Winning fishermen’s hearts and minds

By Frank Convery, EDF Chief Economist

This regular column honors the memory of Robert W. Wilson, a longtime EDF supporter and champion of harnessing market forces to drive environmental progress.

A few decades ago, as a young professor in Ireland, I tried to convince a group of Atlantic fishermen I had met in a pub (where else?) of the merits of rights-based fisheries. I had read how this approach helped New Zealand avoid the typical pattern of overfishing, followed by a decline in fish stocks. Instead, stocks there were recovering and fishermen’s incomes were rising. People were calling it a miracle.

I explained that this system of management —called “catch shares”—gives fishermen a share of the catch or access to a fishing area, in exchange for adhering to science-based catch limits, thereby creating an incentive to protect the resource.

I expected my insights to be greeted with enthusiasm; instead, the mood went from neutral, to hostile, to derisive. And this was for three reasons: First, I didn’t listen. Secondly, I was not in command of the evidence. Finally, the messenger was hopeless: I was a professor who had never spent a day on a trawler. I gave up.

But EDF did not. EDF listened to fishermen and helped them become champions of catch shares. Together, we developed ways to give fishermen an economic incentive to protect the resource. Seven countries have largely adopted these practices of sustainable fishing. To spread the word further, EDF and its partners documented the evidence and codified best practice (see story p. 6). Today it’s clear that with secure fishing rights, the world can maintain ecologically diverse oceans.