Dysfunctional information feedbacks cause the emergence of management panaceas in social-ecological systems: The case of fish stocking in inland recreational fisheries

Project Quarry pond , Peer-reviewed

Social-ecological systems are characterized by interconnections between social (e.g., angler communities) and ecological systems (e.g., fish populations in lakes and rivers). One means by which human actions feedback on ecosystems is through management actions, some of which are controversial due to the possible downsides for biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. In complex systems, sub-optimal management strategies may become entrenched. In such cases, leverage points must be identified to escape undesirable stable states. Based on a review of published and grey literature about the management practice of fish stocking in German inland recreational fisheries, we describe key pathways characterizing social-ecological interactions and resulting outcomes. The pathways we review suggest that missing or dysfunctional information feedbacks predispose privately governed fisheries-management systems typical of Germany to develop stocking as a panacea in operational management. Similar outcomes are likely in open access recreational fisheries. Three key feedback cycles reinforce each other to maintain stocking in the manager’s toolbox. The first is that the lack of dedicated monitoring in many fisheries and ignorance of research results breaks a feedback signal from the management measure of stocking to the evaluation of outcomes. The lack of ability of those involved in stocking to conclusively learn when stocking works and when it fails to deliver additive effects reinforces personal norms by managers and anglers that stocking may be necessary to sustain fisheries. A related second feedback is that stocking may increase catch rates in the short-term, which increases angler expectations for catch and stocking as a safeguard of the catch, in turn fostering linear cause-and-effect mental models and the emergence of a prostocking social norm among anglers. A third key feedback is among hatchery operators and fisheries managers in fishing clubs, where hatchery operators are often key informants about stocking practices while concurrently having commercial interests to sell fish for stocking. This creates economic incentives that perpetuate stocking. The amount of resource investments by angler communities through stocking is additionally fostered and maintained by monetary resource availability, size and type of ecosystem that is managed and governance processes as well as political inertia. Thus, the maintenance of stocking as a panacea is intimately linked to a range of psychological, social, economic and governance drivers. We use our case study to illustrate how information-related feedback loops can trap natural resource management strategies into a suboptimal basin of attraction, and provide recommendations on leverage points to possibly break these loops. Collaborative active adaptive management of natural resources and reducing the temptation to rely on economic incentives by hatcheries may be needed to introduce possibilities for learning and thereby avoid the entrenchment of stocking and related activities as a panacea. The lessons learned around stocking are applicable to a range of socialecological issues in recreation and planning whenever feedback flows of information are critical to direct management and when these flows are either distorted by disinformation, wrong incentives or not present at all.

Arlinghaus, R., Riepe, C., Theis, S., Pagel, T., Fujitani, M. 2022. Dysfunctional information feedbacks cause the emergence of management panaceas in social-ecological systems: The case of fish stocking in inland recreational fisheries. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 38, 1-14.


Published : 2022
Appeared in : Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 38, 1-14