Overcoming ineffective institutions: Alternative approaches to international fisheries conservation

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


W. Henry Lambright


Unilateral action, Ineffective institutions, International, Fisheries conservation

Subject Categories

International Relations | Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


There is conflicting advice in the literature on the question of how to increase state compliance with international commitments, and whether sanctions are useful tools for dealing with recalcitrant states. The management school sees international cooperation as an iterative process that deepens over time. Sanctions are generally, if not always, counterproductive, because they diminish member states' commitments to the institution. The enforcement school says that only selective incentives can bring about collectively optimal outcomes when states have incentives to defect. The greater the incentive a state has to cheat, the more stringent must be the penalty for cheating.

I examine the conflicting recommendations of the two schools of compliance theory in the context of international fisheries conservation. After surveying existing international fisheries institutions and identifying the policy instruments they use to influence state behavior, I select two case studies to examine further. According to the management school, the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) should be ideally positioned to overcome collective action problems: EU members have a long history of working together, and the dense institutional network provides opportunities for problem-solving, centralized monitoring and dispute resolution. However, fisheries conservation has taken a back seat to bargaining over institutional rules, and the CFP's fisheries have been depleted. The second case study looks at an ideal case from the perspective of the enforcement school. The European Union was blocking conservation efforts in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization and in response, Canada boarded and arrested Spanish vessels fishing in international waters. The management school says that Canada's actions should have damaged the institution. However, the institution was demonstrably more effective following Canada's intervention.

This research does not point to any magic bullet for resolving problems of cooperation in managing joint resources. To those that see increased institutionalization as the cure-all for environmental problems, the clear response is that institutions may exacerbate the problems they were meant to solve. And while unilateral action may occasionally be effective in resolving problems created by free riders, that effectiveness is conditioned on a number of factors that may only infrequently be in alignment.


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