A James Cook University researcher has proposed a different approach to combat poaching on coral reefs, that focuses less on fines and more on social influence.
Dr Brock Bergseth will be diving into human behaviour to examine how people’s innate desire to fit in can be used to reduce poaching on coral reefs in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia.
“Social norms are really influential in shaping our behaviours – I’ll be testing whether we can harness the power of norms to reduce illegal fishing,” he said.
“For example, power and water companies have leveraged norms to drastically reduce people’s resource use, simply by comparing them to their neighbours and the most efficient users.”
Dr Bergseth said current fisheries enforcement practices focus mostly on punishments such as fines, confiscation of equipment, or loss of licenses, with mixed success.
“In some cases, this works, but fishers may also poach in acts of defiance, protest, or rebellion against rules that are viewed as illegitimate or overly harsh,” he said.
“Instead, I want to use social norms, or our ideas about what others are doing and what is socially acceptable, to reduce poaching.”
Dr Bergseth said poaching is one of the biggest barriers towards sustainable fisheries, but efforts to address it often fail due to a lack of understanding on how to influence behaviour.
“Poaching is tough to tackle because it’s illegal, clandestine and ever-changing,” he said. “People are talented at finding ways to break the rules so enforcement authorities are constantly having to adapt and respond to an ever-present element of ‘rascality’ in society.
“Changing social norms could be longer-lasting and more cost-effective than spending millions of dollars per year on enforcement policies that only coerce compliance through the threat of punishment.”
Dr Bergseth said social norms are likely to be more influential in some cultures than others, but he’s confident the results will provide interesting insights about behaviour change in conservation.
“My goal is to establish a practical way of influencing behaviour to conserve and protect our environmental resources,” he said.
“Norms are quite influential for environmental behaviours, so the results will likely apply to a range of behaviours including illegal logging, pollution, illegal dumping, etc.”
Dr Bergseth has received a 2021 Discover Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellowship to conduct the work, and is a researcher at the JCU-based ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.