More Fish Means More Money: Rebuilding The Global Fish Supply

Increasing the fish population would increase the value of the ocean, making it more worthwhile to protect and easier to earn a living from.

More Fish Means More Money: Rebuilding The Global Fish Supply

Worldwide, fisheries are currently worth $13 billion a year, the amount of money generated from the fish pulled out of the ocean. But there is potential there for them to be worth a lot more: $54 billion a year. All it will take is rebuilding those fisheries to get them back to some semblance of the level of biomass and biodiversity they were at before. Which begs the question: how do you “rebuild” fisheries?


“Rebuilding global fisheries would make them five times more valuable while improving ecology,” says a new paper from researchers at the University of British Columbia. Professor Rashid Sumaila, who co-authored the paper, says, “Most of the time it means you are pulling back from fishing, to give the fish a way to rebuild.” And his paper doesn’t dodge the cost: A 12-year transition could mean $130 to $292 billion in lost income.

But Sumaila says thoughtful interventions can help offset those losses, and ease the pain for fishers and coastal communities. For example, in Hong Kong, authorities are buying back boats and retraining fishers to provide eco-tourism, diving, and recreational fishing. In Europe, the EU is paying fishermen to pick up trash. And, in Mexico, fishers are earning money by monitoring fish-stocks and catching other illegal fishers.

A recent report, commissioned by the Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit, has more ideas. Author Charlotte Tindall, who interviewed people involved with 50 different fisheries to identify innovative practices (PDF), runs us through a few approaches:

Catch share schemes

Some fisheries set quota limits, then allocate transferable rights-to-fish. Fishers can buy more rights to catch more fish, or sell them at a profit. The Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Fishery has reported a dramatic improvement in stocks, fish quality, and prices, after implementing catch share. (Previously, it tried shortening the fishing window to two months, thinking that would help preserve volumes. But fishers simply worked harder, ports became congested, and prices went through the floor). Tindall says it’s often necessary to accompany schemes with social assistance. In Peru, the government mandates that fisheries compensate fishers who lose their jobs, or pay for retraining in different fields.

Enforcement and monitoring

A quota scheme can work only if fish-stocks are properly monitored, and illegal fishing is minimized, says Tindall. Patagonian and Antarctic Toothfish Fisheries has reduced illegal fishing by 97% through a joint initiative between the industry, NGOs, and national governments. Prices have improved, and the fishers are hopeful that toothfish will soon be taken off our “don’t eat” lists.

New fishing gear

In Brixham, in the south of the U.K., fishers worked with scientists and the government on “more selective” fishing nets. Employing nets with bigger holes that just catch the fish they’re looking for means the trawlers come back with fewer unwanted fish: discards are down by 50%. “The incentive for the fishermen is that it is reducing the drag on their nets, and therefore their fuel bills,” Tindall says. The bottom of the nets are also fitted with bouncy, rubberized balls, reducing harmful scraping on the floor-bed.


Discard bans

Norway has a discard ban for cod and haddock that requires fishers to bring ashore everything they catch. In return, the government reimburses fishers for what it cost to catch the fish. The fishers don’t make a fortune, but what they are paid is adequate; the added incentive is that fishers know they helping to build up stocks for the future.

Market demand

Schemes like the Marine Stewardship Council‘s use market forces to drive more sustainable practices. By becoming MSC-certified, fisheries can more or less guarantee markets for their fish, and sometimes charge a premium as well. Since signing up, the Gambian Red and Black Sole Fishery has closed one of its grounds during summer months, increased net sizes, and upped stock levels.

Studies show how rebuilding strategies benefit fisheries in the long-term. U.S. stocks have been rising healthily due to better management, including the use of catch-share.

Sumaila says its vital to talk about the over-fishing problem, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

“The more we talk about it, the more people copy the solutions, and innovate. And it means they also do things that are more relevant to their communities. That’s important, because it’s not one solution that fits all.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.