William Cheung on “taboo tradeoffs” in tropical fisheries published in PNAS

Ecosystem management that ignores “taboo tradeoffs” is likely to fail 

A new approach to reveal “taboo” and “tragic” tradeoffs may protect marginalized people and improve conservation success.

Imagine the dilemma facing a doctor who must choose which of two children most needs a liver transplant. Society does not judge people for agonizing over these ‘tragic tradeoffs’ between two sacred values.

However, a tradeoff between saving a child or the hospital earning money from cosmetic surgery will quickly draw fire and is an example of a ‘taboo tradeoff’ between something sacred, and something secular. Some people are repulsed by someone even considering this kind of tradeoff.

These ideas, developed by the U.S. psychologist Philip Tetlock, have been used to understand tension and conflicts in politics, such as those around freedom of choice versus national security. Now, a team of researchers from Kenya, the UK, Sweden and Canada have adopted this concept to sustainable fishing decisions faced by managers and communities in coastal Kenya with surprising results. Their research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was supported by the UK Government through the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) research programme.

The researchers analysed the various trade-offs involved when fisheries managers have to make decisions about the sustainability of the fishery. They found that scientists and managers usually focused on “win-wins”, such as the gains in profitability and conservation that can be won by reducing overfishing, while not always acknowledging “taboo” trade-offs.

For example, one of the important taboo tradeoffs that the team uncovered had received little attention: improving the profitability of the fisheries would hurt the livelihoods of poor, marginalized women who earned a living as fish traders. Although conservation measures would improve profits by producing larger and more valuable fish, these women rely on the cheap fish that are produced by heavy fishing pressure. Uncomfortable truths about social winners and losers were being ignored by decision makers.

So, how to confront these uncomfortable truths so that decisions take into account the whole community? The researchers devised a forum in which managers and researchers and others in the community could explore and discuss a broader range of trade-offs, both economic and the noneconomic, difficult-to-evaluate values, such as cultural identity, employment, the wellbeing of poor people, or particular species or ecosystem health.

This forum provided a way for communities, managers and organizations working with the fishery to openly deal with these thorny issues. This allowed deliberations over types of trade-offs that are usually ignored and are invisible to purely economic analysis.

One conservationist said of the forum: “What really drove the idea of trade-offs home was the optimizing exercise because it enabled me to see the interconnectivity between factors and I could visualize how when one increased, the other decreased.”

Another participant said the forum broadened their perception of the ecosystem and links to wellbeing. “Now, I do not approach projects from a narrow perspective. Previously I might have shied away from a gender meeting, but now I am willing to attend, because I realize that there are interconnections to the work that I do in conservation.”

Lead author Tim Daw from the Stockholm Resilience Centre said, “The impact of the fishery on marginalized women was not considered as part of the management decision making. It is often the case that environmental analysis focusses purely on economic tradeoffs or even avoids these in favour of win-wins. Our participatory approach has the potential to increase awareness of taboo tradeoffs.”

Co-author Dr. William Cheung, Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Nereus Program of the University of British Columbia, explained, “We used a computer simulation model to explore the trade-offs between ecology and benefits to some groups of the coastal community. Because of the complex interactions of the social and ecological system, we could not find a win-win solution for everybody”.

The researchers carried out their analysis on a small-scale fishery at Nyali, Mombasa, Kenya, where most of those who benefit from the fishery are poor. Similar fisheries provide a livelihood to about 100 million people across the developing world.

The researchers mapped the benefits from this fishery to five main groups: captains of illegal but widely-used large beach seine nets; labourers used in teams to pull beach seine nets; independent fishers using other fishing gear, such as small gill nets and spears; male traders, who specialize in large fish for high-value markets; and female traders, who buy smaller and cheaper fish, typical of beach seine catches, and fry them to sell to local communities. Taking a more socially inclusive and holistic view of the system uncovered the interconnections between the groups who used the fishery and affected the way that they communicated with each other.

Caroline Abunge from the Wildlife Conservation Society in Kenya reflects “people identified the tradeoffs, and realized how their wellbeing was interconnected. They started thinking ‘we have to do this together’ ”

The authors conclude that one way to overcome the difficulty of confronting taboo tradeoffs is to reframe them as tragic tradeoffs, which are more socially acceptable. For example, in this case, the taboo tradeoff between women traders’ wellbeing and profit can be framed as a tragic tradeoff between these women and local poverty alleviation opportunities. Such reframing does not resolve trade-offs, but may facilitate deliberation over them and prevent them from being ignored, which can lead to unresolved conflicts.

This gets over the difficulty of dealing with the “moral repugnance of taboo trade-offs”, the authors report, because it is “socially virtuous to carefully consider tragic tradeoffs”.

This approach, applied here for a small Kenyan fishery, could be adapted to help address the difficult tradeoffs which so challenge sustainable ecosystem management in poor as well as wealthier countries.

Read more on William Cheung’s work here.

Evaluating taboo trade-offs in ecosystems services and human well-being

Tim M. Daw, Sarah Coulthard, William W. L. Cheung, Katrina Brown, Caroline Abunge, Diego Galafassi, Garry D. Peterson, Tim R. McClanahan, Johnstone O. Omukoto, and Lydiah Munyi.