Blocking change: facing the drag of status quo fisheries institutions

  • Mark Axelrod
Original Paper


Under what conditions can international environmental institutions survive changing power alignments? This article argues that relatively declining powers and private domestic actors play an important role in preserving the status quo because they are eager to retain advantages that existing institutions afford them. This effort to block change affects fisheries negotiations, in particular, by allowing powerful actors to avoid new rules once an institution is in place. I hypothesize, first, that relatively declining fishing powers attempt to retain past institutional successes, while emerging fishing powers seek to alter the status quo. Second, negotiating positions reflect not only a country’s position in the world, but also the access provided to domestic stakeholders who wish to gain, or fear losses, from new agreements. Therefore, I hypothesize that powerful beneficiaries in domestic politics push relatively declining powers to support the status quo when those private actors benefit from highly legalized past agreements and participate in foreign policy decisions. I test these hypotheses by exploring US and EU approaches to fisheries treaty negotiations through archival research and interviews with fisheries negotiators. The evidence supports hypotheses that status quo powers seek to protect earlier deals more intensely when they negotiate with rising fishing powers, and when private parties are most influential. As hypothesized, both governments are particularly protective of the most complex earlier agreements under these conditions.


Fisheries negotiations Historical institutionalism Power shifts Domestic politics Path dependence 



This study benefited from thoughtful anonymous reviewer comments, as well as comments on earlier iterations by Tim Büthe, Joe Grieco, Margaret McKean, Michael Schechter, David Soskice, Bill Taylor, and participants in the 2014 Norwich Conference on Earth System Governance. I also thank the US and EU officials who gave their time to discuss negotiating experiences.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.James Madison College and Department of Fisheries and WildlifeMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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