This research projects starts from the observation that in some instances, government intervention is effective in conserving renewable natural resources, such as fish stock, but not in others. We argue that government intervention does not take place in a vacuum, as sets of social norms may exist that govern resource use. In some cases these social norms promote sustainable harvesting strategies, but they may also aggravate overfishing if they are merely aimed at reducing costs of exploitation. Success or failure of government intervention depends crucially on how this intervention interacts with the local set of social norms. We hypothesize that these social norms are shaped by the state and dynamics of the natural resources and hence co-evolve with these resources. The key objective of this project is to analyze how decisions of resource users are influenced by the biological and institutional environment. Specifically, we aim to identify, first, under which conditions social norms of resource exploitation evolve; second, how quickly these social norms adapt and respond to environmental changes; and third, how government intervention interacts with these social norms. The execution of this research project is explicitly interdisciplinary and stimulates close cooperation between economists and biologists. We combine mathematical biology with economic modeling and behavioral experiments, to obtain a unique mix of methods allowing us to address the research topic. Our approach is innovative as we explicitly take into account that the institutional setting is not an exogenous constant, but over time, institutions are determined endogenously through the interplay between economic, social and ecological forces acting on the system. This research combines insights from behavioral and resource economics as it addresses under what circumstances formal government intervention can stimulate or crowd out self-regulation.
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