The Economics and Science of Overfishing

Prof. Quentin Grafton and Prof. Tom Kompas have helped to transform the management of fisheries in Australia, the European Union, the Pacific and in North America


The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ and overfishing is a global problem. Its impact goes well beyond displaced fishers, impoverished communities and diminished catches. It reduces the fish protein unavailable to hundreds of million people and has degraded countless marine habitats. While fish farming has helped to replace declines in wild caught fish, managed and also illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing means that less fish will be caught at sea in 2015 than in 2000.

In richer countries, the standard response of ‘too many boats chasing too few fish’ has been to impose controls and to limit the number of vessels or fishing gear that can be used. Unfortunately, even if rules are observed to the letter, fishers have proven more able than regulators to legally substitute from regulated to unregulated inputs. The result: fishing effort continues to rise, fishes’ incomes decline, and fish stocks become even more vulnerable to economic overfishing. In poorer countries, a lack of funds or capacity to manage and monitor fishing and conflicts between inshore fishers and offshore, industrial-scale fishers have devastated many fishing communities and the marine resources on which they depend.

Without a change in fishing practices more of the world’s fisheries will be vulnerable to decline or collapse. Importantly, the services from the marine estate on which so many people depend will also diminish.

Policy Engagement

Tom and Quentin, separately and jointly, have been finding solutions to fisheries problems for more than two decades. Following the collapse of Canada’s Northern Cod fishery in 1992, one of the greatest global stock collapses of the 20th Century, Quentin was of one of the economists who the Canadian government turned to for advice. He has subsequently worked with various governments and regional fisheries management organisations to explain how to change the incentives faced by fishers to stop overfishing and to simultaneously increase the incomes of fishers. He currently Chairs the Marine Estate Expert Knowledge Panel for the State of New South Wales, Australia and is a member of the scientific advisory committee for the New Zealand government’s Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge.

Tom has worked for more than a decade on fisheries management in Australia and the region, first as a Senior Economist at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and later as Director of the Australian Centre for Biosecurity and Environmental Economics at the Australian National University. He provides key advice to the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, and to the Minister responsible for fisheries in Australia. Most of his work has concentrated on the Northern Prawn Fishery and the South East Trawl Fishery in Australia, but he has also undertaken important research on the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Fishery, one of the world’s largest fisheries.

Policy Outcomes

Quentin’s work about how to apply individual catch shares, especially how to increase return to fishers while reducing overfishing, is world leading. His joint work is some of the most cited research in fisheries economics and his co-edited book with Oxford University Press ‘The Handbook of Marine Fisheries Management and Conservation’ is a definitive global guide for fisheries managers. His advice has been adopted in individual fisheries and, more generally, through the generalisation of his work by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and also by the many students and fisheries managers with whom he has worked.

Tom was instrumental in incorporating the concept of maximum economic yield as a key objective into the Australian Commonwealth Fisheries legislation, a world first. His economic analysis of one of Australia’s most important fisheries, the Northern Prawn Fishery, was pivotal in improving its management. His underlying analysis of this fishery was recognised with the most valuable research award given by the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Tom’s work with Australia’s Resource Assessment Groups that are responsible for deciding how much fish should be caught by species, and also fishery Management Advisory Groups, was instrumental in transforming Australian fisheries management for the better. For this work, with collaborators, he was awarded the CSIRO Gold Model, one of the most prestigious Australian government awards for scientific research and discovery.

Jointly, Tom and Quentin have made two world-leading policy contributions. They were the first to show how, even with slow-growing fish species, that adopting a lower harvest level can generate a ‘win-win’ in terms of higher incomes for fishers and larger fish stocks. Their insights on ‘win-win’ solutions in fisheries have been adopted in Australia, the European Union, among other places. They were also pioneers in the ecological-environmental analysis of marine protected areas and have been global leaders in showing how to calculate the optimal size of ‘no take’ areas for fish populations, and how to promote resilience in the marine estate.

In sum, the tragedy of the commons remains an all too common global problem. As shown by the work of Quentin and Tom, careful economic analysis and continuous engagement with managers and decision makers can, and has, made a difference in increasing fishing incomes and the sustainability of fish stocks across many countries.

Quentin is Professor of Economics at The Australian National University. Tom is Professor of Economics at The Australian National University and Chief Investigator at the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis, University of Melbourne.

Find out more about the work and research affiliations of Quentin and Tom:

The Food Energy Environment Water Network

UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance

Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy

Policy Forum

Australian Centre for Biosecurity and Environmental Economics (AC BEE)

Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis

Asia and the Pacific Policy Society

Read more about the Fellows of the Economics & Science Group

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