Social determinants of the exploitation and management of coral reef resources in Solomon Islands

Brewer, Tom David (2013) Social determinants of the exploitation and management of coral reef resources in Solomon Islands. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Globally, natural resources are declining due primarily to unsustainable human consumption. Resource scarcity and associated problems therefore arise fundamentally from social processes. This thesis compares and contrasts the relative merit of the three dominant environmental sociology perspectives for their respective ability to explain the effect of human societies on natural resources. First is the perspective of population pressure driving resource scarcity; a perspective commonly known, and referred to herein, as 'Malthusian overpopulation'. Second is the perspective of free market capitalism and associated market expansion driving resource scarcity; a perspective commonly cited as the 'treadmill of production' in environmental sociology (herein referred to as 'market expansion'). Third is the perspective of modernization driving resource scarcity at low levels of modernization and resource abundance at high levels of modernization; a perspective commonly known as 'ecological modernization' in environmental sociology and the 'environmental Kuznets curve' in ecological economics (herein referred to as 'modernization'). Each perspective is supported by many scholars, and has a significant literature to substantiate the respective claims of the key social processes that cause change in the state of natural resource. Critical comparison of the three perspectives will likely offer greater insight into interactions between societies and natural resources than examining one perspective alone, and may therefore offer more appropriate solutions to the challenges posed by resource scarcity.

There are gaps in our understanding of society's effects on natural resources that are apparent from a review of comparative studies on the three dominant perspectives. First, most studies that compare and contrast the relative merit of the three perspectives correlate proxy variables for each of the perspectives [e.g. human population density (for 'Malthusian overpopulation'), and Gross Domestic Product (for 'market expansion')] with environmental indicators (e.g. fishery biomass) without explicitly considering mechanisms such as resource exploitation intensity or resource management institution efficacy. Second, few of the comparative analyses that have been undertaken to date, explicitly compare and contrast the three perspectives at the local-level. Most studies have instead focused on the national-level. Yet interactions between societies and resources vary significantly across social-political levels, and one could argue that most decisions to exploit and manage resources do occur at the local level, particularly in less affluent societies where there is comparatively limited centralised management and vast reserves of natural resources. Third, there is inadequate attention paid to the developing country context. Most studies that compare the perspectives are either global or focused on affluent nations. Few studies have focused analyses on poorer, economically peripheral nations where much of the world's biodiversity and other natural resources exist. This is critical for two reasons; first, affluent and poor societies represent very different social contexts so conclusions drawn from global or affluent-nation analyses are unlikely to be transferrable to developing countries; second world systems theory suggests that affluent societies import resources and export pollutants to poorer societies and vice-versa, and therefore opportunities to modernize as per the modernization perspective might be difficult to realize. Fourth, no comparative analyses of the perspectives have included research on local perceptions of society's effects on natural resources. Understanding local perceptions, however, is useful to confirm (or refute) hypothesis-driven research and potentially useful to increase the likelihood of implementation of research recommendations in applied research.

The aim of this thesis is to fill these research gaps by 1) explaining society's effects on natural resources, at the local-level in an economically peripheral nation, using dominant environmental sociology perspectives (research gaps 1-3), and to 2) determine whether local perceptions, support or refute the scientific explanation (research gap 4). These broad aims are achieved by completing the following research objectives:

1. Determine which dominant environmental sociology perspectives, of societies effects on natural resources, best explains the effects of exploitation on;

a) Coral reef fish that are vulnerable to extinction by overfishing;

b) Function and diversity of coral reef fish;

2. Determine which of the perspectives explain the occurrence of coral reef resource management institutions; and

3. Determine whether local perceptions support, or refute, the findings, as identified in objectives 1 and 2, of society's effects on the exploitation and management of coral reef fish.

To achieve research objective 1, I collected secondary social (census) and ecological (survey) data from 25 local-level sites spanning Solomon Islands. I then analysed the data using structural equation models to explain how proxy variables, which represent each of the dominant perspectives, affect fishing pressure to, in turn, affect the distributions of a) biomass of coral reef fish that are vulnerable to overfishing and b) coral reef fish functional group biomass and diversity. The key aspects of fish distributions I examined were explained by fishing pressure. Specifically, there was lower biomass of coral reef fish that are vulnerable to overfishing, lower biomass of key functional groups of fishes, and lower fish species diversity where there was higher fishing pressure. The key finding, which addresses research objective 1 is that fishing pressure was, in turn, driven by high human population density and greater access to markets; proxy variables for the Malthusian overpopulation and market expansion perspectives, respectively. Modernization had no discernable effect on fishing pressure.

To achieve research objective 2, I collected data for proxy variables of each of the dominant perspectives and on coral reef resource management institutions (gear restrictions, species restrictions, and spatial closures) from ≥723 local-level sites spanning Solomon Islands (I developed some of the survey instrument on management institutions but the data were collected by the national government and other agencies). I then tested the effects of each set of proxy variables, which represent each of the perspectives, on the occurrence of management institutions using a range of statistical analyses. I found that the presence of management institutions was negatively correlated with human population density and positively correlated with modernization and the presence of fish markets, lending support to the Malthusian overpopulation perspective, and simultaneously detracting from the market expansion perspective. The results neither clearly supported nor refuted the modernization perspective.

To achieve research objective 3, I conducted interviews, using a survey instrument, with 119 fishers and fish traders in the major urban centres of Solomon Islands to identify which factors they perceive can increase and decrease coral reef fish stocks. The qualitative responses were coded, and analysed using Principal Components Analysis to derive the dominant perceptions. The interviewed fishers and middlemen perceived an extensive range of factors to be causing fish decline, and also stated a diverse range of management interventions that they perceived would increase fish stocks. Respondents identified fishing as a major cause of fish decline driven by income-related needs, among other factors, which is concordant with the findings of objectives 1 and 2.

In this thesis I compared the three dominant perspectives of society's effects on natural resources using a novel model in an economically peripheral nation at the local-level. In doing so, I found greatest support for both the Malthusian overpopulation and market expansion perspectives. This finding was concordant with local perceptions, adding further weight of evidence. Given these findings, it can be expected that, with predicted population growth and continued resource commoditization and aspirations of affluence, coral reef resources will likely continue to be depleted in Solomon Islands, and other locations with comparable context (economically peripheral). Policy prescriptions that aim to slow this depletion must consider local population pressure and markets as dominant driving forces.

Item ID: 29591
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Solomon Islands; coral reef resources; declining resources; management options; environmental sociology perspectives; exploitation of natural resources
Additional Information:

Publications arising from this thesis are available from the Related URLs field. The publications are:

Chapter 2a.Brewer, T.D., Cinner, J.E., Green, A., and Pressey, R.L. (2013) Effects of human population density and proximity to markets on coral reef fishes vulnerable to extinction by fishing. Conservation Biology, 27 (3). pp. 443-452.

Chapter 2b. Brewer, Thomas D., Cinner, Joshua E., Fisher, Rebecca, Green, Alison, and Wilson, Shaun K. (2012) Market access, population density, and socioeconomic development explain diversity and functional group biomass of coral reef fish assemblages. Global Environmental Change, 22 (2). pp. 399-406.

Chapter 4. Brewer, T.D. (2013) Dominant discourses, among fishers and middlemen, of the factors affecting coral reef fish distributions in Solomon Islands. Marine Policy, 37 . pp. 245-253.

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Date Deposited: 16 Oct 2013 05:47
FoR Codes: 05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050202 Conservation and Biodiversity @ 33%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050209 Natural Resource Management @ 33%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1608 Sociology > 160802 Environmental Sociology @ 34%
SEO Codes: 97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970105 Expanding Knowledge in the Environmental Sciences @ 50%
97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society @ 50%
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