Management institutions operating at different spatial scales create different kinds of hierarchies, relationships, and incentives. Some large-scale institutional changes (e.g., individual fishing quotas) have effectively realigned economic incentives of individual harvesters, but fishermen respond to a diversity of factors in addition to economic incentives, including environmental and social factors. We assessed potential barriers and bridges to using cooperative strategies to improve sustainability of small-scale U.S. fisheries. We selected California's nearshore fishery to demonstrate the methods, but the analytical framework we present can be applied to many others.