Turning around ailing fisheries

EDF ushered in a science-based method to restore healthy oceans

Fisherman on boat

Catch shares empower captains to fish whenever they choose — in good weather, when fish prices are high.


Many fisheries in the United States have been in steep decline since the 1990s.

In fact, two iconic fisheries — Gulf red snapper and California salmon — had collapsed completely by 2003, and only about a quarter of American fish stocks were considered sustainable. Fisherman were going broke. Conventional management had failed to stop the decline.

Today, a new system — called catch shares — is transforming the way commercial fisheries are managed.

Thanks in part to EDF's advocacy, 65% of the fish caught in the U.S. waters are now managed under catch shares. The result: Growing fish populations and fresher seafood. 

Scientifically valid results were key

Our experts proposed this new method nearly two decades ago. This incentives-based system had restored dozens of fisheries worldwide, yet there was no scientific proof that it worked.

Enter EDF’s marine biologist Rod Fujita, Ph.D., who understood the importance of applying science to develop solutions with strong benefits for fishing communities and fish populations.

Eight years ago, he forged a fruitful collaboration with an academic team led by economist Chris Costello and marine biologist Steve Gaines. This helped seed their landmark study of 11,000 fisheries, published in the journal Science in 2008. Their conclusion: catch shares work.

Four years later, Costello and Gaines came out with another Science study that concludes that catch shares can help reverse the collapse on many of the world's data-poor, troubled fisheries. 

A new way to think about managing fishing

This approach doesn't limit when or how fisherman can catch fish. Instead, if gives every fisherman a percentage of a scientifically determined "total allowable catch." Captains can fish whenever they choose — in good weather, when fish prices are high — to catch their shares.

Under old-style rules, fisherman had to discard too many fish, most of them dead or dying. Under catch share programs, fisherman can fish more selectively so they don't haul in fish they can't keep. Reducing discards helps fish populations recover.

Each new catch share program provides more evidence of success. A red snapper program we helped develop in the Gulf of Mexico has cut the wasteful discard of non-targeted fish by 50% since 2006 and is helping snapper populations to rebound and fishermen to work more profitably.

For years, EDF was the lone voice for catch shares... EDF has been the thought leader on this issue.

Kristine Johnson Director, Kingfisher Foundation

On the Pacific coast, the amount of wasted fish has fallen 78% after just one year under new catch shares. 

Thirty percent of world fisheries are overexploited and 57% are on the brink. To benefit the millions who depend on fish for food and restore healthy oceans, we're expanding catch shares management globally, including Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe.

David Festa, EDF's vice president in California, explains the failures of old management styles, and the hardships those rules place on fishermen.

He also demystifies catch shares: how this new approach increases fish populations and creates safer, more profitable fishing jobs.