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Commons in Action

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The Seri Pen Shell fishery in the Gulf of California

Articles and Photographs: Xavier Basurto, Assistant Professor of Sustainability Science, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
Country: Mexico
Type of resources involved: Small-scale fishery

What change happened to strengthen rights to the commons?

The Seri, an indigenous community was given formal communal property rights in the form of a multi-species fishing concession which helped the community to eventually be able to control access to its fishing grounds and avoid overexploiting a commercially valuable bivalve fishery. The Seri indigenous community stands out among other fishing communities in the Gulf of California, Mexico, for their ability to govern and conserve their fishing resources without collapsing the social-ecological system in which they depend on (Basurto and Ostrom 2009)1.
The Seri fish callo de hacha (CDH) , which are sessile bivalve mollusks (Atrina tuberculosa) that command high market prices and are harvested by divers that unbury them using a rudimentary underwater breathing apparatus (Basurto 2006).
This fishery is not actively regulated by the federal government and solely self-governed by the Seri under a common property reg imen in a portion of the historic coastal range that the Seri have inhabited for thousands of years (Felger and Moser 1985). In 1975 as an effort to guarantee the survival of this small tribal culture and reduce conflicts with other rapidly growing local fishing communities, the Mexican government granted the Seri with land tenure and large multi-species fishing concession (Diario Oficial de la Federación 1975). Basurto has documented the cultural (2006), institutional (2005) , and biological factors (2008) that help the community control access and avoid overexploitation of their fishing resources. Basurto and Coleman(2010) have also explored the interaction and interplay between the institutional and ecological variables to better understand the potential of this fishery for Iong-term sustainability. Finally an ongoing study is looking at the historical aspects and the particular role of formal property rights in enabling the emergence of a communal governance system within the community
(Basurto et al. in prep) .

1. Annual approximate harvest of CDH by the Seri is estimated to be at least of 70 tones. This data was estimated by triangulating three independent sources: interviews to fish buyers, fishermen's cature logs and field data collection by Basurto (unpublished data). In comparison, the neighboring fishing town of Kino Viejo has not been able to do the same even though they harvest the same species using the same harvesting technology (Moreno etal. 2005a; Moreno etal. 2005b).

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When did this happen?
1975. Formal communal property rights as fishing concession given to Seri community.

What were key factors that made this happen?
Given the small size of the community, the National Indigenous Institute decided to grant formal communal property rights to a portion of their historic range to those indigenous groups in Mexico that were so small in number that they could risk disappearing through competition with other adjacent communities.

Who was involved?
The National Indigenous Institute as the Federal agency that promoted giving this indigenous community formal property rights for a portion of the group's historic range.

Who benefited?
The Seri community and the marine resources which they depend to sustain their Iivelihoods.

Was there any IASC connection that facilitated this change?
I am not an IASC member, but my understanding of the issues to be studied, resulted from attending the 2000 conference.

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Any references to literature on this change
AII citations are available at the digital library of the commons, but you can also access them at my webpage:
http ://

Literature Cited:

  • Basurto, X., 2005, ''How locally designed access and use controls can prevent the tragedy of the commons in a Mexican small-scale fishing community'', Journal of Society and Natural Resources 18:64 3-659.
  • BasurtO, X., 2006, ''Commercial diving and the Callo de Hacha fishery in Seri territory'', Journal Of theSouthwest 48, no. 2: 1 89 209.
  • Basurto, X. , 2008, ''Biological and ecological mechanisms supporting marine self-governance: The Seri Callo de Hacha fishery'', Ecology and Society 13, no. 2: 20. [online] http ://
  • Basurto, X. and E. Coleman. 2010 Institutional and Ecological Interplay for Successful Self-Governance of Community-Based Fisheries. Ecological Economics. 69:1094-1103. DOI:1 0.1 01 6/j.ecolecon.2009.1 2001.
  • Basurto , X., and E. Ostrom. 2009. ''Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons. '' 52(1) :35-60. Diario Oficial de la Federación. 1 975. 1 1 de Febrero de 1975. México, DF. , México.
  • Felger, R.S., Moser, M. B., 1985, People ofthe Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians, University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
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