Studying compliance with conservation guidelines

New research from the University of Oxford explores the causes of compliance (or non-compliance) with conservation guidelines.

The conservation of biodiversity relies on people complying with rules. However, in many cases, rules are not followed or even completely ignored. Understanding why compliance with natural resource management does or does not occur is tricky. There are several factors that affects people to decide whether to comply or not. Some people might decide to comply because of stringent enforcement, while others might because it is “the right thing do to”. However, someone that usually complies might decide not to in specific instances. Understanding why and under which circumstances people decide to comply or not is far from straightforward.

This paper combines two main approaches for studying (non-)compliance: those that try to understand people’s underlying motivations for compliance (actor-based approaches) and those that focus on role that the immediate environment plays in the performance of non-compliant behaviours (opportunity-based approaches).

While these approaches have been used independently, great potential still lies in its combination. This paper provides specific and manageable guiding principles on how both managers and researchers can tackle non-compliance using a combination of these approaches. For instance, actor-based approaches that affect motivations for compliance (i.e. modifying social norms or increasing legitimacy of rules) can be combined with opportunity-based approaches (i.e. changing specific properties of places where non-compliance concentrates) in efforts to increase compliance.  Since actor-based approaches usually take longer to develop than opportunity-based approaches, by bringing together these two approaches, the underlying causes of non-compliance in fisheries can be tackled, whilst also providing shorter-term gains in compliance.

Reducing non-compliance is crucial for sustaining natural resources into the future. However, in many contexts, both researchers and industry partners have failed to understand why non-compliance occurs, and how to minimise it. This research comes to bring two approaches that were running in parallel, providing new and novel ways to conceptualized and understand compliance. Fully approaching the complex phenomenon of (non-)compliance will be key for better designing policies that maintain compliance in sustainable levels.  

This research is part of Rodrigo Oyandel’s PhD thesis, “Tackling non-compliance in small-scale fisheries”, advised by Professor EJ Milner-Gulland from the Zoology Department and Professor Stefan Gelcich from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. Oyandel says: “While drafting my research plans, I realized that the literature around non-compliance was really scattered and compartmentalized in different disciplines. As such, different approaches from different disciplines where quite applicable for my case study, the small-scale common-hake fishery in Chile, which suffers from great levels of non-compliance. In this realization, we decided with my supervisors to take on the challenge to try and review the main ways in which non-compliance can be studied in the context of natural resources.”

The application of these approaches can provide interdisciplinary cross-learning opportunities, as well as a more thorough identification of knowledge gaps and biases. It establishes the groundwork for future collaborative studies advancing the theory and practice of non-compliance research in natural resource management contexts. 

Further research is planned to start applying some of the approaches they review in understanding (non-)compliance in the small-scale common hake fishery in Chile. Although one of the most important fisheries in Chile, this fishery is suffering from chronic non-compliance, which threatens the health of the stock and puts the livelihoods of thousands at risk. Better understanding (non-)compliance in this fishery is crucial in tackling these problems. However, our current understanding is poor. Based on the findings from this research we aim to better understand the phenomenon of non-compliance in this fishery and propose measures for its reduction. Hopefully, this will help to sustain a stock that provides thousands with livelihoods and many more with healthy protein from the ocean.