“Local communities matter”. Interview with Professor Hiroe Ishihara of University of Tokyo.

Prof. Ishihara during her research on fisheries in Japan.

August 01, 2022.  

Interview with Associate Prof. Dr. Hiroe Ishihara, (Graduate School for Frontier Sciences, University of Tokyo)*, who paid a work-visit to ZEF in July 2022, where she also gave a lecture on Can certification schemes alone achieve sea-“food security”? 
Prof. Ishihara is involved in the ZEF-IPADS (International Program in Agricultural Development Studies) cooperation project.

Q: Welcome at ZEF and thanks for being available for this interview. Let’s start with a general question: You are part of the Graduate School of Frontier Sciences at the University of Tokyo. So what is the Graduate School about?

A: It was established in 1998. The idea was to set up a trans-disciplinary study program, going one step further than interdisciplinary. Our program, the Graduate Program in Sustainability Science Global Leadership Initiative (GPSS-GLI) promotes sustainability science by providing an English education program for graduate students. We do not only accept Japanese students but international students too.

Q: Are the students and the program related to specific disciplines?

A: No, our Graduate Program is not affiliated with specific disciplines. However, sustainability science in Japan is strongly connected with engineering sciences, including urban design. At the same time, I think that in recent years there has been a strong effort to incorporate social sciences too. This is one of the reasons this graduate school hired me, coming from a social-science background. There are a couple of other faculty members with an academic background in social science.

Q: What do you like about your work as a social scientist? And what is so fascinating about marine resources, one of your research foci?

A: When you think about research on natural resources, be it terrestrial or marine, these domains are to a certain extent still dominated by natural scientists. However, when you go into the field, you see that many natural scientists are struggling with how to communicate with stakeholders, such as fishers, farmers and local government staff. As a result, natural scientists often have a difficult time incorporating their findings into policies or the governance of managing natural resources. The mindsets of stakeholders are different from those of natural scientists. And this is where social scientists come in. There are a lot of discussions going on about science-based policy. However, in order to develop a successful science-based policy, I strongly believe that there is a need for dialogue between the natural scientists and the local stakeholders, or for a co-creation of knowledge between these different parties. This cannot be done when communication is a one-way affair, where the natural scientist or government staff tells the fishers or farmers what is right and what needs to be done. I think to this end, we as social scientists play a key role in trying to understand the mindset of local stakeholders.

Q: So how does involving the local level work out in practice?

A: I am interested in comprehending how local people understand and manage their resources. For example, in terms of fisheries management, fishers have their ways of understanding fish biology and habitat. They use this knowledge to design and implement their own management rules and norms. But, from a natural-science perspective, the knowledge of the fishers might look irrational or false. Even if that is the case, we need to listen to the fishers' voices and have conversations with them in order to modify their knowledge or, more precisely, co-create knowledge and then design new management rules or norms. We cannot just impose our solutions and tell them that their way is not the right one.

Q: We are observing an overexploitation of the global marine resources – your field of expertise. So in your opinion, which institutions would fit best to make the use of marine resources more sustainable?

A: I do not think there is any panacea, as Elenor Ostrom [Nobel Prize Winner and institutional economist, 1933-2012, ed.] said. We really need to look at the local context of each situation. In countries like Iceland and Norway, setting up a TAC [total allowable catch] works well because they mainly fish single species. However, in other locations and contexts, these solutions might not work well. Setting up a TAC is okay if you are targeting just one species. But, if you are targeting multiple species, what happens is the following: if one species reaches the quota, you need to stop fishing completely, even when you have not reached the quota for other fish species. These are called the choke species. This affects the fishermen in those regions as well as the surrounding industries, such as seafood processing. Thus, I do not think that one solution-for-all is applicable to natural resource management. My concern is that there is a global discourse, especially in fisheries, where we witness the promotion of one-solution-for-all in the name of science-based policy. I am not happy at all with that kind of situation.

Q: So what is the special challenge for the Global South when it comes to seafood security?

A: I would say weak institutions. I mean not just the formal institutions such as central governments but also informal institutions such as local communities. We need to empower local communities in order to solve the problems on the ground, especially when we are thinking of natural resources.

Q: Let's assume that you would be the ruler of the Japanese marine environment and you are a specialist. What would be your first thing to do?

A: That's a very difficult question. I think I would carry out an assessment first. In Japan, we have very strong cases of community-management or co-management between government and local communities. There are very successful cases, but there are also cases that are not going well. We need to sort out which cases are going well and which are not. In poor-performing areas, we could exert more governmental control or apply a market-based approach. But, in those communities that are doing well, I would continue to work with the current management system.

What makes me worry about the current Japanese policy is that it shows a very strong push for TAC, ITQ, IQ without taking into account the local context. As I mentioned, I believe that these policies suit a certain context, but they are not a panacea. I do not think these policies are necessary if the co-management is going well.

We need to find and set up a way to convey scientific facts to the fishers and to co-design the management system, without imposing one policy. It is not enough to study biology of lobster or mackerel or whatever. You also need to talk to the fishers and convey your knowledge. This is not an easy thing to do. In some cases in Japan, scientists have been successful since we set up various extension centers at the local level. Some scientists in these local extension centers go to the field and form a kind of study group with the fishers so they can co-create knowledge and management systems. I think those kinds of venues are really important steps for establishing new institutions.

Prof. Ishara, we thank you for the interview. 
The interview was conducted by Silke Toensjost.

*The University of Tokyo has 15 Graduate Schools



Silke Tönsjost

Dr. Silke Tönsjost


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