What Drives Sustainability in a Fishery Prone to Collapse? Investigating the Social, Ecological and Governance Complexities of the Eastern Oyster Fishery

Abstract

Oyster reefs provide coastal ecosystems and societies with many ecosystem services including shoreline protection, water filtration, nutrient cycling and habitat for numerous marine organisms. Unfortunately, the cumulative effects of disease, predation, and destructive overharvesting have resulted in scientists declaring them functionally extinct in many regions and that more than 85% of the worldÍs oyster reefs have been lost. In the case of the Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica), which is distributed throughout the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts, the current condition varies as some bays now support considerably more oysters than historical baselines and other historically productive bays are now largely absent of oysters. We are exploring these divergent fates of the reefs in these bays using a coupled social-ecological systems approach. To assess the sustainability of oyster fisheries, we acquired oyster landings data to assess overall trajectory, stability, and incidents of collapse. Similarly, we utilized a recently published study that reported the historical and recent coverage and biomass of oysters within each state as indices of oyster-related ecosystem services. Our exploration of social influences will include the number of oyster fishers, socioeconomic attributes, leadership, norms and social capital. Ecological factors will include the size, productivity and predictability of the resource system. Finally, our governance analysis will focus on operational rules, collective-choice rules and property-rights systems at local, state and regional scales. Our study will improve our understanding of resource sustainability, and provide useful information for the policy makers and managers tasked with protecting these vulnerable populations.