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Ostrom’s Governance Principles and Sustainable Financing of Fish Reserves


Previous studies on community-based natural resource management have repeatedly underlined the significance of the design principles for sustainable commons governance developed by Elinor Ostrom. In this paper, we apply the principles heuristically to the case of the Sikunga Channel Fish Protection Area (FPA), a recently established fish reserve in the Upper Zambezi in Namibia. Based on qualitative fieldwork including semi-structured household interviews, expert interviews, focus group discussions and participant observation, we assess the utility of Ostrom’s design principles as guidance for promoting sustainable fisheries co-management structures. Our results indicate that the lack of a sustainable financing mechanism is both a major source of resentments at Sikunga and the main obstacle for sound resource management, endangering the long-term effectiveness and social acceptance of the fish reserve.

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Data Availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


  1. 1.

    At the time of data collection it was still early to judge the FPA’s impact on local fish communities. Whilst acknowledging the importance of the ecological dimension, we here concentrate on the socioeconomic sustainability of the FPA regime.

  2. 2.

    For a detailed discussion of the ‘global overfishing narrative’ and how it resonates with fisheries management at the Upper Zambezi see Abbott and Campbell (2009).

  3. 3.

    Two fish monitors from Sikunga employed by NNF have been recording the catches of a random sample of fishermen twice a week at different spots at the river banks and backwaters of Sikunga Conservancy since 2010. The collected data include information about fish species, length and weight per fish, and fishing gear, net length and mesh size used.

  4. 4.

    The sharp contrast between the local communities and the (overwhelmingly white) recreational anglers and tourists illustrates the important role of ethnicity and socioeconomic status in this context. A more detailed discussion of this issue, which needs to be considered against the historical background of apartheid in Namibia, is beyond the scope of this paper.

  5. 5.

    For more detailed information on the trans-boundary nature of floodplain fisheries in the region see Abbott et al. (2007).

  6. 6.

    For a critical discussion of empirical studies investigating the effect of marine reserves see Willis et al. (2003).


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We especially thank Denis Tweddle, Carol Murphy and Markfaren Mushabati for valuable assistance on site and the people from Sikunga for their generous cooperation.


This research formed part of the lead author’s master’s thesis project and took place in collaboration with the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF). Funding for the fieldwork was provided by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

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Correspondence to Charlotte Wiederkehr.

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Wiederkehr, C., Berghöfer, A. & Otsuki, K. Ostrom’s Governance Principles and Sustainable Financing of Fish Reserves. Hum Ecol 47, 13–25 (2019).

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  • Community-based natural resource management
  • Co-management
  • Fish reserve
  • Commons governance
  • Conservation financing
  • Namibia