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Fisheries, Marine: Management and Policy

Fisheries, Marine: Management and Policy

Marine capture fisheries are the source of livelihood for an estimated 200 million people worldwide. Yet they are imperiled by overfishing , habitat loss, and growing human demands.

The Decline of Marine Capture Fisheries

Examples of fisheries in decline include the Grand Banks (lying off southeastern Newfoundland, Canada) and Georges Bank (lying off Nantucket Island and Cape Cod in Massachusetts) of the northwest Atlantic Ocean. These two fisheries once were among the world's most productive.

Formerly dominant species of groundfish flounder, cod, haddock, and hakehave been fished down to a small fraction of their previous abundance, and in some cases are considered commercially extinct. The Atlantic cod catch in this region peaked in the 1960s at about 1.43 million metric tons per year. Overfishing later caused the cod catch to decline to 644,000 metric tons per year in the 1980s, and ultimately to collapse to only 48,000 metric tons per year by 1994. The 1997 catch of cod, hake, and haddock in the northwest Atlantic Ocean was only 16.5 percent of the 1990 catch.

In 1994, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that excessive harvesting had caused drastic reductions in many of the preferred species of edible fish. For example, the National Marine Fisheries Service found that cod, haddock, hake, and flounder made up more than 70 percent of the common fishes in the Gulf of Maine in 1965. By 1992, dogfish and skate (less commercially desirable species of fish) made up more than 75 percent of the common fish in these waters. The National Academy of Sciences reported that changes in the composition and abundance of marine flora and fauna had been extensive enough to endanger the functioning of marine ecosystems.

Marine Fisheries Management

Traditional regulatory schemes used in marine capture fisheries include output controls, technical measures, and input controls. Examples of output controls include total allowable catch (TAC) for the fishery, and trip or bag limits on vessel landings. Examples of technical measures include catch restrictions on fish size and sex. Examples of input controls on fishing effort, the oldest type of fishery management tool, include gear restrictions, vessel licenses, and seasonal restrictions. Most fisheries are managed using a combination of these measures.

In many cases these regulatory tactics have proved to be ineffectual in sustaining fishery stocks (populations), and have led to a number of harmful unintended consequences for both fishers and consumers. For example, the historical management practice used for Alaskan halibut and sablefish (among other fisheries) involved establishment of a TAC, along with gear restrictions and seasonal restrictions. Because fishers do not have a property right to a share of the TAC, they respond to shortened seasons by acquiring more gear and larger vessels so that they can capture more fish in a shorter period of time. The result is an intense race for fish, or derby, which in turn may require regulators to further reduce the season openings.

Derbies create an incentive for fishers to acquire larger vessels and more gear than they would otherwise need, thus leading to overcapitalization and a need to further shorten the season. Due to derby effects, the fishing season in the central Gulf of Alaska halibut fishery was reduced from over 150 days in the early 1970s to about 3 days in the early 1990s, yet the total catch approximately tripled. The race for fish, combined with various subsidy schemes designed to build larger domestic fishing fleets, has led to excess fishing capacity and financial hardship for fishers.

Alternative Fishery Management Regimes

An important problem with both open-access fisheries and traditional fishery management tools is that fishers do not have a property right to a share of the available fishery stock prior to capture. Because fishers do not have a property right to fish until capture, the harvest by one vessel imposes a rule of capture externality on all others by reducing the remaining stock of fish. When the rule of capture externality is operating, fishers have an incentive to overcapitalize in vessel, crew, and gear.

The rule of capture externality is a rule stating that resource units harvested from an open-access resource (or a common-property resource ) become private property at the time of harvest. It also refers to the fact that resource units harvested by one person subtract from what is available for others.

The Case of Individual Quotas.

Individual quotas (IQs) have been proposed as a way of addressing overcapitalization. IQs assign a share of the TAC to individual fishers, vessels, or communities. By assigning rights prior to capture, IQs eliminate the rule of capture externality. As a result, derby conditions and the incentive for overcapitalization are reduced. Reducing overcapitalization increases the economic efficiency of the fishing industry by reducing the total cost of harvesting a given quantity of fish.

IQs can also be tradable, which can introduce further gains in economic efficiency. When quota shares are too small to allow for economically efficient and profitable vessel operation, tradable quota shares will be concentrated within a subset of the original fishing fleet that can operate efficiently and profitably.

There is some evidence that IQs have increased economic efficiency and reduced problems due to the race for fish. An IQ system for the Atlantic surf clam and ocean quahog fishery resulted in a decrease in excess capacity and a consequent increase in economic efficiency. Likewise an IQ system for Australia's bluefin tuna fishery resulted in a 70-percent reduction in vessel numbers, and IQ systems have also eased the derby characteristic of some New Zealand fisheries.

Several issues must be dealt with to utilize an IQ fishery management system.

  • It must be possible to establish a TAC on the fishery.
  • It must be feasible to monitor landings to prevent cheating on quota shares.
  • Parties must agree on an initial quota allocation among deck hands, vessel owners, processors, and communities.
  • Parties must determine whether IQs are to be tradable, and if so, to what extent.
  • Management and enforcement of the IQ system must be funded.

IQ systems are controversial and can lead to a redistribution of income. Because of these reasons and others, the U.S. Congress has not looked favorably upon them. The 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act amended the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act by imposing a 4-year moratorium on the submission or approval of new IQ programs. Any IQ programs approved after January 4, 1995, such as for red snapper, were repealed.

The National Academy of Science performed a study of IQ systems, and in 1999 provided the U.S. Congress with recommendations regarding IQs. These recommendations included:

  • Lifting the moratorium on IQs;
  • Assessing fees on initial and subsequent quota sales to fund IQ management and enforcement;
  • Giving regional councils the flexibility to adjust existing IQ programs and develop new ones;
  • Establishing limits on accumulating quota shares;
  • Delegating decisions about the transferability of quota shares to the regional councils; and
  • Ensuring that funding is available for collection of social and economic information on U.S. marine fisheries.

As of 2002, the implementation of IQ programs in the United States remained under debate.

see also Aquaculture; Fish and Wildlife Issues; Fisheries, Marine; International Cooperation; Law, International Water; Law of the Sea; Mariculture; Salmon Decline and Recovery; Sustainable Development.

Steven C. Hackett


Casey, K., C. Dewees, B. Turris, and J. Wilen. "The Effects of Individual VesselQuotas in the British Columbia Halibut Fishery." Marine Resource Economics 10 (1995):211230.

Hackett, Steven. Environmental and Natural Resources Economics: Theory, Policy, and the Sustainable Society. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998.

Hardin, G. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162 (1968):12431248.

McEvoy, A. The Fisherman's Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 18501980. London, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

National Research Council. Sharing the Fish: Toward a National Policy on Individual Fishing Quotas. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999.

Yearbook of Fishery Statistics. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of theUnited Nations, 1990.

Internet Resources

Review of the State of the World Fishery Resources: Marine Fisheries. FAO Fisheries Circular No. 920 (1997). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available online at <>.

Sustainable Fisheries Act. National Marine Fisheries Service. <>.

The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2000. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. <>.


In 1968 Garrett Hardin published the article "Tragedy of the Commons" in which he described the idyllic setting of a village with a grassy common at its center. Each villager has a right to graze cows on this commons. It is in the private interest of each villager to graze as many cows as he or she can to help increase earnings.

While the individual villagers make their profits, all must share the resulting cost of degrading the common land. As each villager pursues a private interest, the number of cows grazing destroys the commons. Therein lies the tragedy.

The only workable solution to the shortsighted self-interests of the individuals is to set up some form of governance or property rights to regulate the use of the commons. Hardin's analysis has strongly influenced thinking about many environmental problems with the "commons" characteristic.

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