Fisheries Forever

Purse seine fishing off of the central coast of Vietnam. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization considers about one-quarter of

In Brief

Fisheries management has generated a litany of failures, but better incentives to link individuals with a collective interest, and approaches that support resilience can turn this around—and already have in some parts of the world. Collectively, these approaches offer the prospect of sustainably managed and economically viable fisheries forever.

Key Concepts

  • Fisheries-management goals and biological-economic targets that promote long-term profitability go hand-in-hand with larger fish stocks.

  • Understanding fisher behaviors and aligning their incentives with the sustainability of fisheries and marine ecosystems is the key to successful fisheries management.

  • Marine reserves promote resilience to disturbances and help support sustainable fisheries.

  • Incentive-based approaches that involve individual or community harvesting, territorial rights, or the pricing of ecosystem services can promote sustainable fisheries.

While farmed fish is growing rapidly, most fish we eat is caught in the wild. The amount of fish harvested from the wild is around 80 million tonnes per year and has fluctuated around this total for the past 20 years, while total aquaculture production has increased by about fivefold over the same period to reach some 60 million tonnes per year.1

Fish consumption provides an important source of protein to billions of people and represents about 15 percent of total animal protein consumption. Fisheries are also a key part of the world’s ecosystems that provide a range of services beyond their harvest value. Unfortunately, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) considers about one-quarter of assessed world marine fish stocks to be overexploited, meaning that these stocks are being fished at a level that is not sustainable in the long run. For about one-third of these overexploited fisheries, the current catch is well below historical levels. Further, the FAO considers about half of all of the fisheries it has assessed to be fully exploited, that is to say, the FAO expects no further expansion in harvest. Apart from the conservation risks, overfishing results in very large economic losses in terms of lost net economic benefits that could be as much as $50 billion per year globally in marine capture fisheries.2

There are many regional and historical examples of fisheries that have been overexploited and mismanaged. One of the most well-known cases is the collapse of the northern cod fishery of the eastern coast of Canada, off Newfoundland. In 1992 a moratorium on fishing was declared as a result of dramatic collapse in the stock attributable to overharvesting and simply “too many vessels, chasing too few fish.”3 This fishery had previously generated an annual catch that fluctuated around 200,000 tonnes for at least a century. But, beginning in the 1960s and in the absence of any territorial control or limit on fishing, catches peaked in 1968 at over 800,000 tonnes.

Notwithstanding human errors and management deficiencies, fisheries share two features that also contribute to overfishing. First, the catch of one fisher makes fewer fish available for harvest by others. Consequently, there is an in-built incentive to “race to fish” to ensure a desired harvest before someone else catches the available fish. This race is magnified when there are fishery-level harvest or effort controls, but no individual limits or controls. Second, the expansive, borderless, and international nature of marine fisheries makes it difficult and often expensive to monitor what is caught, where it is caught, by whom, and when. The challenges of effective monitoring have resulted in misreporting and also fish practices that may be detrimental to both targeted and non-targeted species—a problem made much more difficult in the high seas and for migratory fisheries.4

Due to the absence of property rights, marine fisheries are either open access (fishers freely enter) or limited-user open access (there are limits on the number of vessels permitted). The latter case encourages fishers to make investments in their vessels and adopt new technologies that increase the effective fishing effort over time, even when nominal fishing effort is regulated. As in the case of the northern cod fishery, open access in the 1960s led to gross overfishing, but even with regulated access and controls of the total harvest after Canada assumed jurisdiction of the fishery and displaced foreign fishing fleets, unsustainably high levels of exploitation continued.3

The overfishing problem is, sadly, a story repeated in many places. The solution is to use appropriate biological and economic targets, to ensure fishers have long-term incentives in fisheries, and to establish management actions that promote resilient fisheries and ecosystems.


archer10 (Dennis)/Flickr
Collapse of cod stocks off of the New England coast, pictured here, has become an iconic example of how overexploitation can create social, environmental, and economic ruin.

Bottom-Up and Incentive Approaches versus Top-Down Management Regulations

In many fisheries, management focuses on achieving a given fishing mortality. This is typically implemented through a total allowable catch or harvest limit defined in tonnes of fish or via indirect controls on fishing inputs. In other words, a total catch or harvest limit is placed on the fishery as a whole, but no individual limit is imposed on the harvest of individual fishers. Instead, fishers’ behavior is controlled by regulations that limit the type of inputs that fishers are allowed to use, such as controls on the type of fishing gear that can be used or the maximum size of a vessel. This is a top-down approach that fails to respond to the incentive of fishers to increase their fishing effort. In many cases, regulators respond to this effort creep by imposing further reductions in the overall harvest or additional input restrictions.

Typically, fishery managers try to reduce the overall catch after a problem of overfishing has been identified by imposing ever-more-stringent controls on the inputs, such as vessels, engines, and fishing gear. Fishers respond by finding ways to substitute fishing inputs (such as electronic fish finders) that allow them to legally circumvent the fishery regulations. By investing in unregulated or uncontrolled fishing inputs,5 fishers are able to increase their fishing power and impose even greater risks on fish stocks.

Fisheries management that focuses on the inputs used by fishers, rather than on their actions and motivations, has frequently led to adverse outcomes. For example, perverse incentives and inadequate and overly complex governance are given as the principal reasons for overfishing of bottom-dwelling fish species in the North Atlantic. These incentives resulted in fishers in Europe, North America, and Australia lobbying regulators not to reduce the total allowable catch.6 This is because in the absence of appropriate incentives, rights, and responsibilities, a reduction in the current harvest level so as to conserve or grow the fish stock is not offset by a corresponding gain from a future, sustainable fishery. Instead, with top-down regulations, should stocks recover, fishers would still need to out-compete fellow fishers with little surety of receiving actual, future benefits from conservation actions undertaken today.

A key issue with the exclusive use of input controls in fisheries is that it encourages fisheries to shift from inputs that can be more easily controlled or regulated, such as the size of the fishing vessel, to inputs that allow them to catch more fish, but are not regulated. For example, the Australian northern prawn fishery manager imposed controls on vessel capacity and engine power in order to limit overall fishing effort. However, the controls actually encouraged fishers to find other ways to increase their fishing power. Over time, the controls inadvertently reduced fisher efficiency, raised fishing costs, and failed to halt increases in fishing effort that had a negative impact on stocks.7

In contrast to top-down regulations that focus on overall fishery controls and often run counter to fishers’ interests, bottom-up incentive-based approaches seek to align individual incentives with the public good. One of the keys to aligning individual with collective incentives is to provide fishers with harvest shares or territorial use rights that allow them to enjoy the long-term benefits of conservation and incur the costs of overfishing. In the case of harvest shares, fishers are allocated harvesting rights that allow them to catch a fixed proportion of the total allowable catch in a given fishing season. Because these harvest shares are transferable, fishers who wish to catch more fish can do so by purchasing the harvesting rights of others without being forced to out-compete their fellow fishers by increasing their fishing power. Such harvesting rights have been in place in New Zealand since the 1980s and introduced into several other countries over the past couple of decades. In the case of territorial use rights, fishers have a defined access to locations where fish are located and have the incentive to protect this habitat from actions that would harm the harvested fish populations. Territorial use rights have existed in community-managed fisheries for many centuries and have been proven, where there is adequate monitoring and enforcement, to be a valuable means to protect fish habitat and fisheries.

Community rights, if allocated to a sufficiently cohesive and small number, can also facilitate collective action and coordination, improve monitoring and compliance, and generate conservation incentives. Secure and durable harvesting shares or territorial rights give fishers a long-term stake or interest in the fishery beyond the current fishing season. This can encourage conservation behavior, including reductions in the harvest of by-catch,8 and promote bottom-up decision making and greater fisher involvement in management decisions.9 Stakeholder engagement combined with incentive-based approaches to management do not guarantee better environmental outcomes, but there are numerous examples where fishers have paid themselves for improved monitoring or increased research and also voluntarily changed previously harmful fishing practices.9,10

Evidence from at least a dozen fisheries worldwide indicates that incentive-based approaches that involve individual or community harvesting or territorial rights, as well as the pricing of ecosystem services, can promote sustainable fisheries.10,11 In a global study, professor Chris Costello and others showed the sustainability benefits of getting the incentives right for fishers.12


James CW Chang/Flickr
It is possible to create a “win-win-win” situation, argue the authors, by aligning ecological limits with fishers’ incentives. This will lead to larger fish populations, lower costs of fishing, and higher profits. Here, oyster farm beds in Taiwan.

Biological-Economic Fish Population Targets

Typically, fisheries are managed by ensuring that the fishery population is above a minimum level or at a desired size. The standard approach has been to base this population target exclusively on how many fish can be harvested at different sizes of the fish population. While this may seem appropriate, it ignores fishers and their incentives and actions. An alternative approach is to consider both the biological aspects of the fish population as well as the economics of fishing.13 Contrary to what many people believe, this biological-economic approach to managing fish populations can promote fish conservation.14,15 This is because the economics of fishing often mean that smaller fish populations generate higher fishing costs as it takes more effort and expense to find and catch the available fish. Consequently, a biological-economic fish population target can result in larger fish populations (that are likely more resilient to disturbances) which means lower costs of fishing, and higher profits for fishers—a win-win-win.

Setting an appropriate biological-economic target for the fish population does not mean that economic considerations are paramount to conservation objectives because limits can, and should, be used to ensure fish stocks are at levels that do not compromise sustainability.16 Such an approach has already been implemented in Australian Commonwealth fisheries when implementing a biological-economic target.17 To be fully effective, a biological-economic fish population target should be included as part of an overall fisheries governance system that explicitly accounts for uncertainty and unanticipated shocks and considers accountability, transparency, incentives, risk assessment and management, and adaptability as key management performance criteria.18

Ecosystem Approaches

Fisheries are part of marine ecosystems and should be managed as part of a whole system.19 Such management should take a broader perspective that goes beyond the sustainability of targeted fish stocks and accounts for overall ecosystem health. Ecosystem approaches should be precautionary and seek to promote resilience of ecosystems and the sustainability of fisheries. The challenge with ecosystem management is to understand species and habitat interactions sufficiently well so as to improve current management practices and then use this understanding to generate better fisheries and ecosystem outcomes. This can be a step too far in some regions and countries where resources and capacity are insufficient to provide the knowledge and framework necessary to effectively implement ecosystem management.

To achieve improved ecosystem outcomes in the absence of adequate resources for fisheries management, decentralized approaches should be developed that provide incentives for fishers to sustain marine ecosystems. These approaches could include: direct conservation payments for delivery of marine ecosystem services based on verifiable actions or outcomes, offsets to protect endangered habitat and breeding sites, and indirect activities, such as ecotourism, that generate individual or community payoffs from improved ecosystem services.20 Such actions need not necessarily be initiated by fishery managers, but can successfully be developed with voluntary programs,21 and could include payments by fishers to preserve the breeding grounds of by-catch species (such as turtles) in return for being allowed to fish for target species (such as swordfish). If implemented effectively, such programs provide direct benefits to fishers investing in conservation provided that noninvesting fishers are prevented from free riding on the actions of others.22

Uncertainty and Resilience

Uncertainty refers to situations where future outcomes are not known with certainty and, at best, managers have only subjective probabilities about possible outcomes. It is of paramount importance in fisheries because many marine populations are subject to very large temporal variations even in the absence of fishing pressure. In the context of fisheries management, the choice of whether to use harvest or catch controls versus input or effort controls is, in part, a function of the uncertainty. A framework has been developed to make this choice which, when applied to the northern prawn fishery of Australia, showed that the total harvest limits resulted in higher total profits, lower variance of expected profits, and greater stock levels than effort controls.23

A valuable approach to cope with uncertainty and unexpected disturbances in fish populations is to establish reserves or marine protected areas (MPAs). Reserves generate benefits in terms of habitat protection and can protect vulnerable classes of fish as well as provide biodiversity and other conservation benefits. MPAs can promote resilience to disturbances and offer direct benefits to fishers where populations are subject to random fluctuations. This is because they can act as a buffer when a shock occurs and allow for the transfer of fish from a higher-density environment within a reserve to a low-density environment in the fishing zone. This fish transfer, following a negative disturbance to the fishery, can generate substantial benefit to fishers immediately following such a shock.

Fisher benefits from a reserve and also the optimal size of a reserve, increase with the magnitude of the disturbance.10 The tradeoff, at least for commercial fishers, is that they incur a lower harvest in the absence of a disturbance.24 Data from the northern cod fishery show that if an optimal-sized reserve had been established it would have prevented its collapse in the early 1990s, increased fisher profits, and allowed for quicker recovery of the stock.25


Captain Kimo/Flickr
There is an important immediacy to preserving fish stocks, note the authors: fish consumption provides protein to billions of people worldwide, representing about 15 percent of total animal protein consumption.

Ways Forward

A key to overcoming overfishing and generating both profitable and sustainable fisheries is to focus management on fishers and their incentives and actions. Instead of top-down based regulations, fisheries governance should develop bottom-up approaches that provide fishers with long-term incentives, rights, and responsibilities in the fishery and marine ecosystems. This can take the form of individual or community harvesting shares or territorial rights, but requires an appropriate biological-economic target for the overall level of the fish stocks. In addition, management targets and incentives must explicitly account for uncertainty and disturbances to fish populations. This should include an ecosystem focus, where the required management capacity exists and if the benefits of the approach outweigh the costs. Management controls, such as marine protected areas that promote faster stock recovery following negative disturbances or shocks, must also be an integral part of a resilience approach to fisheries management.

Alongside incentives and management actions that promote the public good, a biological-economic fish population target can result in fish stock levels that are greater than those which maximize the sustained yield while also providing a valuable benchmark to regulators. If introduced with appropriate harvest control rules that transition stocks to their target level, such a target can generate a double payoff: higher fisher profits and improved conservation benefits.

Fisheries face many uncertainties, not all of which are caused by fishers. As fisheries and marine ecosystems adjust to changes in ocean temperatures, acidity, and sea levels, fisheries management must also adapt and refocus away from top-down controls to bottom-up incentives, shift from fixed rules and deterministic modes of thinking to approaches that promote resilience of fish populations in the presence of disturbances, and move from exclusively biological targets to biological-economic targets that help fishers and sustain fish stocks.26 Together these approaches offer the promise of fisheries forever.