Skip main navigation

Hurry, only 5 days left to get one year of Unlimited learning for £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Quotas and catch policies: are we following the science?

In this article, we discuss different regulations to manage our impact on fish stocks.
© FoodUnfolded

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: 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’*. This is the total amount of fish that can be caught annually (or simply, an overarching fishing limit). This number varies for each fish stock and is usually estimated in either tonnes (biomass) or in numbers of fish.

*Fish stock: one or more species of fish that is further distinguished based on specific traveling patterns and the areas they reproduce in.

*Quota: A quota is a further division of a TAC that is allocated to, for example, a country, vessels, or a company.

*TACs: The total allowable catch is a common fishery’s policy regulatory tool that defines catch limits.

Who decides how much we fish?

The following steps determine the TACs:

  1. Fisheries scientists make estimates on the health of fish stocks. They rely on annual catch data from fishers, in parallel with scientific data collected by institutions like ICES, STECF, and NOAA*. They also use current and historical information about length, weight, age, and reproductive rates of the species and stock in question.
  2. Scientists use computer-based modelling to analyse these data and establish the maximum sustainable yield*. 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).
  3. Experts provide these projections to the European Commission, who 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.[1] There are different reasons for deviating from scientific findings such as economic interests, loss of jobs in the sector, or geopolitical reasons.
  4. 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 is free to allocate quotas within its own region.

*STECF: Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries

*ICES: International Council for the Exploration of the Sea

*NOAA: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA)

*Maximum sustainable yield: the highest catch that can be caught indefinitely (theoretically) based on average environmental conditions.

Why is it not as easy as it sounds?

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.

  • Lack of data: Scientists struggle to provide precise stock estimates for various reasons, such as lack of fish/stock information, unaccounted catch, bycatch, and illegal fisheries.[2] Furthermore, conducting scientific surveys to obtain more fishery data – especially for unregulated species – is costly, and some fish stocks are more studied than others.
  • Predictions based on incomplete information: Scientists often do not have enough data to be able 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.
  • Over-pressured decision making: 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. 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.[3],[4]

Between 2010 and 2017, the Council decided to exceed catch advice from scientists on average on 60% of the TACs analysed despite advice on sustainable targets.[5] 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.[6] That is why TACs and quotas are subject to negotiation and may be applied over a number of years in order to soften the social and economic impact. More recently, in 2020, the EU Council set 62 out of 78 fish stock TACs according to scientific advice.[7]

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.[8]

*Sustainable fishing levels: when fishing occurs without causing detriment to a fish stock beyond the point where it can naturally renew itself. Healthy fish stocks and self-repairing.

Author: Jessica Tengvall

Let’s discuss:

  1. Should scientists be given more decision power on this topic? What do you think?
  2. If you were an EU fisheries minister, what would you do?
© FoodUnfolded
This article is from the free online

Sustainable Seafood: Barriers and Opportunities in the Fishing Industry

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now