By LAUREN CARAMAGNO
Capital News Service
LANSING — A Port Huron angler once told Ethan Shirley that a fisherman’s job is to break the law as much as possible without getting caught.
It’s a challenging attitude to overcome when enforcing environmental laws, said Shirley, a law student at Michigan State University who is researching ways to encourage people to obey conservation laws.
“The Great Lakes are too large to be regulated at all times. Therefore conservationists depend on local people to comply with rules,” he said. But “fishermen admit to not complying with fish size regulation laws.”
Shirley does his research in Brazil, but he says the concepts can be applied broadly across the world.
One solution is for scientists to better explain the need for limits on fishing and for other environmental regulations, Shirley said. Another is for those who enforce laws to build trust with the community that needs to obey them.
Police need to make themselves members of a community that is joining together and explaining rules to protect the environment, rather than implementing rules by sheer force, he said. “Many fishermen do not have a biological grasp of why laws are critical to follow.”
Taking such an approach to law enforcement could lead to more law-abiding anglers, said Shirley.
He and other researchers recently presented such ideas at the International Congress of Conservation Biology.
Successful wildlife management throughout the Great Lakes states requires a high level of compliance with environmental laws, said Shirley, a candidate for a master’s in Fisheries and WIldlife and a Juris Doctor in MSU’s College of Law. That means it’s important for people to understand them.
Julie Viollaz, a criminology researcher at MSU and colleague of Shirley, said it’s also important to demonstrate that laws have a purpose by allowing communities to be a part of the law-making process. That increases the perception of legitimacy.
“Every person in a community has a role to play in the environment to protect wildlife, and if everyone plays that role, ecosystems would be balanced and more productive,” Viollaz said.
Shirley said two things determine compliance: One is massive enforcement, which can be expensive, and the other is whether citizens believe the law is right.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrum found participatory management of natural resources is better than making laws and expecting people to follow them, Shirley said.
In a top-down system, scientists and politicians put into place rules that focus on ecological needs or human needs and do not balance the two. Participatory management minimizes conflict between ecological needs of wildlife and the human needs of natural resources.
It’s a problem if biologists can’t communicate with local people about conservation, Shirley said. It leads to distrust and becomes a reason for disobedience.
Science is undermined when the public doesn’t believe research, he said. In many cases, it’s an issue of unnecessarily injecting politics into science. That results in a lack of trust, which is seen in controversial topics such as climate change and vaccine denial.
Lack of communication has caused a rift between scientists and communities.
However, there’s a push to make such connections through National Science Foundation grants, Shirley said. The grants now have a broader impact section that requires scientists to explain how they’ll connect their research to the needs of communities.
One positive trend is when fisheries researchers work directly with fisheries regulators who in turn work with anglers, Shirley said.
Viollaz said accommodating people’s needs for conservation increases their compliance with the law. “However, sometimes it’s not necessarily about giving people what they want, but letting them be heard.”
Lauren Caramagno writes for Great Lakes Echo.
By LAUREN CARAMAGNO