Towards sustainable fishing

How can we reconcile the exploitation and preservation of fishery resources? This is the main challenge facing the fishing industry today. To help meet this challenge, bio-economists are casting their nets with invaluable tools for dealing with the so-called "tragedy of the commons". Luc Doyen, researcher at the Centre d'économie de l'environnement in Montpellier, explains.

IRD - Thibaut Vergoz

85 million tonnes. That's how much fish was caught at sea in 2018, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. A quantity that has been stagnating for several decades, despite increasing fishing pressure. The cause: declining marine biodiversity. " 35% of stocks are considered overexploited, meaning that the quantities of fish caught do not allow the population to renew itself," points out Luc Doyen, economist at CEE-M*.

How can we catch enough fish to feed the world's growing population and support the economic sector, while preserving marine ecosystems and biodiversity? "One idea is to aim for a maximum sustainable yield by harvesting the "surplus" of fish without affecting the viability of the resource, keeping it in equilibrium at stationary levels. But to achieve this, there are three dimensions - ecological, economic and social - which come into tension and which need to be reconciled", analyses the CNRS researcher.

Fish wars

Because in the sea, fish generally belong to no one, and that's what makes regulating fishing so complicated. "In economics, we call this the tragedy of the commons: if schools of fish are common property with free access, then anyone can catch them. But a fish caught by one fisherman is no longer available either to other fishermen, or to the future reproduction of the resource." The result: a veritable war for fish, in which fishermen have every interest in catching as much as possible as quickly as possible, "and in which those with the most means catch the most".

To prevent this "fish war " from emptying the oceans, a policy of regulating access to the resource is essential. " The scientific tools of public policy designed to regulate fishing on a European scale first saw the light of day in the 1950s," explains the bio-economy specialist. The CFP, the European Common Fisheries Policy, sets catch quotas based on scientific studies of species status and reproduction. These quotas, which cover all European waters, are then divided between the countries concerned and the various fishermen's organizations.

But while fisheries management is the responsibility of coastal countries within their exclusive economic zone, i.e. up to 370 kilometers from the coast, beyond that, on the high seas, freedom of fishing prevails. "In these unregulated zones, people do as they please, and to avoid the damage caused by the race for fish, we need a policy of coordination and cooperation between players on a supranational scale.

Quota market

Fishing involves a wide variety of players - fishermen, NGOs, consumers, tourists - who are not all in agreement. "Public policy is therefore a key lever for preserving resources, and environmental economics makes a major, even pioneering, contribution. Economics doesn't stand on its own; it provides concepts, evaluation methods to establish recommendations and instruments to operationalize strategies and objectives". Several types of instrument derived from economic research have been proposed to deal with this tragedy of the commons.

Regulatory instruments in particular: "such as fishing quotas or protected areas, which aim to limit access to resources". To complement these measures, there are also financial instruments, including various taxes and subsidies, such as taxes on fish landings or fuel.

Another important tool is the fishing quota market," explains Luc Doyen. Each fisherman or fishing organization receives an initial quota for a given species based, for example, on its fishing history. But if one player wants to fish more than his initial quota, and another is not going to use all his quota, a transfer can be made via a market with a quota price, similar to the EU greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme", explains the economist.

These fishing quota markets are widely used in New Zealand, but in Europe, for the time being, a barter system prevails. Although this system of quota transferability is far from unanimously supported by all players in the industry, "it does provide flexibility and thus improves the coordination of players and the overall efficiency of regulation, which is a step in the direction of more sustainable management of fishery resources", argues Luc Doyen.


Other tools proposed by the economists include eco-labels, which are supposed to guarantee consumers that the fish they buy has been caught in a responsible manner, the best-known of which is the MSC sustainable fishing label. "Such approaches enable us to move towards sustainable food systems by integrating producers, consumers and marine resources, from fish to fork.

In a context where it's "not always easy to get ecologists and economists to talk to each other", Luc Doyen points to the need for interdisciplinarity. "Environmental economics and bioeconomics provide important insights, and the resource management tools proposed are bearing fruit in this sustainable approach to fisheries. The proof: since 2013, there has been an overall improvement in European stocks. This is not the time for doom and gloom, but many challenges remain to be met for a sustainable, resilient and ecosystem-based approach to maritime fisheries."

To watch:

Luc Doyen's lecture on "Does economics allow us to rethink ecology?" with Cap Sciences.

*CEE-M (UM, CNRS, Inrae, Institut Agro)

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