Rapid declines in common pool resources worldwide have been a driver to shift fisheries management from government to co-management. During the last few decades, theoretical and practical issues of fisheries co-management have been widely documented, yet the building and implementation of fisheries co-management in developing country contexts, where co-management processes have been influenced by external agencies, has not been adequately addressed. This research aims to contribute to understanding about how co-management works in a developing country and to building successful fisheries co-management in Vietnam. In particular, it investigates how fisheries co-management emerged and became arranged; it analyses the factors affecting the development and implementation of fisheries co-management and the outcomes of the co-management. This research was conducted in Tam Giang Lagoon, Vietnam where six nested case studies, fishing communities - represented by their Fishery Associations - were selected for the research. Data were collected from a survey (n=252) and 12 focus group discussions with fishers; semi-structured interviews with 27 people who were resource managers, co-management experts, project staff, policy makers and fishers; and secondary data where available. The findings show that (1) Co-management in Tam Giang Lagoon was arranged between fishers’ organizations (Fishery Association - FA) and district government, with low involvement of the provincial level of government, which is responsible for fisheries policy, planning and legislation, in co-management processes. Co-management has evolved incrementally as a response to problems, rather than co-management being a consciously designed or negotiated system from the start. Further, the development of the co-management system was led by donor- funded projects and their involvement was crucial for starting co-management in the lagoon. However, the dominance of their project teams in building the co-management has left government in a passive position. The low participation of government in co-management processes, poor cooperation between the many different donor-funded projects, and lack of appropriate exit strategies of the projects, have resulted in an unsustainable and inconsistent co-management system. (2) Co-management has offered the opportunity to shift the fisheries governance into a new era where power can be shared between government and fishers. However as the national and provincial legislative framework has lagged behind the co-management progress, fishers are unable to exercise the shared powers and this makes the fishers’ powers nominal rather than actual. (3) The leaders of FAs played an important role in successful co-management in Tam Giang Lagoon. They have considerable influence on the participation of fishers in co-management. To be an influential leader in fishing communities, the leader should possess certain qualities such as fairness, accountability, acting as a role model, being a “servant leader”, professional competencies and social qualities, that enable him to organize resource users and help link the FA with government for co-management. (4) Despite the incomplete and inconsistent status of the co-management system, co-management has brought some positive social and ecological changes in the lagoon. Although there was not enough evidence to conclude an increase in fish stock in the lagoon since co-management commenced in the mid-2000s, there was a measurable improvement in resource well-being with no further collapses in lagoon fisheries. The presence of co-management has contributed to a considerable reduction in the violation of regulations and conflict between lagoon resource users. However, the positive social and ecological outcomes were reported and observed in only some parts of the lagoon. If the compliance with the regulations is not reinforced and especially if the number of Chinese Lu (a bottom fishing trap) is not controlled effectively, fishery degradation may recur in the future. The consistency of the co-management system, and the government policies and practices in support of the community in handling violators and enforcing regulations, are vital for the future of the lagoon system.
Given that fisheries co-management is in its infancy in Vietnam and is still under development, the findings of this research are useful for government at different levels to build successful co-management systems in Vietnam. It also implies a need for the government to conduct an overview of the co-management system to gain the lessons and experiences from what has been done so far, to develop the system effectively.
This study explores an entire process of a co-management system, that allows analysis of the interactions between different stages of a co-management process: design, arrangement, implementation and outcomes. It enables understanding of the current co-management arrangement in relation to the way it was “born”. This study also reveals the practical issues of donor-funded projects, power, and the role of the fishers’ leaders in successful co-management, issues that have not been adequately addressed in literature.