Beginning in the 1980s, policy across the world moved toward systems of developing property rights in ocean fisheries. These changes were made in the context of a global emphasis on market based approaches to resource management and conservation. New Zealand’s rights-based system is an example of this approach. Its Quota Management System (QMS) has two key pieces: Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ). Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) are transferable property rights allocated to fishers in the form of a “right of harvest” up to a particular tonnage of a species. In addition, a permit is necessary to harvest fish controlled by the QMS. To be eligible for a permit, commercial fishers must hold minimum quota amounts. This latter requirement was meant to increase efficiencies through forcing economies of scale by excluding small and part-time fishers from gaining permits.

The QMS system, as it has been implemented in New Zealand, illustrates how the bounding of property has an impact on relations among people and the natural world. The QMS system divides nature into pieces, pieces that are legally bounded. Ownership of pieces is individualized. For the purpose of establishing these property rights, nature is divided into single species catch, by ton. Non-commercial species are set outside these boundaries, so the policy does not recognize the ecosystem as a whole, but rather views it as commercially valuable, individualized pieces.

The impact of New Zealand’s QMS on social boundaries is particularly significant on those at the margins of society. For example, the QMS has undermined the survival strategy of many of the economically vulnerable who depended on part-time, multiple jobs that involved crossing the land-ocean boundary, particularly true of the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori who might farm and fish. Such people were forced out of fishing either because they could not establish their right to quota, or they were given amounts of quota that were under the limit to obtain a permit to fish.

When nature is divided in this way, in what way does policy put it back together and treat it as a whole? To compensate for the division of nature into its commercial pieces, a countermove toward environmental preservation has developed—the bounding of areas and setting them aside from human use. The establishment of marine reserves as no-take zones, or protected areas is also part of a worldwide movement. The New Zealand government is committed to a goal of putting ten percent of New Zealand’s marine environment in reserves as a way to preserve biodiversity. The development of marine reserves on the surface appears to be the opposite of the division and portioning of nature via the QMS system. However, both assume very rigid nature-human community boundaries. Humans are not seen to be integrated with nature, but rather separate from it.

So what does theology have to teach about these contemporary moves in ocean fisheries management? Theologian Colin Gunton states that, “we shall not understand our place in the world unless we face up to the way in which we are internally related to the rest of the world.”[1] He might argue that it is not only wrong to build policies that don’t recognize the reality of humans in social context, but also that viewing the environment apart from its inhabitants leads to a world that is emptied of its personal meaning. The further marginalization of the vulnerable, particularly the Maori, in New Zealand through the constructions of the QMS policy was the result of a failure to see people in their social context. The division of nature into commercial pieces, removed from the ecosystem as a whole, fails to see these pieces in their context. Likewise, the establishment of marine reserves as a counter measures, can fail to recognize the full context of relationships between human communities and the ecosystem in particular places.

Gunton’s theological reflection has centered on the view that humans image God in through their quality of relationship. Douglas Hall proposes a biblical ontology of communion, community, and ecology. Hall states, “we are created for relationship. Relatedness—and specifically the modality of relatedness designated by the biblical word ‘love’—is the essence of our humanity as the Creator-Redeemer of this tradition intends it.”[2] Gunton’s relational theology encourages us to view boundaries as places for relationship-building rather than strict divisions demarcating differences. A relational theology suggests that rather than looking at boundaries as something that divide, they should be seen as opportunities for dialogue and relationship-building that deepen understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, and our relationship to nature. And in this relatedness, nature is not a neutral backdrop, but rather God, humanity, and nature are inextricably bound up with one another.

Gunton and Hall are part of a group of so-called social Trinitarians, namely, those that argue that God is who God is only by virtue of the relationships among the persons of the godhead—God is a community of Love, a family of interpenetrating perichoretic Love. The key to Gunton is an appreciation for the role of the spirit in which the spirit is to do the crossing of boundaries while maintaining and even strengthening particularity. “It is not a spirit of merging or assimilation—of homogenization—but of relation in otherness, relation which does not subvert but establish the other in its true reality.”[3]The challenge is to build natural resource policies that invite this communion, extending it to the rest of creation.

New Zealand’s marine management strategies favor a policy regime with equitable treatment of individuals who are assumed to have no basis for continuing relationships with each other. This fits the model of disconnected if not globalized concerns. The alternative, relational model must be built on more flexibility, and assume ongoing relationships within the human community as well as between the human community and environment. The relational model requires natural resource agencies to make clearer distinctions, acknowledging its on-the-ground reality.

Community management strategies of a variety of types have been initiated in the management of fisheries. Environment Canada has replaced its basic management model with a more flexible approach in its development of its Atlantic Coastal Action Program (ACAP). The program stresses community involvement in dealing with coastal problems. Community involvement goes beyond participation to what are referred to as community-based initiatives. The role of Environment Canada has changed to allow for local ownership of decision-making and actions. In the case of the ACAP, environmental monitoring activities are often done by unpaid volunteers because government funding is not sufficient. Yet, government agencies still need to empower the local community, support their initiatives, and provide some funding. The relationships across scales are important.

Common characteristics underlie the success of these initiatives. Local stakeholders and the government must mutually recognize the existence of the resource problems, and this mutual recognition serves to initiate a joint management arrangement. Local interests and knowledge must be recognized. Local institutional capacity must exist or be built. User rights must be clearly defined and enforcement must be effective through the provision of legal and policy support. The objects of the management scheme must be clear and agreed upon by both local and government interests with tangible mutually-agreed upon results. In the end, the combination of these characteristics leads to positive attitudes toward rules and toward collective action rather than their being undermined.

A relational ontology, undergirded by a relational theology leads to a fundamental need for building of trust as a fundamental building block for any management scheme. Trust is achieved through verification and verification is achieved through monitoring, not just of bio-diversity, but also of ecological, biological, social, and economic conditions. Such monitoring is embedded in local community initiatives because it is essential for building trust, for discussion, and for knowing if actions have led to desired objectives. Trust-building is a process, not an outcome, just as monitoring is a continuous process.

The picture of nature inherent in, and established by, the QMS has changed social relations in New Zealand. The Individual Quota System has split nature into pieces of a bundle of property rights. These property rights have been distributed in such a way as to transform social relations between people and the non-human world and relations among people. The counter-move has been to create more protected areas. Science has been a part of this process of division, tending to fragment both biological and human systems into parts in the application of management policies and then left science, policy, and the market as the means for reconnecting the pieces of nature into a whole and reconnecting this whole with human society.

We are in need of a Trinitarian imagination and a relational ontology in constructing our future on this Earth. Nature and culture are not separate, objective entities. They are aspects of the wholeness of the “fleshiness” that makes up our lives. And boundaries are the key to understanding the relational nature of this “fleshiness.”

[1] C.E. Gunton, Colin E., The one, the three and the many: God, creation and the cultureof modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 15.
[2] Hall, Imaging God, 113.
[3] Gunton, The one, 181, 182.