The Future

Sustainable Fishing Levels & Quotas | How It Works

For decades, growing consumer demand and a lack of clear fisheries restrictions contributed to the intensified exploitation of ocean resources - rapidly declining fish stocks in many regions to critical levels. How did legislation help reverse this, and how are quota policies implemented and reinforced to avoid this happening again?

Efforts to combat declining fish stocks were first made in the 1970s, but it took another 20 to 30 years before we realised that the resources in our oceans are not inexhaustible. Today, we have different regulations to manage our impact on fish stocks, and research indicates that thorough management does seem to be working for certain species and regions.1 

Fishery regulations range from prohibiting or limiting the use of certain fishing gear, to implementing protected national parks that prohibit commercial fishing, and setting the maximum limit of global fish catch. In the EU, a common approach for regulating fisheries has been to set quota standards - called total allowable catch, or ‘TACs’.

Learn more about how fishing gear impacts sustainability.

What is total allowable catch (TAC)?

Total allowable catch is the total amount of fish that can be caught annually (or simply, an overarching fishing limit). This number will vary for each fish stock and is usually estimated in either tonnes (biomass) or in numbers of fish. Government bodies rely on expert advisory bodies, like the ICES and STECF, to provide advice on sustainable fishing levels.

How are sustainable fishing levels determined?

In order to provide accurate advice on sustainable fishing levels, fisheries scientists first make estimates on the health of fish stocks. To do this, scientists must rely on annual catch data from fishers in parallel with scientific data collected by institutions like ICES and NOAA. To estimate the abundance of fish before determining sustainable fishing levels, scientists use current and historical information about length, weight, age, and reproductive rates of the species and stock in question.

Scientists then use computer-based modelling to analyse this data and establish the maximum sustainable yield - the highest yield of fish that can be caught sustainably without exhausting future fish stocks. These computer models will then give projections for how a fish stock would be affected by different scenarios (e.g. how a fish stock would react to different fishing pressures over time).

Experts provide these projections to the European Commission, which formulates a proposal on TACs. EU fishery ministers must then agree on the TACs for the following year. At this point, they may choose to follow research advice or deviate from scientific findings or proposals.2 There are different reasons for deviating from scientific findings, such as economic interests, loss of jobs in the sector, or geopolitical reasons.

TACs are portioned off into smaller quotas between countries, commercial vessels, fisherfolk, and so on. In the EU, the TACs for each stock are simply divided and shared between the EU countries as national quotas. Once the national quotas are set, each country can allocate quotas within its own region. 

The impact of national fishing quotas 

By allocating certain quota allowances to individual fishing groups, families or companies, fishing efforts can be distributed across communities via set seasonal or yearly quotas - eliminating the need to compete against each other. This allows fishers to operate when conditions are more favourable for them, taking the pressure off fishers from journeying out in dangerous situations, while also preventing the economically unfair ‘race for fish’ when fishing seasons open. It also helps to create a more steady flow of fish throughout a season or year as fishers can operate around the best times of year when market prices are not saturated from oversupply.3

However, some member states allow ‘transferable quotas’, in which quotas can be bought and transferred to another member state or sometimes between fishers. Transferable quotas have led to controversy and dispute: with critics arguing that they give way to monopolisation, where the whole fishery market can become owned by a single fisher or company. For example, in the UK, five families held over 25% of the right to quotas in the UK in 2018, creating social dilemmas like unemployment as these five families outcompeted other entities in the UK fishing industry.2

                                                                                                                     Graphic by Paulina Cerna-Fraga

Complications and controversies 

Agreeing on and setting TACs and quotas is often a convoluted and contested process involving international cooperation and negotiation. Many disagreements can and do occur due to uncertainties, lack of clarity, illegalities, money, and conflicting interests of stakeholders involved. Here are four ways the process of setting TACs and quotas is complicated and controversial: 

1. Lack of data

Scientists struggle to provide precise stock estimates for various reasons. Due to a lack of fish/stock information, unaccounted catch, bycatch, and illegal fisheries, the stock estimates are not always accurate and are only rough assumptions in some cases. With illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing still estimated to account for anywhere between 13-30% of total fishing catch, depending on the region, it’s easy to see how accurate estimations on sustainable quotas can be extremely difficult.4 Another limitation is that conducting scientific surveys to obtain more fishery data - especially for unregulated species - is costly. Without equal funding from different nations, some fish stocks are inherently more studied than others.

2. Predictions based on incomplete information

There are still many uncertainties remaining in the setting of TACs and quotas. Many people expect scientists to give a black-and-white answer to something that is not measurable with absolute accuracy. While mathematical models are useful to estimate fish stock numbers, they can also be criticised for being oversimplifications of reality. The dynamic nature of ocean ecosystems makes accurate estimations on fish stocks incredibly difficult to guarantee with certainty, regardless of the available data. On top of this, scientists often do not have enough data to assess a stock accurately, so they might be forced to draw on information from other similar fish stocks to fill in the gaps in information.

3. Over-pressured decision making

Of course, this also makes it difficult for decision-makers. Fishery ministers’ concern is not only to prevent overfishing but also to find a balance in which fishing can persist at a sustainable level - so that fishing does not have to be limited or banned while a stock recovers.5 There is a lot of pressure on fishery managers to satisfy different needs from legislation, environment, economy, job security and consumer demand - particularly in a world where protein demand is increasing. Trying to find the most sustainable levels for fisherfolk to maintain their livelihood while attending to ecosystems is a job requiring a huge amount of consideration. Setting TACs and quotas according to ‘biological’ limits is not always that simple, as it has a huge impact on all people involved both for cultural reasons and economical incentives. 

4. Politics

And while TACs and quotas are based on scientific research and models, they are also influenced by societal and economic factors.3 The EU Council receives scientific advice from experts, but they may (controversially) choose to base TACs on socioeconomic impacts.6 For example, one analysis showed that between 2010 and 2017, the Council decided to exceed catch advice from scientists on an average of 60% of the TACs analysed despite advice on sustainable targets.7 To understand this decision, we need to look at the economics behind fisheries. In 2013, EU fisheries were worth €6.8 billion and provided around 145,000 people with livelihoods.8 When scientific advice recommends a significant cut to fisheries production by reducing a TAC, this would involve a huge immediate loss of money and could have serious consequences for regional unemployment.5 For this reason, upon receiving scientific advice on declining fish stock health, the EU Council may actually opt to transition to lower TACs over a number of years to soften the social and economic impact on those impacted by a reduction in allowable catch. That is why TACs and quotas are subject to negotiation on the governmental level and are still a continued point of contention.  

Is there a way forward for sustainable fisheries?

Achieving sustainable fishing estimates is not an easy task. Resource management is a complicated process full of uncertainties, unpredictability, costs, and is socially complicated. Unsustainable and unmanaged fishing exists and fish stocks are being overfished still to this day. All this said, fish stocks are recovering across the world, showing us that management efforts are working and governmental bodies are putting effort into reaching sustainable levels of fishing.1 

In 2020, the EU Council set 62 out of 78 fish stock TACs according to scientific advice.9 For the remaining six fish stocks, the EU decided to set very low TACs. Of course, management needs to be put in place where it does not exist, and managed fisheries still need constant refinement to achieve sustainable fish stocks, but this may be a case for why more funding is necessary to improve fishery management methods and the precision of scientific fisheries data.

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