How To Save Fish? It Takes A Village

To save our dwindling fish, no government intervention works nearly as well as getting the people who catch fish to understand that it’s not in their interest to kill all of their food source.


It sounds archaic during an age of GPS-tracked trawlers and federal fishing quotas, yet a recent study found that community leadership, even among non-fisherman, was the key ingredient to stable, long-term fisheries both in developed or developing countries. Instead of offering government dictates of quotas (which will be ignored), communities need to decide for themselves that saving fish is in their interest.

“Community leaders weren’t just important,” said the Nature study’s lead author Nicolás Gutiérrez in an interview with the magazine Solutions, “they were by far the most important attribute present in successful co-managed fisheries,” followed by individual or community quotas, social cohesion, and protected areas. The study also noted multiple management incentives contributed to success in protecting fishery resources.

The study examined 130 managed fisheries in 44 countries with a range of ecosystems and species. They exhibited a similar, simple pattern: strong community leadership was the necessary and common element for fisheries to survive from Chile’s abalone industry to California’s sea urchin fishery.

Southern California offered one of the best examples of community regulation succeeding where state regulation failed.  During the 1970s, San Diego’s unregulated and lucrative sea urchin industry boomed, then collapsed after the urchin population dropped 75 percent in the 1990s.  State licensing restrictions did little to spur a recovery. Only after the fishing community itself agreed on harvest constraints did the urchin population rebound. Today, the urchin fishery ranks among the world’s most sustainable.

Yet there are signs of movement in the right direction. More than 200 co-managed fisheries exist worldwide from the billion-dollar Bering Sea pollack industry to local and artisanal groups. New approaches such as Blue Ventures,  a biodiversity business which combines community-led social enterprise models with ecotourism, carbon finance conservation incentives and aquaculture, promise to help reverse the degradation of existing fisheries around the world. 

Gutiérrez and the study’s other authors think getting community leaders on board with saving fish is the only way to stop the destruction of the world’s fish stocks, which supply 1 billion people with their primary source of protein. “Our study offers hope that co-management, the only realistic solution for the majority of the world’s fisheries, can solve many of the problems facing global fisheries.”


[Image: Flickr user dawn’s point of view]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.