Tackling Small-Scale Illegal Fishing in Chile

Researcher name: Rodrigo Oyanedel

Period: 10.18 – 10-.22

Title of DPhil/research: Tackling Small-Scale Illegal Fishing in Chile

Funder: CONICYT, from The Chilean Government


DPhil Overview:

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is arguably the largest threat to the conservation of marine resources. It has been linked to habitat destruction, stock decline and socio-ecological impacts, causing conflict among resource users and governments. Historically, compliance with fisheries regulation (i.e. reduction of illegal fishing) has been sought by governments through impositions of sanctions to offenders primarily via enforcement programs and actions. This approach assumes that fishers are rational decision-makers seeking to maximize their utility, and that non-compliance with regulations occurs when benefits outweigh costs. This forms the basis of the deterrence model, which seeks to reduce illegal behaviour by increasing the cost of doing so and/or reducing the cost of behaving legally.

However, several problems arise when using the deterrence model for fisheries compliance, especially, in small-scale contexts. First, resources for enforcement are usually not the required or optimal, with governments lacking the necessary tools, human capacities and technologies to properly enforce rules. Second, fines don’t usually become effective because of the difficulty to catch fishers in situ and when they do, are usually not large enough to deter fishers from behaving illegally. Aside from this, research suggests that human behaviour does not always stick to rational economic decisions, implying deviations from an optimal deterrence model. Human behaviour is hard to understand or predict, with social dynamics, cultural values, normative factors and misconceptions of reality affecting cognitive biases.

Considering the pitfalls of the “deterrence” approach for enforcement in small-scale fisheries contexts, there is an increasing need for understanding illegal fishing from an alternative standpoint, by making efforts to empirically assess its extent, uncover the complexities behind the different typologies of IUU fishing, and consider normative, social and cultural factors, so that interventions and solutions aside from the “deterrence model” can be formulated, tested and implemented. This will assist in crating effective guidelines for enforcement that will help in conserving natural resources and the livelihoods of the legal users that depend on them.


Outline of research: 

The vast majority of fisheries are located in contexts where enforcement capabilities are not enough to deter fishers from fishing illegally. New models for enforcement and novel interventions aimed at changing fishers’ behaviour are needed for the conservation of marine natural resources. These must come out of a clear understanding of the system so that fisher’s compliance can be predicted not only in terms of their possibility of being deterred by penalties, but by their true motivation to comply or not with regulations.

This research will assist in providing crucial input for improving enforcement models and to assess the viability of using behavioural science-based interventions to reduce illegal fishing activities. Ultimately, this DPhil dissertation could be instrumental in helping to conserve not only marine but all natural resources from illegal activities, by improving our understanding on how to reduce illegal behaviours in an effective, long-lasting and measurable way.



  1. Test and refine a method for measuring illegal fishing extent:  Quantification of illegal fishing is challenging giving the difficulty to assess a sensitive behavior such as illegal fishing. One such novel method that I expect to use is the Randomized Response Technique, an approach commonly used in sociological research to explore sensitive behaviors such as illicit drug use, which overcomes the bias generated by respondents’ perception of risk by ensuring anonymity. I expect to test and refine this method for small-scale fisheries contexts, providing a tool to empirically measure illegal fishing extent by piloting it with small-scale fishers in Chile.
  2. Assess illegal fishing extent under different regulatory schemes (formal and informal): Studies suggest that normative factors such as the perceived legitimacy of rules affects user’s level of compliance. However, empirical evidence that supports this is misleading. By assessing illegal fishing extent in different regulatory schemes (with different perceived legitimacy) I expect to provide empirical evidence to better understand the relationship between perceived legitimacy and compliance. I will work in different small-scale fisheries that have a variety of regulations (TURFs, ITQs, Open Access) as well as informal bottom-up rules in place and will assess the extent of illegal fishing, building upon (a), on these.
  3. Propose and test behavioral science-based interventions for reducing the incidence of illegal fishing: Finally, I expect to turn to behavioral science methodologies to develop interventions by understanding fisher’s prevalent beliefs and perceptions13 around illegal fishing in regulatory schemes with different perceived legitimacy, building upon (b). This would eventually lead to form hypothesis of interventions that might change those beliefs and perceptions to be tested in common pool resource games with fishers from different localities and fisheries across Chile.


Project outputs:

Throughout this project I expect to:

a) provide a solid method to assess illegal fishing activity empirically in small-scale contexts,

b) contribute to our understanding of fishers’ compliance under different regulatory schemes and normative factors, and

c) to test behavioural science-based interventions in a context where little to no work has been done to date: the too-big-to-ignore small-scale fisheries.


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