How commercial fisheries are managed

Quickly comparing and understanding different fishery management approaches (and their outcomes) is a useful and important skill for policy makers. Now, a group of students (and one professor) at the University of Washington have made it much easier. Last month they published How commercial fisheries are managed, a paper that graphically represents every kind of fishery management scheme for easy comparison, while also using real-world case studies to explain each one.

Anderson et al. 2018 and its discussion will be highly useful for fishery managers and policy makers and would also be a good addition to any kind of discussion on natural resource management.

Three paths in fishery management

Generally speaking, there are 3 ways to regulate fisheries:

  1. Limiting catch
  2. Limiting fishing effort
  3. Limiting spatial access (marine protected area)

Anderson et al. 2018 traces each path’s evolution in the figure below.

Venn diagram representing the relationships among common approaches to fishery management, with regions of greater overlap indicating additional restrictions. Beginning from unregulated open access, the diagram represents three pathways: 1) limiting catch (travels down the left of the diagram), beginning with limited access and adding restrictions on total allowable catch, allocating harvest rights through catch shares, individual allocation through individual fishing quota (IFQ) and individual transferable quota (ITQ); 2) limiting effort (travels down the right of the diagram) through establishing non‐binding harvest guidelines, imposing input restrictions and then transferable input rights; and 3) controlling spatial access (travels right to left across the bottom) by establishing regulated‐take or closed no‐take areas, with the range of effort or catch controls applying within regions where fishing is permitted. From Anderson et al. 2018.

The paper also commented on triple bottom line outcomes for each management approach.

Summary of behavioral changes observed under each approach to effort management, with associated economic, ecological and community outcomes. Background shading indicates generally negative (red), mixed (yellow) or positive (green) outcomes; gradients reflect outcomes depend on other features of management. From Anderson et al. 2018

Positive social, ecological, and economic outcomes are the major goals of fishery management. When we write or tweet about “improving fishery management” we mean improving one or more of these outcomes until all three are satisfactory.

Is there a best way to manage fisheries?

This is a tricky question for a variety of reasons. First, everything in management comes down to the capacity of the regulating body—rules are followed as well as they are enforced. Some governing bodies only have the capacity to enforce harvest guidelines. Some can organize and operate a full catch share system. Mixing and matching regulations to maximize capacity is the way to go. Improving management often means improving capacity to manage.

Second, there is widespread philosophical disagreement about approaching fishery management. Policy makers with a capitalist bent tend to prefer economic outcomes. Others believe ecological outcomes should weigh higher than social outcomes (or vice versa). There are many ways to value a natural resource. However you feel about fishery management, Anderson et al. 2018 will better inform your opinion.

Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is an expert in environmental perception & policy. He is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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3 Responses

  1. Another effect of ITQ’s is that licence/quota owners are the main beneficiaries, even (especially?) when they are international investment consortia. In fact some quota owners profit more in absolute terms when quota is leased compared to when they fish it themselves while the boats and crew(s) pay excessive amounts for the privilege of risking their lives. There is something not right about that system either. Just sayin

  2. Max, perhaps Anderson et al , might have spoken to a few fishermen in the Northeast before publishing the clearly bogus results in their paper regarding their sterling report on ITQs, IFQs, and Catch Shares. The point is that no matter what “method” of management is employed it’s the TAC that has more to do with stock population than anything else. But that too is not the whole story there is also the fact that fish landing rates have other forces, like natural environment, and market prices acting on them besides fishing regulations! But Catch Shares have been a total disaster in the Northeast putting the fishery in the hands of anyone who has capital (usually not family fishing operations). As an example please consider the Carlos Rafael caper in New Bedford or some of the underhanded wheeling and dealing that goes on as exposed in the following article:

    Catch shares in the Northeast Groundfishery were illegally imposed on the fishermen, with the help of former NMFS director, Jane Lubchenco, also a former Pew and EDF administrator, board member, and luminary, and of course the money and media influence of the EDF, Pew, and Oceana investors creating a new rapid growth opportunity (see EDF’s David Festa pitching at least a 400% profit margin for Catch Shares at an L.A. Milken conference—looking for investment to “grease the skids” a good 4 months before NOAA imposed them). Ramrodding this privatization of a public resource scheme was in violation of standards in the MSA 303A (D). This standard required a 2/3 referendum vote by license holders—it didn’t happen! That statute was circumvented by calling the catch shares “contributions to sectors” and now the “sectors” are struggling to pay their managers a meager salary. Some integrity in research would go a long way. You have to get out more often and talk to people that have to actually live by how these “commercial fisheries are managed”!

    Just a word or two on the “purpose of management”. OY is the purpose of management! Optimum Yield (OY) is actually the stated goal of all this management, mandated by the original MSA (Magnuson-Stevens Act), or as earlier called, the MFCMA (Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act).

    Although never adequately defined, OY certainly includes the people aspect of the fisheries, i.e., considering the relevant ecological, economic, and social factors. The Act stated in Sec.3 (18): “The term ‘optimum’, with respect to the yield from a fishery, means the amount of fish – A) which will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, with particular reference to food production and recreational opportunities; and B) which is prescribed as such on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from such a fishery, as modified by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor.”

    In that above passage what seems most relevant to this discussion of “approach” or “purpose” is that “The Act” clearly states “MSY as modified by economic, social, or ecological factors”. In other words the “scientific” results of MSY oriented assessments become a preliminary starting out place and are to be mitigated by the human factors, economic, social, and ecological.

    The National Standards of the Fishery Management Act required that all management plans take into account OY, or the more human side, of the equation:

    The Act Sec. 2 (b) (4), “… to provide for the preparation and implementation, in accordance with national standards, of fishery management plans which will achieve and maintain, on a continuing basis, the optimal yield from each fishery.”

    PS, and there’s nothing “human” about ITQs—other than, perhaps, their congruence with human Greed! Fishermen are not stupid and they are not greedy stupid! They will not fish on a species “until profit is eliminated”! Northeast fishermen have always been capable of switching gear and fisheries almost on the fly, thus avoiding scarce or cheap fish for any specific period. catch shares ITQs have actually all but eliminated that nimble flexibility (also a built in conservation measure). Fishermen under the catch shares regime must decide which particular species to purchase the allocation for in advance of the trip, and hope those fish are where they thought they would be and the ex-vessel price holds upon landing! This process clearly increases risk factor, both financial and physical, and is counter to what “fishing” actually means to most fishermen and women!

  3. Truly respecting OY and socio-economic-cultural and ecological aspects of the fisheries, would most likely encourage a diverse fleet of privately owned and relatively small boats, not consolidated, commoditized, market capitalized and vertically integrated factory catcher/processor fleets, with far superior weather capabilities and virtually unlimited funding.

    Small family owned fishing operations have conservation systems and limits built in. They are restricted by weather and range and limited funding, by market prices, fuel and mechanical repair costs, and consequently they have unavoidable periods of down time (not-fishing). Due to narrow financial margins and weather safety issues, they can only fish for the stocks that are plentiful and within reach of their ports.

    It is simply not financially viable for small, independent, family-owned and funded operations to fish on depleted stocks or to stay at sea through dangerous weather conditions. These built-in restraints, coupled with cooperative-surveying (scientists on fishing vessels) and such reasonably accurate science and stock assessments informing regulations, would be intelligent management and do much toward securing the health of the resource and the fishery.

    However what we do have that is passed off as “management”, is essentially the brandishing of the “overfishing” war cry, buttressed with faulty MSY assessment “proof”. This has moved management into the privatization and consolidation of the fishery through “Catch Shares”—as a measure to save the stocks from disappearing into “oceans of jellyfish”. The NOAA managers have also found the need to constantly tighten allowable catch quotas, or the amount of fish that fishermen are allowed to land, in order to thwart “rampant overfishing”— not to mention the NOAA/Oceana mandate of industry funded observers and monitors in order to enforce the ridiculous regulations. And oh yes, also the observers/monitors are there to stop the millions upon millions of pounds of “Wasted Catch” (an Oceana masterpiece) discards— due to inefficient and greedy fishing practices, not disproportionate regulations, of course.

    Sadly, inadequate and agenda-driven science, “free market environmentalism” catch shares commoditization (see for origins of this “approach”), MSY borne whacky assessments, all this self-serving junk passing for “commercial fisheries management” has resulted in the dismantling and disappearance of a large portion of the independent family owned and operated fishing fleets. And a fleet of many fishery-diverse “inefficient” small boats can sustain the fish, preserve jobs, provide a vital source of fresh healthy food, and keep the traditional coastal fishing communities thriving.

    The issues and problems facing the fishing industry are not insurmountable; but there needs to be HONEST communication about the purpose and long term goals for the fisheries. There can’t be hidden corporate agendas or personal ambition driven politics if the management endeavor is ever going to succeed in preserving the resource and the fishing communities.

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