Capturing the Commons

Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster Industry

James M. Acheson

One of the most pressing concerns of environmentalists and policy makers is the overexploitation of natural resources. Efforts to regulate such resources are too often undermined by the people whose livelihoods depend on their use. One of the great challenges for wildlife managers in the twenty-first century is learning to create the conditions under which people will erect effective and workable rules to conserve those resources. James M. Acheson, author of the best-selling Lobster Gangs of Maine (the seminal work on the culture and economics of lobster fishing), here turns his attention to the management of the lobster industry. In this illuminating new book, he shows that resource degradation is not inevitable. Indeed, the Maine lobster fishery is one of the most successful fisheries in the world. Catches have been stable since World War II, and record highs have been achieved since the late 1980s. According to Acheson, these high catches are due, in part, to the institutions generated by the lobster-fishing industry to control fishing practices. These rules are effective. Rational choice theory frames Acheson’s down-to-earth study. Rational choice theorists believe that the overexploitation of marine resources stems from their common-pool nature, which results in collective action problems. In fisheries, what is rational for the individual fishermen can lead to disaster for the society. The progressive Maine lobster industry, lobster fishermen, and local groups have solved a series of such problems by creating three different sets of regulations: informal territorial rules; rules to control the number of traps; and formal conservation legislation. In recent years, the industry has successfully influenced new regulations at the federal level and has developed a strong co-management system with the Maine government. The process of developing these rules has been quite acrimonious; factions of fishermen have disagreed over lobster rules designed to give commercial advantage to one group or another. Although fishermen and scientists have come to share a conservation ethic, they often disagree over how to best conserve the lobster and even the quality of science. The importance of Capturing the Commons is twofold: it provides a case study of the management of one highly successful fishery, which can serve as a management model for policy makers, politicians, and local communities; and it adds to the body of theory concerning the conditions under which people will and will not devise institutions to manage natural resources.

Paper: $29.95 | E-book: $28.99
ISBN-13: 9781584653936
Pages: 284 | Size: 5.5 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: September 16, 2004

“Sophisticated and wise… The product of a lifetime of studying the lobster fishery by one of the foremost economic anthropologists.”

Richard Wilk, Indiana University


  • . . . fishermen, scientists, regulators, and especially politicians would do well to absorb its lessons.

    Down East
  • [This] is an extremely fine, informative read. [Acheson] provides a competent, convincing course on the difficult management of a common resource, especially one where there is a lack of resource predictability and great uncertainties, all complicated with the tangled matrix in which the culture, institutions and formal regulations unfolds. It is highly recommended.

    International Journal of Maritime History
  • Documenting the way in which different kinds of formal and informal institutions were developed to manage the booming Maine lobster industry, providing a case study of the management of one highly successful fishery, and, by doing so, contributing to the body of theory concerning the conditions under which people will and will not devise institutions to manage natural resources.

    Natural Resources Journal
  • An intriguing book that will interest fishermen, resource managers, and scholars... this book is a timely and important one, in light of the fact that sixty percent of the world's fisheries are in various states of degradation and crisis.

    Northeastern Naturalist
  • Sophisticated and wise... The product of a lifetime of studying the lobster fishery by one of the foremost economic anthropologists... Acheson shows that most of the common wisdom about fisheries management is just plain wrong, and how it can be fixed...

    Richard Wilk
    Anthropology Department, Indiana University
  • James Acheson cogently analyzes a 70-year process during which the lobster fishermen of Maine boot strapped modest improvement after modest improvement on the condition of their fishery after suffering through a major bust. By devising rules that protected breeding stock and juveniles, the lobster stock began to expand. By gaining confidence in their rules, those responsible gained confidence to devise still more ways of conserving the stock. Managers of other resource systems and scholars can learn major lessons from reading this carefully documented and theoretically informed volume. I will be assigning this book to my own students and recommending it to resource manager in all parts of the world. All who read this book will benefit.

    Elinor Ostrom

About the Author

James Acheson

James M. Acheson was Professor of Anthropology and Marine Sciences at the University of Maine. He was the author of The Lobster Gangs of Maine (UPNE 1988), one of the first popular studies of the lobster industry.

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