• adaptation;
  • comanagement;
  • deliberative democracy;
  • discourse;
  • fit;
  • governance;
  • indigenous;
  • marine mammal

Governance arrangements such as comanagement are regarded by many as promising arenas for effective natural resource management. However, measuring comanagement's success at achieving conservation goals has been equivocal. Our research evaluates the lack of conclusive outcomes through a critical consideration of how different goals and values inherent in comanagement affect the institutional (or policy) diagnostic of “fit.” More narrowly, sustaining natural resources requires that management policies foster fit between the scales of sociopolitical processes governing resource use and the scales of ecological processes regulating a resource. Without a process that encourages such harmonization, theoretical and empirical evidence suggests that comanagement regimes are unlikely to accomplish long-term conservation goals. We use a case study of walrus comanagement under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act to demonstrate that when the formal institutions preconditioning comanagement do not develop out of a deliberative process among comanagement partners, two major problems can arise: (i) Policy institutions mismatch ecological and social processes relevant to resources and communities; and (ii) data to assess the fit of institutions and support learning is more difficult to acquire. In our case study, both these factors constrain the ability of comanagement to foster walrus conservation or support the capacity of Native Alaskans to adapt to contemporary social and environmental conditions. Our research concludes that to achieve marine mammal conservation, previous institutional arrangements framing comanagement that are predicated on static conceptions of people and ecosystems must be redesigned to provide better policy fit across local to international priorities. To do so requires opening up deliberative spaces, where Western science and priorities are confronted with indigenous perspectives. However, the benefit of enhancing deliberation carries risks and costs related to trade-offs between the values of democratic process, and protections for both wildlife species and indigenous groups.