Fishery Management

Regulating fisheries is essential for sustainability. In this section we explain management goals, structures, and challenges around the world.

The Basics

In the Western world, there are generally three steps between a fish swimming in the ocean and ending up in your stomach. First, the fish has to be caught; next it needs to be processed for sale—that means cleaning, fileting, and packaging; then finally marketed and sold to grocery stores and restaurants. Everyone involved in these steps, from fishers to processors to fish mongers is a part of the industry. And, like all food industries, it is regulated. Processing and marketing regulations are mostly comparable to other food regulations—sanitation, transportation, waste disposal, etc., but fishing is a unique way to gather food here on planet Earth. Successful fishery management ensures sustainability for fish stocks, food for consumers, and livelihood for those in the industry.

Every coastal nation in the world is entitled to fish within 200 nautical miles of its shoreline: this is called an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Each country is responsible for managing their EEZ and the fisheries inside. This is typically done through a regulatory framework and is implemented by a specific branch of government. For example, in the United States, fisheries are regulated by the Magnuson-Stevens Act and managed either by the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS), a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or by State agencies. European Union fisheries are regulated by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and managed by the European Commission.

From Theo Deutinger and TD Architects

Most of the world’s fisheries occur in an EEZ, but some are out on the high seas, a lawless, mostly unregulated area that belongs to no one. There are global efforts to regulate high seas fisheries through regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) but it is a complicated task. To learn more about high-seas fisheries, click here.

Common pool resource

Though countries control their own EEZ, no part of the ocean is private property; this creates the fundamental aspect of fisheries: they are a common pool resource—meaning they are shared, public, and have no inherent way to exclude individuals from exploiting it.

Without governance, a tragedy of the commons emerges, where individuals maximize their own benefit at the expense of sustainability and others with less power or capital. Combating a commons issue requires collective stakeholder action or government regulation.

Fishery Management Goals: Triple Bottom Line

A delicate balance between social and environmental security is present in fisheries management. Fishing provides food and recreation to the public, jobs & livelihood to individuals, and creates identity and kinship in communities. These aspects of fishing should be sustained and fostered. Fortunately, most regulatory frameworks, like the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the CFP legally require social considerations in fishery decisions; reputable management incorporates social well-being and strives to keep all resource-users satisfied.

Though we tend to focus on the science of biological sustainability and the social implications of policy, it is important to remember that fishing is a for-profit business. Profitability is a consideration in fishery management decisions; auspiciously, maintaining fishery sustainability is best for long-term profit.

Healthy fish populations, progressive social outcomes and profit are the three pillars of successful fisheries management. This triple bottom line approach is the basis for evaluating fisheries and making policy decisions. The figure below shows the elements and interconnectedness of each of the three main goals; the figure is from Anderson et al. 2015 (open access), a paper that proposed a consistent and standardized way to evaluate fisheries—it has since become one of the most influential fishery management papers of the last decade.

From Anderson et al. 2015. The left-most column represents the 3 components of triple bottom line success.

Maximum Sustainable Yield

As you can see in the figure above, social and financial outcomes are particularly tied since profitability and livelihood are mutually dependent—fishing companies need money to pay fishermen and women for their fish and labor. All parts rely on fish in the water, but social and financial outcomes can influence how much is caught. So how much fish should be caught? There are a few variables to consider:

  • The population size of fish (ecological)
  • The amount of fishing pressure or fishing effort (jobs: social)
  • The costs and profits of fishing (economic)
  • The provision of food for people (food security: social)

If we were to graph these variables they would look something like the plot below.

Via World Ocean Review

Fishery economics 101

The amount of fish caught is a curved line (yield) when plotted against fishing effort on the x-axis; some amount of effort between zero and unlimited is just the right amount to maximize long-term yield and maintain sustainable, healthy populations—this amount is called maximum sustainable yield (MSY). The cost of fishing (worker wages, vessel maintenance, equipment, fuel, etc.) generally depends on the amount of fishing effort (i.e. proportional to the amount of days the boat is taken out to fish). This straight line starting at the origin intersects with the curved yield line at some point. The blue shaded area above the cost line and below the yield curve is where the yield to cost ratio is greater than 1. The point at which the cost line and yield curve meet is where the ratio evens out and fishing is no longer profitable. Beyond this point, the yield to cost ratio is less than 1. The tragedy of the commons explains why this point would be the yield without regulation—individuals would enter the fishery until it is no longer profitable to do so. The yield to cost ratio is highest at maximum economic yield (MEY). This is the point where economic efficiency is highest in the harvest sector.

Fishing to MEY is best for profitability, but creates fewer jobs and leaves food in the ocean. If one singular fishing company had complete control of the harvesting sector of a fishery, it would be fished to MEY. If they also had control of the processing and service sectors, it would be fished to MSY, where profits are likely greatest across all sectors combined. Essentially, MEY=MSY. Of all major regulatory bodies, only Australia mandates fishing to MEY—all others regulate to MSY to maximize social benefits (food & jobs).

It is important to note that this plot is a generic one. The yield to effort curve always goes up and then down, but the exact shape may vary. Also, the cost of fishing line, and thus the yield to cost ratio, can vary dramatically. A steep line means a fishery may not meet its potential for food and jobs, whereas a flat line will encourage overfishing.

Aside from license costs and landing tariffs, fishery managers have little control over the angle of the cost of fishing line—much of it is dependent on fuel prices or consumer demand, for example, but fishery managers and policymakers have a host of tools to regulate to MSY.


This post is part of Sustainable Seafood 101

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