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Bribery among government officials who inspect fishing along the coast of South Africa contributes to overfishing – this is shown in a new peer-reviewed study. Researcher Aksel Sundström, a PhD candidate in Political Science at Gothenburg University in Sweden, examines how bribes and corruption hamper the implementation of the regulations that are meant to keep fishing at sustainable levels.

Sundström’s study Covenant with broken swords: Corruption and law enforcement in governance of the commons was published earlier in 2015 in volume 31 of Global Environmental Change, a top social science journal.

For his PhD, the researcher is investigating the relationship between corruption and the environment, specifically focusing on how corruption affects citizens’ compliance with regulations in natural resource management, as well as the likelihood of public inspectors enforcing such rules when bribery is widespread. His source is South Africa’s illegal fishing industry.

The commons referred to in the study’s title refers to resources which belong to everybody in common. No one has an exclusive right to them, making them by definition resources to which everybody enjoys open access. The rivers, lakes and oceans, the air, and the various cultures and traditions found around the world are all examples of commons.

SA’s fish stocks under pressure

Many of South Africa's marine fish stocks are overexploited. WWF South Africa says that because our resources are used by commercial, recreational and subsistence fishers, and because there are numerous methods used to catch fish, such as hand harvesting, trawling, trapping and longlining, our fish stocks simply cannot replenish themselves fast enough.

In addition to this, says WWF SA, some fisheries are wasteful, and some fishing methods cause harm to habitats critical to the survival of many marine species.

Meanwhile, says Sundström, the government actors that are meant to ensure that fishers abide to rules may be a part of the problem of overfishing – rather than enforcing the solution.

"When I interviewed inspectors they are surprisingly open about this. They tell me that they get a box of fish or just some money from fishermen in exchange for being allowed to break the rules that apply to protected areas or catches," he says.

His paper reported quotes from interviews with over 40 inspectors and key actors in the fisheries sector along South Africa's west and south coasts.The interviews with inspectors were sanctioned by senior managers of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Sundström was surprised to find how open people were in talking about corruption. “Maybe it’s a little easier to talk about this with an outsider who can guarantee their anonymity,” he notes.

Another anonymous inspector is quoted as saying: "A Chinese captain that was arrested last week called someone who arrived to the harbour with a wad of money. It is quite common … Imagine these boats, how much money they carry. And we earn so little … We can make resources of half a million rand disappear from the books. So the temptation is always there."

Sundström also cites several respondents as saying that honest behavior is not rewarded professionally. "Honest behavior is not appreciated [at this station]. They will not appreciate straight guys that do not accept bribes. They are not comfortable with someone who will blow the whistle," said a respondent.

Breaking the covenant

Regulations are promises of use of resources that can be monitored by the state or by users themselves – these promises are sometimes described as covenants with or without a sword.

"But given that corruption is so widespread in many countries, there is a third situation, 'covenants with broken swords'. In these situations the government inspectors are supposed to ensure that rules are followed, but through bribery, resource users can pay inspectors to break rules," says Sundström.

Because effective management of such resources depends on how closely users comply with regulations, violations have consequences: elephants and rhinos risk extinction because rangers can be bribed and therefore do not enforce policies to counter poaching. And in South Africa's fisheries sector, corruption results in regulations that become almost useless.

"Inspectors in this sector clearly become part of the problem. Some act as informants and tips poachers in advance during joint police operations. And some inspectors are themselves engaged in illegal fishing! For example, while I was doing my interviews in early 2014 a police officer in the small port of Simon's Town was arrested with illegal abalone worth over US$125 000 in his freezer," Sundström says.

He continues: "One should remember that many of these inspectors face violent repercussions from poachers if they do not allow them to break rules. So increasing their security may in fact decrease bribe taking. Many inspectors want to act honest but face pressure to be a part of corrupt affairs."

South Africans, who have become cynical in the face of ongoing corruption, may scoff at this last statement, but Sundström cites previous research as showing that “enforcement agents active in a local community meet social disapproval when ensuring that appropriators comply with state regulations. Zealous enforcement could mean that they limit the income of their neighbours who, for instance, may gain their livelihood from the common-pool resource regime in question.”

This is known as the “loyalty dilemma, where such agents find it difficult to enforce regulations in the community in which they live.”



Bribery among government officials who inspect fishing along the coast of South Africa contributes to overfishing – this is shown in a new peer-reviewed study by a researcher from Gothenburg University. Our already over-strained fish stocks are further burdened by officials who don’t perform their duties of managing the resource.
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