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Incentivizing Sustainable Fishing on the High Seas

Yellowfin Tuna

Fast-moving and migratory fish species, such as tuna and marlin, can swim thousands of miles between countries and across the open ocean. Fishing these species on the high seas, or areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), generates economic and social value, and there is the potential to generate even greater benefit. But a lack of national jurisdiction in international waters presents ecological and political challenges for the conservation and management of the marine environment, specifically fish stocks.

A Global Think Tank led by WWF as part of the Common Oceans ABNJ Ocean Partnerships Project—an initiative funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the World Bank—identified a new theory of change that accounts for gaps in the governance of high seas fisheries. 

The Project

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna in fishing net

Money is an important motivator in any industry, and that is particularly true for fishing where expenses can run high and margins small. Incentives can, therefore, be used in areas where there is complex, limited, or no governance to control fishing.

In November 2016, WWF convened the first meeting of the Global Think Tank comprised of a diverse group of authorities on the tuna industry, as well as financing, economics, international law, management of tuna fisheries, and ecology of highly migratory fisheries. This league of 13 experts was tasked with developing a new vision for managing fishing on the high seas that uses incentives as a mechanism for improving practices.

The Think Tank had two main tracks of work: seek out information and provide practical, scalable advice for fishery managers and industry.

Information for the Think Tank came from the development of several original business cases in the Eastern Pacific, Western Central Pacific, the Bay of Bengal, Western Central Atlantic, and the Caribbean. The experts also provided technical advice to those projects testing business incentives as a tool for enhancing sustainability in the tuna and billfish fisheries in developing regions. At the same time, these experts evaluated the performance of current on the ground programs.

Over the course of three years, the Think Tank held a series of facilitated meetings during which experts exchanged and reviewed findings, debated ideas and ultimately agreed upon a vision for the management of highly migratory fisheries with a high seas component.

The Results

“The analysis and advice provided by the Think Tank is useful for a diverse group of stakeholders in the migratory fisheries space, from industry to governments.”

Vishwanie Maharaj
Lead Economist, Oceans, WWF

In the publication Principles for Fisheries Management in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction—the Essential Role of Incentive-Based Approaches, Think Tank participants describe two types of incentives: push and pull.

Pull incentives are based on buyer demand for sustainably produced-seafood, and includes sourcing commitments, such as support for fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council standard.

Push incentives are focused on the production side of the seafood supply chain, like tenure rights and providing financial incentives for sustainability.

The authors of the report admit that there is no single solution to overcoming the challenges in areas beyond national jurisdiction and outline nine principles for creating “smart mixes” of regulatory and incentive-based push and pull tools:

  1. Prefer instrument mixes incorporating compatible combinations
  2. Calibrate interventions towards points of least resistance, lowest cost, and maximum impact
  3. Sequence or scale interventions as necessary to achieve goals
  4. Empower participants to act as surrogate regulators and enable voluntary initiatives
  5. Maximize opportunities for net gain outcomes
  6. Consider and harness the responsiveness of stakeholders (bottom-up matters).
  7. Consider top-down relationships, opportunities, and constraints
  8. Assess and adapt the smart mix in light of its effectiveness

The Think Tank also produced two additional technical reports covering topics such as applicable legal instruments, relevant institutions, incentives and the performance of innovative programs in the convention areas of the five tuna regional fisheries management bodies (RFMOs).

The Next Steps

The lessons learned from this project are available now and ready to be incorporated into management planning by fishery managers, NGOs and industry working to improve the sustainability of tuna fisheries and others investing in sustainability.

In the Principles report, experts note that the management challenges of highly migratory, high seas fisheries can be addressed “by segmenting the problem into manageable parts, sequencing the “right” mix of interventions that include incentives and scaling up over time.”

The authors conclude, “The nine principles discussed in this report can guide the application of smart mixes into the management of ABNJ fisheries. These design principles are a positive way forward in complex, adaptive systems where no single entity is in control and there is a critical need for change.”

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