Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally — and in normal times they come to Maastricht in person for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time we catch up virtually with Maria Espinosa Romero, who will shortly defend her thesis on “The shadow of hierarchy in marine fisheries governance”. Her research at UNU-MERIT contributes to the designing of policies that supports the sustainable development of fisheries.
As programme director of the institute “Comunidad y Biodiversidad A.C. (COBI)”, your daily work revolves around the oceans’ biodiversity. As we know, this is an area at risk in Mexico and globally. Tell us more about your work.
COBI is a Mexican non-profit organisation that since 1999 works towards sustainable fisheries and marine conservation through collective action and science. We collaborate with small-scale and industrial fishers in developing projects and providing knowledge on how to counteract fisheries overexploitation, a situation that, as you mentioned, not only occurs in Mexico but globally. I direct the operative programmes (innovation, connectivity, and scaling up) for healthy oceans and resilient communities within the organisation. These programmes aim to connect fishers from Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean in the co-creation and mobilisation of solutions, knowledge, and capital opportunities to impact ocean sustainability and communities’ resilience significantly. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we accelerated the development of a digital ecosystem called Pescadata. Pescadata is a mobile application for fishers to access and mobilise information about sanitary and economic recovery measures. As part of my work, I am also significantly involved in the policy work to support policymakers in strengthening the existing legal framework conducive to sustainability.
Your PhD thesis, “The shadow of hierarchy in marine fisheries governance”, deals with ocean biodiversity and focuses on the influence that policymakers and institutions have in dealing with marine fisheries. Your study takes on a multidisciplinary approach, including legal, institutional and policy analysis. Can you elaborate on your research and its relevance for fisheries in Mexico and globally?
“The shadow of hierarchy” refers to the use of non-traditional hierarchical methods through which the state indirectly influences governance to achieve policy outcomes. Although this concept has been investigated in different policy arenas, it remains understudied in the fisheries domain. This study uses Mexican fisheries as the case study to illustrate three functions performed by the coastal state in the shadow to govern fisheries and fleets within its jurisdiction. These functions are:
- The creation of coexisting governance modes.
- The steering and shaping of the general patterns of fishing.
- The development of institutional settings for fisheries sustainability.
I applied three theoretical approaches (i.e., interactive governance, social practices, institutional impact) to analyse the Mexican legal framework, implementing regulations and fisheries assessment to provide different and complementary perspectives on the topic.
In the global context, this research illustrates how a coastal state uses its regulatory power, provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to retract and expand its shadow in fisheries governance, according to its priorities and capacities. The state can be immersed into different modes of governance. Still, it preserves its capacity to indirectly influence governance systems to compensate for losing day-to-day command and control in fisheries governance. The state does so by regulating the boundaries of actors’ participation, the cognitive practice of fishing, and the institutional settings for different resource types to ensure sustainability.
In the context of Mexico, this research is timely and relevant. The incumbent Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, elected in 2018, included within the 2018-2024 Plan for the Nation to create a new fisheries law. This research offers a legal and policy analysis of the last hundred years that provides relevant information for the fisheries law and related initiatives to consolidate a more robust governance system for fisheries sustainability.
In the last months of your study, the world was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, many researchers experienced a slowing down of their research processes due to less favourable working situations. However, amazingly, you managed to speed up your research activities in the last six months. How did you manage to do so?
I used to travel a lot for work. The confinement measures allowed me to stay at home to dive into my dissertation, reflect on my research questions, complete the data analysis, and do the writing. Communicating periodically with my supervisors was vital in the last stage of the process. Being inside was not completely easy, so I paid attention to keep my mind fresh and healthy; I did the daily exercise with my dog, and I also managed to reduce my workload with my employer. I am very grateful to my boss and colleagues for their support. Also, after seeing the impacts of the pandemic on the economies of Mexico and the world, I felt lucky to be able to continue the PhD and stay at home to do the research. I also wanted to complete the PhD during the lockdown to have the time to be with family and friends after the pandemic.
Lastly, you completed the PhD in combination with a job. Now that your education is nearing completion, how do you expect your working life to benefit from your increased researcher skill set?
The PhD programme provided me with a good skill set to conduct marine policy and governance research. This is an asset for me and COBI. It also hugely complements the research plans for Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Additionally, the research I conducted for the PhD helped me gain a better understanding of the state’s role in fisheries governance and Mexican legislation. This knowledge became an asset for debates on national fisheries legislation, led by the Senate. Thus, I expect to continue supporting the marine policy and legal work in my country, conducted by Congress and civil society organizations.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H. Pijpers