Way up in the winding backwaters and mangrove swamps of northern New South Wales rivers, mud crab (Scylla serrata)trapping manages to bring out the shady side in people. Not straight away, but seemingly inexorably over time. Between crabbers, stealing from others’ pots (traps) is rife and even stealing their pots altogether all too common. Because of what is then needed to get around the thieving minority, even the most law-abiding person is likely to end up effectively poaching to some degree. Somehow you either break the rules or are broken by them. I have tried both sides of the rule book, most recently the legal side, the results of which are again luring me back to the dark.
It seems at first like something where a code of honesty might prevail. You get your pots, write your details on the float, bait them up and usually leave a night and a tide or two to pass before checking to see how things have gone. Everyone is playing the same game; we all have the same hopes out in the water. While it will come down competitively to where we personally choose to place our chosen style of pot (or home-made construction) with our chosen bait and how diligently we monitor them, the potential is still there that we might all cooperate to get by and to get on, like people with cattle grazing the commons. But all it takes is a few to greedily or nefariously up their share, for a ‘tragedy of the commons’ to prevail.
This term, ‘tragedy of the commons’, was coined in a famous essay by Garrett Hardin as a metaphor for the tragic resource destruction when resource competition and individual agenda enter the equation with human management of natural environments. The original paper came out in the journal Science in 1968 and only becomes more relevant with each passing year (which is not to say I would endorse the arguments for further privatisation and extra-communal regulation that the paper is used to support). Let’s say that we are in the same community entitled to graze animals on a piece of public land (the commons). In circumstance of modest demands and pressures and with some basic cooperation we might all get on fine for a long time, just as this land system did in many places for many centuries (and for that matter continues to do so in some places). But if one or some of us decide to up our stock numbers, anyone left playing by the old rules is condemned to being worse off. From your one extra cow you derive all the benefit, while the detriment is shared. Everyone else’s choice is to then either to accept being worse off individually or to join in the fray that will make everyone eventually worse off together.
Up on the River last week, 2 pots first went out for our family; one pot up a small channel hidden deeper in the mangroves gets 2 crabs, another out in the main channel goes missing, stolen. 2 more pots added to the mix get nothing, one of them obviously raided (the pot-robbers didn’t even close it up again after themselves) and the other empty – suspicions reasonably strong that it had not been left untouched. What to do? We could check them more often, we could accept our losses with resignation, or we could do what many other people on the River do and hide them. Hiding a crab pot means that it is an illegal one. You put it in without a marker float and retrieve it from the murk with a gaff hook. Then Fisheries doesn’t know what they want to know (partly about the pressure on the resource and partly that they are in charge), and so they occasionally patrol the river with metal detectors, confiscating any unmarked pot. Your relationship first becomes adversarial with pot-robbers and then becomes adversarial with Fisheries. The response to losing the pot to Fisheries is the same as if it were stolen by thieves and tensions escalate. The next step is to make them with no metal, or to hide them better – perhaps some decoy metal, or into the deeper backwaters. This in turn might draw you into the closed Marine Reserve areas (where many locals choose to interpret ‘Reserve’ as meaning reserved for them), but you have started down the dark side already and it has become every man for himself. Thus pitted against almost all others, you might start to see marked pots as those of naïve fools, destined to be robbed by someone so why not you. It becomes not so much whether you will go to the dark side, but how far.
My pots are packed away again now. This time I played by the rules and was partly beaten. Two modest but easily legal-sized crabs, one missing a claw (wherein lies the best meat). They were devoured in that messy way that crabs must be, simply boiled for 15 minutes and torn apart with hands, pliers and knives; the three sweet claws dished out as treats to the oldest and the youngest with the remaining skerricks laboured out of legs and bodies. Washed down with white wine, their delectability made up somewhat for the meagre volume. But with the plate and glass now empty I can’t help thinking that next time I will swap the marker floats for a GPS and a gaff hook. I’ll stay out of the Reserve, obey limits on pot numbers and size of crabs and would never rob a pot. It is not a perfect solution but neither is it destructively anarchic; I can do so knowing that by still supporting the reserve system at least, the commons is not doomed by my actions. Despite taking sole gain whilst delivering a shared detriment of one less crab in the system, I am comfortable that this is still in the realm of sustainable use, rather than long-term diminishment, of the common resource. The point being that my proposed approach is not a tragedy, because that resides with the prevalence of theft in crabbing. Where I now find myself in the crabbing spectrum is more simply marked by a ‘sadness of the commons’, based more on what it says about people than about the future of mud crabs.