Quick Take: Sustainable Fishing in French Polynesia – A Behavioral Analysis Please?

For the present post I have nothing intelligent to say except that there’s an intelligent conversation to be had about the topic of this article on community-implemented marine conservation strategies in rural French Polynesia. Faced with dwindling fish harvests after years of overfishing, primarily caused by modern large-haul methods like net fishing, some ocean communities have invoked the traditional practice of rāhui, which has many meanings in Polynesia but in the present case refers to a leader, after consulting with the proper divinities, seeking the endorsement of the people to set up a management system. Rāhui isn’t specific to fishing or even to conservation per se; rather, it’s a mechanism that can be harnessed for a variety of purposes.

In the present case, without the intervention of a large central government or regulatory agency, communities have chosen to close off selected fishing areas for all or part of each year. They have banned the use of large-haul methods and allowed only certain fishing methods that benefit mostly families and possibly small businesses. Over time, fish populations have recovered, demonstrably because of the management system. For instance, a study found that fish were twice as plentiful in one rāhui zone as in immediately adjacent waters.

Rāhui is interesting because of the loose web of cooperation that’s required to sustain it. To begin with, to avoid tragedy-of-the-commons type problems, community members must all respect the restrictions on fishing. There is no elaborate top-down system of enforcement to demand this. And community members help to patrol the rāhui area for those, primarily outsiders, who may violate the restrictions. But here too “enforcement” is the wrong word, because as individual community member all that those on patrol can do is to talk to violators to persuade them of the value of the project. For the most part, this system works.

No way, in a million years, can I see rāhui working (or existing!) in the United States. Our individualistic, profit-focused culture would, in a heartbeat, undermine the required web of cooperation — which I suppose is why our system of governance puts so much emphasis instead on top-down regulation and enforcement. This raises the question: What creates a society in which community-level action, in pursuit of long-term sustainability rather than short-term benefit, is possible? And more to the point, is it possible to convert a greedy, consumption-oriented society like that in the U.S. to one with this kind of potential?

To be clear, I’m not asking how to create and implement a specific rāhui action. I’m asking what forces shape a society to be amenable to such a thing. With all due to respect to the hopeful work on sustainability being done by the culturo-behavioral science people, I’m skeptical that ground-up change can even be discussed until we answer this basic question.

At the core of this discussion may lie the concept of the metacontingency — loosely speaking, there may be cultural traditions with deep historical roots that intersect productively with current challenges. For a glimpse of what this feel like, see Simon and Mobekk’s (2019) discussion of the Norwegian tradition of dugnad, or shared labor on community projects. Dugnad’s roots are in long-term cultural selection, and each individual community member’s learning history is steeped in it. The practice is therefore bound up in contingency histories, but applicable, potentially, to whatever new need arises.

At this point I have to confess ignorance, as I find the concept of the metacontingency elusive. At times I think I understand it, and then it slips through my grasp. I think I am just not smart enough to keep up on this one, and for present purposes I’m taking no position on recent critiques of the concept. All I can say is that the problem at hand feels metacontingency-esque, and if we could project how to build a rāhui-friendly society maybe we would have a concrete example of what the concept of metacontingency is trying to capture. But more centrally I’d love to see someone more steeped in culturo-behavioral science than I take up the topic of rāhui and its implications for our understanding of large-scale (and sustainable) cultural innovations.

Guest post, anyone?