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How to Improve Marine Conservation in the Developing World

November 28, 2012

There are a few big rules in blogging, and one of them is that you don’t write long posts. Want your readers to actually read?  Keep your posts limited to 1-2 ideas.

Here I will break that rule.

You see, I have to.  I’ve been away from blogging for too long and there are too many ideas lolling around for me to productively manage.

Consider this post an exquisite idea dump, a la And, if I may be so bold, read this in spite of its length and tell me what you think.

Just one view of small-scale fishing in Ecuador. There are over 50,000 artisanal fishermen but less than a dozen fishing inspectors for the entire coast.

I’ve been thinking a lot these past three months on how we can further advance marine conservation in the developing world. I’d argue that NGOs aren’t having all that much success.

As I see it, the key challenge is the developing world’s weak state capacity to manage its fisheries, and conservation NGOs must change their government engagement strategies if they hope to succeed in sustaining ocean resources.

A recent study in the journal Science has helped me think about just what we mean when we talk about ‘state capacity’ for fisheries management.  That study found two interesting things:

  • Only around 20 percent of the world’s fisheries are monitored regularly, and unassessed fisheries account for more than 80 percent of the world’s catch.
  • A majority of these unassessed fisheries are overfished, but perhaps contrary to expectations, these fisheries are found in both developed and developing countries.

Add to this the fact that assessed fisheries are often poorly managed too, and you can start to have a theory of state capacity.  That is, states will fail to properly manage their fisheries if they fail to perform on or more of three key fishery management functions:

  1. Assessment of their marine resources;
  2. Establishment of rules that promote marine resource sustainability; and
  3. Enforcement of those rules.

For a notable example of failure to establish sustainable rules, we might look to the European Union. There a battle is being waged to establish maximum sustainable yield as the maximum upper limit for fisheries exploitation.  Seventy-five percent of EU fisheries are overfished, largely because of the EU’s failure to establish sustainable exploitation limits.

As for enforcement, a study of illegal fishing in 2008 found that roughly 1 in every 5 fish caught is taken illegally.  And five ocean areas were found to have even more rampant illegal fishing: the Eastern Central Atlantic, the Southwest Atlantic, the Eastern Indian, the Northwest Pacific, and the Western Central Pacific.  In these regions, 1 in every 3 fish is estimated to be caught illegally.

This situation of rampant mismanagement, while not forgivable, might at least be understandable from a public administration perspective for a few reasons. 

First, the management of fisheries doesn’t ‘pay’. Most fisheries in the world are considered public resources that yield private benefits for fishermen, and yet fisheries taxes are relatively rare.  Compare this to the timber or mining industries where royalties are common.  And even when there are fisheries taxes, they typically do not cover the full cost of public management.

Second, many states fail to promote long term societal interests beyond sustainable fisheries. Part of this may be understood to be due to the prevalence of undemocratic and illiberal democratic systems throughout the world.  According to Freedom House International, there are only 117 electoral democracies in the world and only 87 countries deemed to be ‘Free’. Another part of this may be that poor societies are not as concerned with environmental conservation relative to other concerns.

Third, illegal fishing is greatly facilitated by weak international legal systems governing fishing.  Illegal fishing operators today operate with near impunity, even when their illegal fishing is detected.  This is due to the weak flag state system; vessels may fish under the flags of countries to which they have no real connection, either by nationality of crew or ownership. Thus there is a market for flag states that will overlook wrong-doing and very high costs to adequately policing national waters around the world.

Fourth, the science of improving state governance capacity in general and fisheries management in specific is quite poor.  As Francis Fukuyama recently pointed out, there are few scholars today that ‘pay attention to the institution that accumulates and uses power, the state.’ And in my own discussions with Dr. Dennis King, I learned that there has been no study to date evaluating the cost effectiveness of different fisheries enforcement mechanisms in the U.S., let alone in the developing world where conditions are different.

The lack of state capacity for fisheries management presents a serious challenge to the marine conservation community’s goal of achieving sustainable fisheries worldwide. In the face of this challenge, environmental NGOs have developed two different strategies, depending on which ‘ordinal world’ they operate in.

In the 1st world, conservationists have used large public campaigns and threats of litigation to push states to develop fisheries management capacity.  While this success is undeniable, developed states management capacities are still insufficient for the challenge at hand, especially given the coming acid-summer of climate change.

In the 3rd world, NGOs are pioneering a strategy of side-stepping the state capacity problem entirely. This is probably because mass mobilization around environmental issues is more difficult in such societies and legal systems are weaker. NGOs in developing countries are instead focusing on simple conservation projects that they themselves administer and implement or which are done in collaboration with small communities. This is troubling as NGOs will never alone have the capacity and communities the scope necessary to succeed in the widespread conservation of fisheries in the developing world.

I argue that environmental NGOs absolutely must change their government engagement strategy if it truly wants to improve state capacity for fisheries management and succeed their mission to preserve ocean resources for future generations.

Obviously, there remains much to be worked out and many aspects of weak state capacity over which NGOs have no control or influence. But in my view, there may be five relatively untouched opportunities for promoting state capacity for fisheries management in countries around the world.

First, NGOs can promote cost-recovery schemes for fisheries management. A first step would be to analyze the diversity and adequacy of cost-recovery schemes around the world. To my knowledge, such as a study has never been done. From there, NGOs would need to present this argument to governments and accept that it may cost them some support among fishermen.

Second, NGOs can make ‘capacity development’ the primary goal of some of their projects. Such could perhaps be done by investing in 3-5 year collaborative scientific monitoring programs that would result in stock assessments for the majority of a country’s fisheries. Or on a wider scale, NGOs could push for a global effort to assess some meaningful quantity of fisheries around the world.  This could be modeled on the Census of Marine Life where governments collaborated with scientific NGOs and educational institutions.

Third, NGOs can work to lower the costs of marine monitoring and enforcement.  There is already a movement growing to do just this for terrestrial monitoring and enforcement.  Consider the SMART conservation software initiative or

Fourth, NGOs can invest in research into fisheries enforcement, perhaps by offering a series of PhD fellowships or professional consultancies. The aim of these investments might be to establish best practices for fisheries enforcement across common fishery types (e.g. tropical shrimp fisheries, coastal small pelagic fisheries), assess the cost-effectiveness of different enforcement strategies, identify opportunities to professionalize the fisheries enforcement in developing countries, and develop analytic tools that enforcement managers can use to target enforcement activities and reward high performing officers.

Fifth, NGOs can directly invest in human capital in fisheries agencies around the world. Pew already has the prestigious ‘Pew Marine Fellows Program’, but this made available only to academic researchers and environmentalists. WWF has the Education for Nature Program, but to my knowledge its relation to the marine environment has been rather limited. NGOs could perhaps work to directly fund positions in government agencies, perhaps through such fellowship schemes or through matched funding arrangements. Another interesting model would be to create a training program for marine enforcement officials, such as like what the Wildlife Conservation Society has done for tigers and other terrestrial mega-fauna conservation efforts (though they admit that their efforts are rather decentralized.)

Certainly, the conservation community can’t do all this alone; states of all ‘worlds’ will need to engage on this issue, and the research and private sectors will need to provide more technical solutions. But it is important that we lead on this issue. Who else if not us?

I’m looking forward to exploring some of these ideas further in the many blog posts ahead.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Katie permalink
    November 28, 2012 11:00 am

    Another data point (so to speak): this morning in Manila the member states of the WCPFC talked about reference points and harvest control rules for tropical tunas. According to Article 5b of the Convention, the goal is to achieve abundance levels that could support MSY (though that can be modified by social and economic considerations). It must aIso follow Annex 2 of UNFSA (Fmsy is a limit), so any modifications to 5b can only go in one direction (i.e., you can use social/economic considerations to set an F lower than Fmsy, but not higher).

    But for those coastal states that fish for skipjack, an “economic” consideration is that by allowing incidental take of small bigeye during purse seining (thus contributing to its notable overfishing) they are maximizing their skipjack profits. People point to the use of the word “should” in Annex 2 of UNFSA to show that it is not binding and that Fmsy doesn’t *have* to be the limit.

    So here is a case of well-studied stocks, with significant fisheries management infrastructure and expertise, and even here there is debate about whether of overfishing of one stock is ok if the target species is still healthy… (Of course those that longline for adult bigeye would disagree, I imagine.) These states have certainly your step #1 covered, but step #2 may result in sustainability for one stock at the expense of another. Small fisheries with no management certainly have their problems, but apparently large fisheries with complex management aren’t necessarily any better!

    • November 29, 2012 6:02 pm

      Great points, Katie! I agree, even big, well studied fisheries don’t get it right. Do you think the bycatch overfishing being contemplated threatens the sustainability of the stock, not just the economics of it? It seems the target fishery would need to lay off bigeye if it weren’t doing so well. I’m sorely revealing my lack of knowledge on WCPFC fisheries here.

  2. Brittany permalink
    December 3, 2012 12:25 pm

    Hi Mark, could you provide a citation for the article in Science that you refer to in this post? I’d really like to read the original study. Thanks!

  3. Katie permalink
    December 13, 2012 9:50 am

    Mark – you can read good, but not too long, summaries of tuna stock status here: and the full pdf can be found here: . This text is peer-reviewed by the ISSF Scientific Advisory Committee, which is composed of (among others) current and former head scientists for IATTC and WCPFC.

    And to your point….yes, you’d think that the target fishery would need to layoff bigeye (longlining), but if they did without any similar actions by the purse seiners, then the purse seiners “win” because they get to keep doing business as usual even though they are contributing to bigeye overfishing. And to the longlining nations, that isn’t “fair” so in the end no one does anything! Sigh.

    • December 13, 2012 9:54 am

      Wow, that’s wild. I had thought that the WCPFC had better harvest control rules, that MSY was the upper-bound! Thanks for the links, Katie. Very helpful.

  4. December 19, 2012 10:18 pm

    Great post, re-posted here.
    Thank you!

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