Marine fisheries – locally important commons resources with global impacts and challenges for management

The recent release of the 2014 FAO report[1] on the State of World Fisheries clearly demonstrates the value of fishing around the globe, and the increasing importance of fish as a source of food. The report notes a significant increase in fish consumption worldwide from under 10kg/capita in the 1960s to 19.2kg/capita in 2012, and that since the early-1990s aquaculture production has steadily increased as a proportion of total fish consumed, while the amount from capture has stabilised, suggesting we may have reached the limits of fishing from natural ecosystems production in many parts of the world. Recent figures also show that 18 countries are responsible for 76% of global marine fish catches, and that an estimated 58 million people are engaged in the primary sector of capture fisheries and aquaculture (2012 figure). The FAO report estimates that overall, fisheries and aquaculture contribute to the livelihoods of 10 -12% of the world’s population.



The report also indicates that the proportion of marine stocks that are fished within biologically sustainable levels is estimated to have declined from 90% down to 71.2% over a 30 – 40 year period leading up to 2011, suggesting that currently almost 30% of stocks are overfished worldwide, and 61% are ‘fully fished’. Overfishing decreases both the potential sustainable yield and ecosystem resilience, making fishing more difficult, reducing the potential financial benefits and making fishing a more economically and socially precarious activity. The FAO report estimates that rebuilding overfished stocks could increase production by millions of tonnes per year with an annual rent estimated at US$32 billion. Putting fisheries onto a sustainable production basis would have multiple benefits including greater food security (fish is one of the most traded food commodities worldwide) for some of the world’s poorest people, as well as improving marine ecosystem health.

Management of marine fisheries is an example of where poor institutional arrangements, the nature of non-binding agreements, lack of political will, and poor of collaboration between local and regional fisheries management organisations, all lead to reductions in fish stocks and ecosystem health. Lack of action in many parts of the globe is resulting in catastrophic effects on fisheries, with consequent ecological, economic and social impacts. A recent estimate by the World Bank, for example, suggests that mismanagement of fisheries may be resulting in costs of up to $50 billion a year. This includes the estimated $10 to $24 billion worth of fish that are caught illegally worldwide, depriving communities of income, food and jobs[2].


Finding ways for national governments to work together at the regional level is the key to managing common fisheries resources outside of the exclusive economic zones (EEZs). In some parts of the world steps are being taken to improve the management of common fishery resources[3]. The European Union, for example, has recently revised its Common Fisheries Policy (the new CFP came into force on 1st January 2014) after three years of negotiations to deal with overfishing and problems related to damage caused by discarding, itself a function of a management regime based on quotas and controls on equipment and fishing effort. The new CFP has legally binding requirements to set fishing rates at sustainable levels and decentralised decision making to enable member states to agree on the detail of measures most appropriate for their shared fisheries.

The reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) includes a commitment to ban discarding of fish. This started on 1 January 2015 for pelagic fisheries (such as Herring and Mackerel), and will be extended to other fisheries over the next four years[4].

In other parts of the world the FAO report notes the importance of regional fisheries bodies in implementing the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which has established an ecosystem based framework approach for managing fisheries[5].

However, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing remains a major threat in many parts of the world, as do the effects of by-catch and discards. West Africa, for example, where up to 25% of jobs are linked to fisheries, is faced with fishing pressure from European trawlers and fleets from China, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan. It has been estimated that illegal fishing costs the region $1.3bn per year, reduces fish stocks, harms the marine environment, and destroys communities, who face reductions in catch, and opportunities to process and trade fish.


fish3Reducing these threats will be assisted by the FAO Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, established in 2009.   But this has not yet come into force (as it has not been ratified by the required 25 countries), illustrating the difficulties of collective action in dealing with illegal and unregulated fishing. Even when it does come into force it will require significant national efforts by signatory countries in terms of developing institutional arrangements for governance and management.

Action in more developed countries is also coming from the other end of the supply chain, through ‘responsible’ consumption and illustrated in the growing importance of organisations such as the Marine Stewardship Council[7] and Sustainable Seafood Coalition[8] who are developing approaches for transforming the demand for seafood from sustainable sources through the use of branding, labelling, and raising consumer awareness of the impacts of unsustainable fishing practices.

Exploring these issues through a ‘commons’ approach, and analysing long-term successful fisheries regimes may offer insights to improve regional fisheries management, and help identify approaches that will lead to recovery of overfished stocks.


New short course series on commons

The CCRI has launched a new series of short courses, which focus on different aspects of commons: their management, governance and sustainability. The course is sponsored by International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) and has been made possible by a development grant from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). It commences on 23rd March 2015 and more information can be found on the CCRI website at