommonizing the resource and preventing sheries
collapse. These cases challenge the inevitability of the tragedy of the commodity and the narrative of poor shers
as vulnerable and disempowered.
1. Introduction
Seafood has been a major trade commodity for centuries, but the
current geographic scale and speed of the trade are unprecedented
(Gephart and Pace, 2015). The globalization of seafood markets presents
challenges to local resource management institutions, which are often
ill-equipped to handle the rapid and large-scale changes that occur at the
onset of market-driven shing (Kaplan-Hallam et al., 2017). Particularly
in low-income contexts, the extraction and export of luxury seafood
products has tended to produce a predictable pattern of social disrup-
tion, serial depletion, and sustainable development challenges (Barclay
et al., 2019). Examples of the disruptions caused by the rapid incursion
and development of high-value commodity sheries abound, including
sea cucumber in Mexico (Kaplan-Hallam et al. 2017) and Papua New
Guinea (Barclay et al., 2019), geoduck in Canada (Shamshak and King,
2015), abalone in South Africa (Raemaekers et al., 2011), totoaba maw
in Mexico (Martínez and Martínez, 2018), shark ns in Ecuador (Jacquet
et al., 2008), live reef sh in the Philippines (Fabinyi et al., 2012), and
jellysh in Nicaragua (Fahrenbruch, 2018), among others.
We focus on the global sea cucumber, or bˆ
eche-de-mer, trade, which
epitomizes the challenge of local resource users and managers to control
the rapid expansion of new high-value commodity sheries. In coastal
communities across the globe, the sea cucumber trade has boomed,
driven by private interests, and is even promoted as a tool for poverty
alleviation (Conand and Muthiga, 2007; Kinch et al., 2008). Sea cu-
cumbers are a luxury and medicinal product in China and Hong Kong,
where the highest-value tropical specimens retail at over US$1800 per
kg (Purcell et al., 2018). As the Chinese middle-class grows, there is
continued and increasing pressure on stocks (Fabinyi et al., 2017). Sea
cucumber sheries serving the Chinese market now operate within
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: cefergus@stanford.edu (C.E. Ferguson).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Global Environmental Change
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/gloenvcha
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2022.102477
Received 29 May 2021; Received in revised form 29 November 2021; Accepted 24 January 2022
Global Environmental Change 73 (2022) 102477
2
countries cumulatively spanning over 90% of the worlds tropical
coastlines (Eriksson et al., 2015).
Yet sea cucumber sheries are characterized by patron-client re-
lationships that provide relatively little benet to shers and their
families (Crona et al., 2016). Temporary ‘boomslead to substantial but
precarious short-term nancial opportunities, alongside in-migration of
people from outside the community, an increase in socially unaccepted
behavior, conict within communities (Kaplan-Hallam et al., 2017,
Barclay et al., 2019, Christensen, 2011), and increased inequity among
shers (Ferguson, 2021). Cases of ‘boom-bustsea cucumber shery
collapse have been documented across the Pacic and Indian Oceans
(Purcell et al., 2013). Sea cucumbers are particularly vulnerable to
overshing because they are easy to collect and store, grow slowly, and
reproduce through broadcast spawning, a strategy that relies on high
densities for reproduction to be successful (Uthicke et al., 2009).
Worldwide, as of 2013, more than half of all sea cucumber sheries were
overexploited, with about 20% collapsed (Purcell et al., 2013). Rapid
overexploitation drives collapse, which threatens sherslivelihoods,
ways of life, and food security in the long-term, particularly in places
where sea cucumber is locally consumed (Crona et al., 2015, Ferguson,
2021).
Despite the social and environmental challenges characteristic of the
sea cucumber trade, shers and local communities are not passive vic-
tims. Fishing community members have agency and can choose how to
engage or whether to resist repeated, aggressive efforts by traders and
exporters to exploit high-value luxury seafoods for capitalist gain. As of
2019, at least twenty-ve countries had banned the export of sea cu-
cumbers or created long-term closures (Baker-M´
edard and Ohl, 2019).
In this paper, we examine three cases of resistance to the sea cucumber
trade from Palau, Pohnpei, and Yap, disrupting the narrative of poor
shers as vulnerable and disempowered and drawing lessons from their
multiple strategies of resistance. We investigate why and how social
movements emerged, who was involved, what strategies were
employed, and the factors that have led to durable resistance to the
tragedy of the commodity.
1.1. Tragedy of the commodity
The overexploitation of resources, epitomized by sea cucumber
sheries worldwide, has often been explained as a ‘tragedy of the
commons(Hardin, 1968), which posits that individual resource users,
acting in their own self-interest, will inevitably degrade common pool
resources. Though still pervasive in much of the sheries management
literature, the notion has been critiqued and complicated by Ostrom and
many others who have advanced an understanding that local conditions,
histories, cultures, and politics shape management of the commons
(McCay and Acheson, 1987, Acheson, 1975, Feeny et al., 1990, Ostrom,
1990). Longo et al. (2015) extended these critiques in the development
of the concept of ‘the tragedy of the commodity.
The tragedy of the commodity framework situates resource degra-
dation in its political economic context, noting how market demand and
the capitalist logic of growth drive intensication and expansion of
sheries exploitation. As resources in one area become depleted, rms
expand into new areas, termed ‘commodity frontiers(Nolan, 2019,
Campling, 2012, Fabinyi et al., 2019, Moore, 2003). These frontiers are
empty, yet full and ripe for the production and expansion of capital
(Fabinyi et al., 2019). The swift, large-scale ‘shocksassociated with
commodity frontiers challenge the efcacy and adaptability of pre-
existing local sheries management institutions (Kaplan-Hallam et al.,
2017), leading to collapse. A commodity frontier closes once resource
extraction is no longer nancially viable or when frontier zones become
uninhabitable due to violent resistance or political upheaval (Nolan,
2019). Resource degradation associated with frontier closures can lead
to increased competition for remaining resources and increased conict
as a result (Pomeroy et al., 2007, Nolan, 2019).
The ‘boom-bust pattern observed in sea cucumber sheries
worldwide is exemplary of commodity frontiers. First, a ‘boomoccurs
when rms arrive at the frontier; then, after a period of rapid and intense
exploitation, the shery ‘busts, the frontier closes, and the rms
advance to the next frontier. The serial depletion of sea cucumbers
across the Indo-Pacic, with rms moving at an increasing distance from
Asian markets over time (Anderson et al., 2011), traces the advance of
this frontier.
Yet, like the tragedy of the commons, the tragedy of the commodity
is not inevitable. Though the degradation and collapse of commoditized
sheries is now well documented, less studied are those sheries which
have reversed course, reclaiming the commons and the non-economic
values associated with marine resources. While much of the literature
focuses on communitiesresilience or ability to adapt to externally
imposed changes (Folke, 2016, Cinner et al., 2018, Bennett et al., 2016),
there has been less of a focus on the ways that communities organize to
resist unwanted external social and economic inuences. Rather than
narrowly understanding how shing communities recover from social
and environmental damages, it is valuable to also learn from those
which have resisted such damages. In this paper, we examine three such
cases to address this gap.
1.2. Social movements
This study also draws on the social movements literature from po-
litical ecology. For a social movement to emerge, rst, an adverse impact
must be perceived and interpreted (Peet and Watts, 1996). Bebbington
et al. (2008) identify two types of threats that motivate social move-
ments: (1) material threats to livelihoods and (2) the colonization of
lifeworlds (Habermas, 1987). Material threats to livelihoods include
damages to land and water, with movements emerging to challenge the
structures that promote exploitation and dispossession. Threats to life-
worlds include the incursion of new forms of investment in rural envi-
ronments, the accelerating effects of cultural modernization on
traditional practices, and the disarticulation of existing moral
economies.
Second, an existing sense of collective identity provides the moti-
vation for mobilizations (Peet and Watts, 1996). For example, in their
large-n cross-sector study of environmental defenders, Scheidel et al.
(2020) nd that Indigenous peoples mobilize much more frequently
against environmentally destructive activities than do non-Indigenous
peoples. Von der Porten et al. (2019) explore this phenomenon in the
context of Indigenous resurgencearound marine conservation efforts.
Based on an analysis of case studies from eleven countries, von der
Porten et al. nd that Indigenous resurgence across the globe is funda-
mentally connected to struggles for decolonization through the assertion
of resource autonomy. They argue that Indigenous peoplesefforts to-
ward environmental conservation are indivisible from their cultural
identities and their social and political organizations.
Research on environmental mobilizations suggests that resistance
can play a volatile but important role in re-asserting local autonomy and
natural resource management institutions. In their analysis of a single
case study of Indigenous resistance against the opening of a commercial
shery in the Haida Nation, Jones et al. (2017) highlight how the Haida
Nation used a combination of strategies including confrontation, nego-
tiation, and litigation to asserted their right to co-management of the
shery and successfully resisted its opening. Jones et al. argue this
resistance shifted the power dynamic of herring management and gave
local communities greater ability to inuence decision-making into the
future.
Villamayor-Tomas and García-L´
opez (2018) found that social
movements can protect communities and the commons from the forces
of capitalist accumulation and the associated processes of enclosure and
commodication. Though destabilizing in the short-term, social move-
ments can in the longer-term enable a renegotiation of power, a revival
of identity ties and local ecological knowledge, and the promotion of
resource autonomy. Villamayor-Tomas et al. (2020) expanded on this
C.E. Ferguson et al.
Global Environmental Change 73 (2022) 102477
3
work, nding that social movements can also threaten to create or
reinforce divisions within the community and even shift management
away from the community.
2. Methodology
We employ an exploratory multiple case study methodology (Yin
1989) to describe three cases of resistance to the sea cucumber trade
from Palau (20112012), Pohnpei (20112021), and Yap (1995,
20032008). We selected these cases based on the presence of resistance
against the sea cucumber trade; the relative cultural, political, and
ecological similarity of the three sites; and our rsthand knowledge of
the cases. Author 1
1
(Palau), Author 2 (Pohnpei), and Author 3 (Yap)
were each participant observers of the resistance to the sea cucumber
trade in their respective cases. Insights are drawn from the expertise of
co-authors, local and international news, and contemporary reports by
local management bodies.
Case study research was guided rst by a series of questions posed to
each of these authors to explore relevant dimensions of each case,
including: the traditional use and management of sea cucumbers, his-
torical encounters with sea cucumber traders, the origins of resistance,
key actors and the strategies pursued to ban the trade, the responses of
foreign traders and their local allies, conict within shing commu-
nities, and the degree and durability of movements success. We then
corroborated each authors responses with available published litera-
ture. In one of the case study locations (Palau), we were also able to
draw on results from a set of 205 surveys and sixty-one qualitative in-
terviews with shers, leaders, and state rangers conducted by the lead
author in 2018 and 2019. Finally, we developed descriptive narratives
and drew exploratory comparisons to make inferences about why and
how communities resist the high-value seafood trade, the longer-term
impacts on local natural resource management, and the durability of
different strategies.
The advantage of a multiple case study approach, compared to a
single case study, is the opportunity to hold some variables constant
while exploring others, as close to the laboratory experiment as one can
get in social science(Jentoft, 1999). These cases occurred in culturally,
politically, and ecologically similar locations, in relatively close
geographic proximity. Each is anchored in a context of robust local
resource management institutions, developed over centuries and sur-
viving the colonial impositions of centralization, democratization, and
marketization. These cases therefore offer the possibility of exploring
why and how shing communities resist the high-value seafood trade in
isolation from the unique challenges and opportunities presented by
different species or broad sociocultural contexts.
3. Case studies context
Palau, Pohnpei, and Yap have distinct cultures and languages, yet
they share many commonalities in natural resource management prac-
tices and have followed similar political trajectories. The islands were
rst settled at least 2000 years ago (Dodson and Intoh, 1999) and were
colonized in the early 1800s, rst by Spain, then Germany, then Japan,
and nally the United States. In 1947, they all formally became part of
the Trust Territory of the Pacic Islands, a non-self-governing territory
administered by the United States. Yap and Pohnpei organized together
when they sought independence, formingwith Chuuk and Kos-
raeThe Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) in 1986. Palau estab-
lished its sovereign status independently in 1994 (Fig. 1).
When Palauans and Micronesians formed independent nations, the
tensions between colonial inuences and Indigenous cultures were
written into law. The Palau constitution states, The government shall
take no action to prohibit or revoke the role or function of a traditional
leader as recognized by custom and tradition(Palau const. Art. V,
section 1). Pohnpeis outlines that the government shall respect and
protect the customs and traditions of Pohnpei(Pohnpei const. Art. V,
section 2). The Yap constitution offers the strongest protections of
Indigenous governance, deeming in its preamble our traditional heri-
tage and villages as the foundation of our society and economy(Yap
const. Preamble) and providing that nothing in this Constitution shall
be construed to limit or invalidate any recognized tradition or custom
(Yap const. Art III, section 3).
Fishing is a key source of sustenance, cultural value, and livelihood
for the peoples of Palau, Pohnpei, and Yap. The average annual con-
sumption of seafood by coastal rural populations ranges from 62 to 115
kg, which greatly exceeds the global average of 1618 kg per person per
year (Bell et al., 2011). Over half of all households in Palau and FSM
regularly engage in shing, primarily for subsistence (SPC, 2019; Singeo
et al., 2020).
While sea cucumber is part of the traditional diet of Palau and
Pohnpei, it is not traditionally consumed in Yap. Today, sea cucumbers
are a source of nutritional security and food sovereignty in Palau and
Pohnpei, where sea cucumbers are typically collected by women in the
nearshore environment (Williams, 2015). Of the species found in coastal
Oceania, twenty species are commercially exploited for the bˆ
eche-de-mer
trade, while the rest are regarded as having low or no commercial value;
of the commercially valuable species, only a portion are consumed
locally (Pakoa et al., 2009).
Sea cucumber and other sheries in the three states were historically
governed by a system of practices that included restrictions on time and
area, and most crucially an ethic of zero waste, which was reinforced
daily by members of the community and by local chiefs, sometimes with
punishments as severe as beating. Yet conicts between traditional and
democratic governance institutions have had the effect of undermining
chiefs authority to manage marine resources (Graham and Idechong,
1998). Simultaneously, the introduction of American dollars created
markets for sheries products and eroded the sharing economy and
reciprocal relations that were foundational to traditional sheries
governance. Together, these pressures have threatened the sustainabil-
ity of sheries in the three island states (Pacic Community, 2019).
Interactions with international sea cucumber markets did not begin
or end with the case studies we examine in this paper. Palau, Pohnpei,
and Yap have been producing dried sea cucumber for Chinese consumers
at various periods over the past century or more (Conand, 1990), but the
magnitude and extent of the trade has rapidly expanded in recent de-
cades (Purcell et al., 2013). Mounting concerns about the social and
environmental sustainability of the shery eventually led to moratoria
in each of the states in the 1990s, and again in the 2000s and 2010s
(Pakoa and Bertram, 2013). Today, sea cucumber export is closed in all
three states (Table 1).
4. Palau case study
In one of its rst acts as an independent nation, Palau issued the 1994
Marine Protection Act, banning the export of a number of marine spe-
cies, including most sea cucumber species. Yet the legislation created
loopholes, and in 2011, ve foreign companies were allowed to export
sea cucumbers from Palau for six months. The circumstances of the
exportersarrival have been masked and contested, but several state and
national ofcials, as well as traditional leaders, are suspected of cor-
ruption. Whether the export of sea cucumbers from Palau was ever legal
at all elicits different responses from different community members, but
the reality of the harvest was plain: it began in secret in the rural
northern states of Palau, with only a small number of shers aware of the
buyerspresence (Ferguson, 2021). As word got out, whole communities
began participating, some people even quitting their full-time jobs in
order to collect and sell more sea cucumbers. In the end, 76% of people
surveyed in the landing port of Ngardmau State reported that they had
1
Author initials have been removed for anonymity in the peer review
process.
C.E. Ferguson et al.
Global Environmental Change 73 (2022) 102477
4
participated in the export harvest, with men signicantly more likely to
have participated than women (Ferguson, 2021). Approximately 72 tons
of sea cucumber were landed and sold in just six months, with an esti-
mated sum of US$1.1 million paid to shers numbering in the hundreds
(Pakoa et al., 2014).
The amount of money coming into communities was unprecedented.
Individuals reported earnings from a few hundred dollars to upwards of
US$50,000 (for comparison, the median annual income in rural areas in
Palau at this time was around US$12,870, Palau Ofce of Planning and
Statistics, 2014) (Ferguson, 2021). Yet the volume of harvest was
equally unprecedented, alarming traditional leaders, scientists, conser-
vationists, and some shers. What many viewed as the overharvest of
resources violated Palauan social norms and cultural values around
sustainable use and intergenerational responsibility. Local traditional
leaders took issue with the way the trade had been initiated, with one
chief reecting, There was no research, no consultation. They never asked
permission(interview, 2019).
In response to environmental and social concerns, many individuals
and organizations acted simultaneously to resist the sea cucumber trade.
In Ngarchelong State, the traditional leaders proclaimed the harvest
from their waters to be illegal under customary law. However, their
proclamation was largely symbolic, and it was undermined when one
high chief dissented. Even as chiefs and rangers went out to the reef to
plead with shers to stop, the harvest continued. Some shers mocked
the traditional leaders and dismissed their authority. Eventually, the
dissenting high chief was dismissed from the local chiefscouncil for his
continued encouragement of shing despite the leadersotherwise
unanimous decision to end the harvest. A former state ranger recalled
the disregard for chiefsauthority,
We [state rangers and chiefs] went out there three or four times a
night just to observe. But the whole island is there! What can you do?
Even though the chief was with us, we couldnt do anything. His power,
whatever power he has, they all tell him off ‘This is our chance to
make some money’” (interview, 2019).
Meanwhile, many community members grew anxious about the
volume of sea cucumbers being removed from their waters. Even among
those participating in the harvest, there was widespread agreement that
it could not be sustained. When someone placed an anonymous ad in the
national paper inviting everyone in Palau to participate in the sea cu-
cumber harvest in Ngarchelong State waters, chiefs, shers, and con-
servationists nally came into alignment. The fear that people from all
over the country would come to take large volumes of sea cucumbers
from local waters inspired these groups to work togetherdespite the
powerful nancial incentives for shers to keep shingto pass a ban
on harvesting sea cucumbers for export at the state level. The ban
effectively ended the harvest in Ngarchelong State about a month after it
began.
Meanwhile, in Koror, the economic hub and most populous state of
Palau, conservation NGOs and some elected ofcials were working to
raise awareness about the harvest happening in northern waters. A
senator shared images online of boats full of sea cucumbers, startling
many in the public who had not witnessed the landings rsthand and
generating public support for a nationwide ban (Fig. 2). Finally, in early
2012, a national law was passed that banned the export of all sea cu-
cumber species from Palau, putting an end to the harvests across the
country.
Once the ban was enacted and the exporters left Palau, sea cucumber
harvesting returned to pre-export levels, with most of the collection
being done by women for subsistence and small local markets (Ferguson,
2021). However, the environmental impacts were immediately felt and
have proven to be long-lasting: a report produced by the Palau Inter-
national Coral Reef Center in April 2012 demonstrated an 88% decline
in the target species (Holothuria scabra) from 2009 (Golbuu et al., 2012).
Fig. 1. Map of study sites and their exclusive economic zones.
Table 1
History and present status of sea cucumber shing in the three study sites.
State Sovereignty Traditional
Use of Sea
Cucumbers
Time Period
of Case
Study
Present Status of
Sea Cucumber
Trade
Palau Independent,
freely
associatedwith
the United States
Yes 20112012 National ban on
exporting all
species
Pohnpei Member state of
FSM, freely
associatedwith
the United States
Yes 20112021 State ban on
exporting all
species
Yap Member state of
FSM, freely
associatedwith
the United States
No 1995,
20032008
State ban on
stockpilingall
species, unless
during an open
seasondeclared
by the Governor
C.E. Ferguson et al.
Global Environmental Change 73 (2022) 102477
5
Most Palauans remember the harvest with ambivalence. On the one
hand, the trade represented the single largest injection of nancial re-
sources into northern shing communities in recent memory; on the
other hand, almost everyone recognizes the environmental toll it took on
reefs and seagrass beds. In 2019, 62% of people surveyed indicated that
they would oppose re-opening the trade in sea cucumbers. The ban is
still in place today.
The issue of sea cucumber export lay dormant for nearly a decade,
with reports of small-scale violations in Palau and occasional encounters
with illegal foreign vessels in remote islands. But in December 2020,
authorities detained a Chinese shing vessel and its twenty-eight crew
members for illegally harvesting approximately 500 lbs (227 kg) of sea
cucumbers for the bˆ
eche-de-mer trade (Carreon, 2020). Palaus newly
elected president, Pres. Surangel Whipps Jr., cited the incident as an
example of Chinas bullying (Carreon, 2021). The presidents state-
ment, which was unusually challenging of the global superpower, made
reference to a lack of shared valuesbetween Palau and China. These
actions demonstrate the durability of Palaus ban and reiterate the
broader cultural and political motivations at the heart of the resistance.
5. Pohnpei case study
Throughout the late twentieth century, sea cucumbers were being
harvested and exported from Pohnpei for the bˆ
eche-de-mer trade. In the
early 1990s, the Pohnpei State Government became aware that the
largely unregulated harvest of sea cucumbers had depleted stocks,
leading the senate to declare a moratorium in 1991 until such a time that
a management plan could be developed (Bosserelle et al., 2017). Four
years later, the Pohnpei State Fisheries Protection Act of 1995 (PFA)
prohibited the commercial harvest of all inshore species, including sea
cucumbers. This key piece of legislation protected Pohnpei from the sea
cucumber trade for almost twenty years.
The PFA came under threat in 2011, when a recently elected member
of the Pohnpei State legislature partnered with a Korean company to re-
open the shery. The operation was swiftly halted by police, as it
violated the PFA. In response to efforts to re-open the shery, the Di-
rector of the Ofce of Fisheries and Aquaculture (OFA) proposed that the
senate develop new sea cucumber regulations prior to re-opening. A bill
was developed, but OFA fought to have the bill put on hold until an
assessment of sea cucumber stocks and a management framework for the
shery were nalized (Bosserelle et al., 2017). Finally, in 2015, the
exporters and their partner in the legislature were successful at
amending the PFA (S.L.NO 8L-58-14) to allow for sea cucumbers to be
exported, and in the spring of 2016, a bid was opened to allow an
exporter to take up to 67,500 kg wet weight of sea cucumbers (Bosserelle
et al., 2017). However, the company the legislator had partnered with
lost the bid to Young Sun International Trading Company, a Chinese
company, at which point the legislator joined those opposing the trade.
The award of the license to Young Sun triggered citizens and NGOs to
act. An op-ed in the local newspaper, Kaselehlie Press, urged ofcials to
learn from neighboring islandsnegative experiences with the bˆ
eche-de-
mer trade,
All over the Pacic there are examples of how outside companies
have come in and single-handedly pillaged the sea cucumber resource of
an island and own off with their millions of dollars in prot, leaving the
island with pennies to the dollar on the value of the resource(Katen-
gensed, 2016).
Traditional leaders partnered with the Conservation Society of
Pohnpei (CSP) to sue Pohnpei State and Young Sun (Mwoalen Wahu
Ileile en Pohnpei v. Peterson, 20 FSM R. 546). The traditional leaders
argued that the sea cucumber harvest would violate their right to take
the rst fruitsof the harvest. The chiefs had visible support from the
public: about one hundred people joined a march to ban sea cucumber
export (Fig. 3) (Jaynes, 2016a), and an online fundraiser was established
to assist with the leaderslegal fees (Indiegogo 2016). The traditional
leaders won the case, obtaining a temporary restraining order against
Young Sun that ceased the export of sea cucumbers from Pohnpei after
just one day of harvesting (Jaynes, 2016b).
From 2016 to 2019, no sea cucumbers were legally exported from
Pohnpei. In 2016, researchers from the University of Guam conducted a
survey to estimate sea cucumber populations, concluding that com-
mercial harvest was not recommended (Bosserelle et al., 2017). Mean-
while, Young Sun worked to establish relationships with the traditional
leaders who had led the charge against them in court, as well as other
powerful actors. They found partners in an inuential traditional leader
and some of the democratically elected leaders of Sapwuak munici-
pality, an atoll about 150 km southwest of Pohnpei Island. In 2019, the
traditional leader who had obtained the temporary restraining order
against Young Sun ended it, and Young Sun was allowed to purchase sea
cucumbers from shers in Sapwuak soon after.
OFA determined that Young Sun had reached its harvest limits on
Sapwuak after four days of shing. This decision was inuenced by the
uproar from many residents of Sapwuak and the people of Pohnpei
who opposed the sea cucumber trade on the grounds that it was un-
sustainable, provided few benets to the shers, and threatened the
social fabric of the small community (Jaynes, 2019a). Meileen Albert,
then Chief Representative of the Sapwuak Municipal Government,
represented these dissenting voices in a public letter, stating,
I really am concerned that this foreign national will irreversibly and
irreparably harm both the peaceful and harmonious community that we
are as well as the balance of the coastal resources that we have so
depended on for our wellbeing for hundreds of years(Jaynes, 2019a).
With the Sapwuak harvest closed, Young Sun returned to the main
island of Pohnpei to seek new areas for exploitation. With the aid of the
traditional leaders who backed them and OFAacting under the di-
rection of a governor that supported the sea cucumber tradeYoung
Sun obtained permission to harvest in Madolenihmw municipality.
The conservation community was acting quickly to bridge their
networks during this period. Local NGOs connected teens who opposed
the trade with a lawyer willing to represent them in court pro bono. The
youth sued Young Sun and Pohnpei State under the U.N. Convention on
the Rights of the Child, claiming that the unregulated harvest of sea
cucumbers violated their right to a healthy environment (Assembly,
1989). This led to a second temporary restraining order, which made
front page news when it ended the harvest in Madolenihmw after just
one day of shing (Jaynes, 2019b).
While the case awaited a ruling from the judge, the Pohnpei State
legislature passed a law to place a ve-year moratorium on the export of
sea cucumbers while a Sea Cucumber Commission could be established
for the proper administration and supervision of the commercialization
Fig. 2. Provocative photo of the harvest shared online by then-Senator Harry
Fritz (Source: www.Palau2012.wordpress.com). [Note: color should
be included.]
C.E. Ferguson et al.
Global Environmental Change 73 (2022) 102477
6
of sea cucumbers(Jaynes, 2020a). This law rendered the youthscase
moot and effectively ended the legal export of sea cucumbers from
Pohnpei State altogether.
However, the struggle against Young Sun and the sea cucumber trade
continues. After the law was passed, Young Sun threatened to sue the
Pohnpei State government for US$9 million in damages, an enormous
sum for the state (Jaynes, 2020c). In response, the governor sent a letter
to the legislature asking them to amend the law to allow Young Sun to
continue their harvest. Citizens and NGOs continued to resist, encour-
aging the governor not to be bullied by Young Sun. The youth attempted
to re-open their case, which remains in limbo as of the writing of this
paper. Then, in August 2020, nine individuals associated with Young
Sun were arrested for illegally harvesting sea cucumbers in Sapwuak
(Jaynes, 2020d). Their case too is yet unresolved.
The social and environmental impacts of the most recent wave of
harvests are not yet well understood, but there is reason for concern.
Past studies indicate that populations were severely depleted by previ-
ous waves of export and that Pohnpeis waters cannot support sea cu-
cumber harvest at an industrial scale (Bosserelle et al., 2017). As for
economic benets, shers earned a total of only $16,854 during the
2016 harvest in Kitti and Sokehs (Kaselehlie Press, 8 June 2018).
Whether the income generated from the sea cucumber harvest mean-
ingfully beneted shers and their families is unclear, and benets were
unlikely to be equitably distributed; in every municipality, it was pri-
marily young men who participated in the harvest.
The victories against Young Sun have been met with quiet, cautious
support by the general public. The large volumes of sea cucumbers
required for the sea cucumber trade violate Pohnpeian norms and
values, and Young Sun has regularly used intimidation and possibly
bribery to capitalize on Pohnpeis resources. Meanwhile, trust in the
traditional leaders who have backed Young Sun has eroded. Many
believe those leaders are not upholding their traditional duty to ensure
that future generations are able to benet from Pohnpeis waters. The
erosion of trust in traditional leaders could have long-lasting effects on
cultural practices that have endured for centuries, including traditional
management practices that have proved highly effective at sustaining
resources across generations, which depend on chiefsauthority. But this
is not a concern of Young Sun. In an op-ed submitted to Kaselehlie Press,
a local paper, conservationists including author WK posed the questions,
Has this foreign company ever helped a community when it was in
need? Is this company planning to stick around after all the sea cu-
cumbers are gone?(Kostka et al., 2016).
6. Yap case study
The sea cucumber shery in Yap has been exploited for export over
several short periods since the 1800 s (Ropeti et al., 2010). Exports are
thought to have occurred when the Japanese colonial administration
was present after 1914, and the next documented activitythe rst
since independenceoccurred in 1995, followed by another boom in
20032007.
Following ‘boom-bustshing activities in neighboring states, in
1995, a Korean company advanced to Yap. They began purchasing sea
cucumbers for the bˆ
eche-de-mer trade under the guise of an experiment in
cultivation. The supposed scientic nature of the harvest was used to
justify the low price paid to shers relative to fair market value and the
large volumes being purchased. This was a common strategy in Micro-
nesian sea cucumber sheries at the time, where already by 1995
existing regulations in many places prohibited the export of sea cu-
cumbers for commercial purposes. However, no data were collected or
recorded by the exporters (Richmond, 1996).
The large volumes of sea cucumbers being harvested in the small
nearshore area of Yap alarmed local authorities. Violations of tenure
rights were also of paramount concern; many of the shers did not have
rights to the areas where they were collecting. Yet due to the complexity
of Yaps tenure system, as well as the customary deference owed to one
another, it was difcult to prove or enforce individual cases of tenure
violations. When a sherman took advantage of Yap Day, when most
people were out of the village, to harvest illegally and sell to the
exporter, resistance mounted and traditional leaders took action (pers.
comm., Dr. Margie Falanruw, Director of the Yap Institute of Natural
Science).
The concerned chiefs and Lieutenant Governor reached-out to author
RR to provide ecological and economic information on the sea cucumber
trade that could be used by local decision-makers. Following his pre-
sentation, the chiefs, Yapese biologists from the Yap State Division of
Marine Resources, and other key Yapese stakeholders met to discuss
policy options. Within days, they decided to impose a full moratorium
on the harvesting of sea cucumbers, effective immediately, until a
science-based management plan could be put into place.
Fig. 3. Citizens protest the sea cucumber trade in Pohnpei (source: Block Unsustainable Sea Cucumber Harvest, Pohnpei, Indiegogo Campaign). [Note: color should
be included.]
C.E. Ferguson et al.
Global Environmental Change 73 (2022) 102477
7
A subsequent meeting was organized to bring together diverse
stakeholders and knowledge-holders to address the increasing pressure
from external buyers to exploit regional sea cucumber resources. This
meeting resulted in a technical report on the biological, ecological, and
economic considerations of developing a sea cucumber shery (Rich-
mond, 1996). The report cautioned,
There is no example of a buyer encouraging sustainable resource
utilization in the historical records of sea cucumber sheries. Once an
area is overshed, buyers look for new sourcesSuch free-market
systems without controls inevitably lead to resource depletion(Rich-
mond et al., 1996).
The moratorium proved effective for nearly a decade, though a
management plan was never developed. But in 2003, exporters ree-
merged to exploit Yaps sea cucumber shery once more, driven by
growing demand in China and declining catch in other parts of the Pa-
cic (Friedman et al., 2008). In the intervening years, the power of
chiefs had signicantly declined. Traditional ownership rights were
directly challenged by the sea cucumber trade (Ropeti et al., 2010), and
chiefs were unsuccessful at stopping the harvest. From 2006 to 2007, the
harvest gained momentum. Poaching became commonplace (Ropeti
et al., 2010). Fishing was occurring at an alarming rate(Friedman
et al., 2008), and severe degradation of sea cucumber resources was
reported, though no formalized data collection was in place (Ropeti
et al., 2010). Furthermore, anecdotal evidence at the time suggested that
product size and quality were compromised (Friedman et al., 2008),
meaning shers were not being paid top prices for their catch and the
shery was not achieving its full income generating potential.
These management and sustainability challenges, combined with
community unrest, led the Yap State government to impose a temporary
moratorium in September 2007 so that a management plan could nally
be developed (Friedman et al., 2008). The moratorium, an amendment
to the Yap State Code, banned gathering together, amassing, or accu-
mulating sea cucumbers(Yap State Code, Title XVIII, Chapter X, Sec-
tion 1012, 3), though the Governor was given authority to establish an
open season for the sustainable harvesting, selling, and buying of sea
cucumbers(Yap State Code, Title XVIII, Chapter X, Section 1012, 4, c).
The amendment also recognized the ultimate authority of traditional
leaders over resource use, stating, Even where authorized by this Sec-
tion or its subsidiary regulation, a person may only harvest sea cu-
cumbersupon and subject to the consent of the appropriate traditional
owner thereof(Yap State Code, Title XVIII, Chapter X, Section 1012, 4,
g).
The process of developing a management plan began immediately
and was driven by the Yap state government, traditional leaders, other
industry stakeholders, and the Secretariat of the Pacic Community
(SPC) (Friedman et al., 2008). The plan, which went into effect in 2010
and is still in effect today, is rooted in local Indigenous values, stating,
Yapese communities recognise that culture and natural resources,
such as the land, reef and coastal areas on which they depend, are fully
intertwined, and that a healthy environment is the foundation of a
healthy culture(Ropeti et al., 2010).
Since the management plan was put in place, exporters have
returned to Yap numerous times, challenging its efcacy. Most recently,
exporting companies have partnered directly with the traditional
leaders whose role it was once asserted to defend Yaps reefs from
export-driven overexploitation. In 2018, a chief was dismissed by the
traditional council for abuse of power in harvesting sea cucumbers with
Korean friendsin opposition to the communitys wishes, sowing
disputes, asco, and segregation between families and clans(McClure,
2018). The shifting roles of traditional leaders in Yap, from near-
unilateral and unanimous decision-makers, to stakeholder group,
toin at least one instancebusiness partner of exporters, represent
broader societal shifts in the power of traditional governance structures
and practices.
7. Discussion
These three case studies challenge the narrative that the tragedy of
the commodity is inevitable by presenting an alternative pathway for
commodity sheries through local resistance. In this section, we review
the motivations for, proponents of, and strategies of resistance that
characterize these social movements, then assess factors that led to the
success and the durability of strategies to resist the tragedy of the
commodity, address limitations of this study, and propose directions for
future research.
7.1. Motivations for resistance
The motivations for resisting in all cases were non-economic, chal-
lenging the fundamental assumption underlying the tragedy of the
commons and tragedy of the commodity frameworks that resource users
are self-interested rational actors. Instead, resistance in each case
involved both struggling against external interests and struggling for
Indigenous values. First, the visibility of the threat was a precondition
for resistance in all three cases, as is well established in the social
movements literature (Peet and Watts, 1996). The scale of the harvest
almost immediately resulted in perceptible resource degradation in all
three cases, and social problems including violations of tenure rights
were similarly obvious to community members. These ecological and
social burdens posed what Bebbington et al. (2008) call threats to
lifeworldsthrough the incursion of external investments, markets,
shing strategies, and values that undermined existing moral economies
and social organizations based on community wellbeing, reciprocal re-
lations with nature, and intergenerational responsibility. Communities
struggled against these threats.
Communities also struggled for Indigenous values and practices,
resource autonomy, and self-determination. For example, an early vic-
tory in Pohnpei was won in court by traditional leaders defending their
customary rights to the rst fruits of the harvest. The use of customary
law to assert Indigenous governance structures in the face of capitalist
incursion was not incidental but mirrored the conict between value
systems at the heart of the resistance. This nding aligns with work on
Indigenous resurgence linking Indigenous-led marine conservation
movements to struggles for self-determination (Jones et al., 2017, von
der Porten et al., 2019).
7.2. Strategies of resistance
Though key actors and strategies varied between sites, a collective of
traditional leaders, elected ofcials, shers, scientists, and civil society
organizations worked together in each case to resist the tragedy of the
commodity through litigation, public protest, and customary and stat-
utory law. Though past scholarship has highlighted the importance of
non-local actors to the success of social movements (Bebbington et al.,
2008), the three movements we examined were remarkably local-
despite the international nature and geographic extent of the trade.
Resistance in these contexts was driven by local leaders and activists,
uplifted by local CSOs, and assisted by local and non-local scientists,
upon the request of local actors. This nding demonstrates that local
resistance can be effective without outside actors. Still, taking a more
glocalapproach to resistance to the high-value seafood trade may
yield additional benets (Conde and Kallis, 2012).
Civil society organizations (CSOs) and scientists emerged from these
cases as supporting actors. Both groups uplifted local resistance move-
ments by providing supporting evidence, mobilizing resources, and
connecting key players. The role of CSOs was most prominent in
Pohnpei, where they provided networks and resources for prolonged
court battles, connecting traditional leaders and youth activists with
lawyers and bringing press attention to their cases. In the earliest
instance, in 2016, one CSO was itself a plaintiff against the sea cucumber
exporter Young Sun. CSOs in Pohnpei also worked directly with local
C.E. Ferguson et al.
Global Environmental Change 73 (2022) 102477
8
and non-local scientists to provide robust evidence for the destructive
nature of the trade and translated this evidence for community members
and policymakers.
These cases also highlight the challenges that strict power hierar-
chies can pose to resistance movements. Conde and Kallis (2012) argued
that those at the top of the power hierarchy can be bought off by
opposing actors to gain more power, alliances, and money, while those
lower in the hierarchy are further marginalized. In our cases, powerful
individual actors in the legislative, executive, judicial, and traditional
branches of government were critical to the successes of the resistance
movements, yet some individuals were corrupted or used their power for
personal gain. As discussed by Villamayor-Tomas et al. (2020), the
tensions created by these hierarchies have threatened to create or
reinforce divisions within communities. Specically, divisions have
eroded respect for traditional leaders and customary law, institutions
that underpin the efcacy of traditional management systems.
7.3. Factors supporting persistence of efforts to resist the tragedy of the
commodity
Our case studies shed light on some factors that enable successful and
persistent efforts to resist the tragedy of the commodity. First, the shared
collective identity of Indigenous shers enabled resistance against
external interests and for shared values. Second, networks between local
actors, facilitated by CSOs, enabled more resource-intensive strategies,
including legal battles. Third, in all cases, the alignment of statutory law
with customary law was critical to ensuring longer-term success.
Each of these factors hinges on the recognition and promotion of
Indigenous rights, autonomy, values, and cultural identity ties. Pinker-
ton (2017) similarly found that formally recognized Indigenous man-
agement rights were key to the success of Indigenous shers resisting the
opening of a herring shery in Canada. To support Indigenous resur-
gence in marine conservation, von der Porten et al. (2019) recommend
the application of Indigenous knowledge to policy, the creation of legal
frameworks to recognize and support Indigenous rights and customs,
and support for Indigenous leadershipparticularly for women. Our
ndings support these recommendations and further suggest that sup-
porting local civil society organizations and local scientists is likely to
yield even more benets.
Finally, we posit that the persistence of these efforts was due to a re-
assertion of institutions that characterize successful common-pool
resource management via a process of recommmonization (Prateep
Kumar Nayak, 2011). The commodity market for sea cucumbers dis-
rupted existing norms, practices, and institutions that supported
common-pool resource management (Ostrom, 1990, Cox et al., 2010), in
some senses decommonizingthe resource (Prateep Kumar Nayak,
2011). Several key elements of the commons were threatened (Ostrom,
2009): the number of users dramatically increased, the long-term
importance of the resource to new entrants was low, leadership was
directly challenged, and users readily violated boundaries established by
the marine tenure system. Yet communities reclaimed these elements
through resistance, recommonizing the sheries (Prateep Kumar
Nayak, 2011) and averting the tragedy of the commodity. These cases
show that sheries commons are dynamic (Nayak, 2021), and that total
collapse is not necessary for reorganization, renewal, and rejection of
commodity markets. The commodity frontier does not have to lead to
tragedy. In these cases, the values underlying Indigenous management
systems and laws that supported them enabled communities to reassert
key elements of the commons that had been compromised.
7.4. Limitations & future directions
This exploratory multiple case study research presents some expla-
nations of why and how resistance emerges to the high-value seafood
trade. Our research design is, however, limited in that we have relied on
existing literature, memories of past events, and lessons from still-
unfolding events. The dynamics of resistance to the high-value seafood
trade are by nature difcult to understand, as actorsespecially ex-
porters and their supportersintentionally shroud their activities and
relationships. Further case study research is warranted to characterize
the motivations, social dynamics, and strategies of mobilizations to
resist both high-value seafood markets and also a broader array of blue
economyactivities (Bond, 2019, Schutter and Hicks, 2019).
Much of the literature on Indigenous environmental mobilizations
has been conducted in communities residing within the boundaries of a
colonizing power (e.g., Jones et al., 2017, Harper et al. 2018). By
contrast, the cases we examine are in the context of Indigenous-led
nations. Their constitutions embed Indigenous values and governance
structures. In contexts where Indigenous peoples are not fully empow-
ered to manage marine resources, Klain et al. (2014) found that greater
inclusion and leadership from Indigenous groups has the potential to
promote social and economic benets for previously disadvantaged
communities, as well as healthy ecosystems. Future research should
investigate the impact of different political constructions on resistance
efforts and their efcacy toward these goals.
Prior research has indicated the role of women to be central to social
movements (Parisi and Corntassel, 2007, Pardo, 1990, John, 2015,
Harris et al., 2015, Harper et al., 2018, Veuthey and Gerber, 2012). This
is attributed to the gender division of work, power, and access to natural
resources that creates different responsibilities and knowledge accord-
ing to gender; this in turn creates conditions under which women and
men perceive market intrusion and natural resources depletion differ-
ently, thus creating mobilizations structured according to gender
(Agrawal and Gibson, 2001). While this did not emerge as a theme in our
cases, the prominent role of women in sea cucumber harvesting for local
use suggests there may be more to uncover that was hidden by our
research design.
8. Conclusions
Our study demonstrates that resistance to the high-value seafood
trade is tied to the broader goals of self-determination and the assertion
of Indigenous values. These cases all occurred in contexts of robust and
centuries-old local natural resource management systems, in commu-
nities that maintain Indigenous resource use values and practices related
to intergenerational responsibility and community wellbeing. This
context was key to motivating resistance and protected high-value sea
cucumber sheries from collapse. Yet it is not a given that these values
and practices will be passed on to the next generation; educating and
involving youth and maintaining legal recognition of Indigenous values
and governance structures will be critical to future success.
The high-value seafood trade continues to rapidly expand, often
resulting in overexploitation and social disruption. Yet these three cases
challenge the inevitability of the tragedy of the commodity, which po-
sitions shers as self-interested, vulnerable, and disempowered. They
show that shers have agency, have strongly held non-economic values,
and can successfully resist unwanted inuence by powerful interna-
tional economic actors. In doing so, they are challenging the very un-
derpinnings of globalization, capitalization, and commodication of
their natural resources. There is a need for more case studies on how
shing communities resist to identify successful strategies and key
enabling conditions in diverse geographic, political, social, and
ecological contexts. These cases suggest that, in order to promote a more
just and sustainable future for the oceans, local and Indigenous values,
practices, and governance structures should be supported and uplifted.
Funding sources
This work has been funded by Stanford University (Emmett and
Lindsay Families) and the Stanford School of Earth, Energy, and Envi-
ronmental Sciences McGee/Levorson grants.
C.E. Ferguson et al.
Global Environmental Change 73 (2022) 102477
9
CRediT authorship contribution statement
Caroline E. Ferguson: Conceptualization, Methodology, Formal
analysis, Investigation, Writing original draft, Writing review &
editing. Nathan J. Bennett: Methodology, Formal analysis, Writing
review & editing, Supervision. William Kostka: Writing review &
editing. Robert H. Richmond: Writing review & editing, Supervision.
Ann Singeo: Conceptualization, Writing review & editing.
Declaration of Competing Interest
The authors declare that they have no known competing nancial
interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to inuence
the work reported in this paper.
Acknowledgement
We wish to thank Dr. Margie Falanruw for providing additional
insight into the Yap case study. Ferguson also extends gratitude to her
advisors, Dr. Fiorenza Micheli and Dr. William Durham, for providing
guidance throughout the development of this article.
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C.E. Ferguson et al.
... Indigenous institutions have helped manage relationships between people for centuries (Foale et al., 2011), and can organize communities to resist unwanted commoditization and subsequent overexploitation of coastal resources (e.g. Ferguson et al., 2022). Traditional knowledge systems can provide accurate observations on local ecological processes and practices of resource use, which are vital components for developing appropriate livelihood solutions to adapt to changing environmental conditions at local scales (Leonard et al., 2013;McMillen et al., 2014). ...
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