Letter | Published:

Leadership, social capital and incentives promote successful fisheries

Nature volume 470, pages 386389 (17 February 2011) | Download Citation


One billion people depend on seafood as their primary source of protein and 25% of the world’s total animal protein comes from fisheries1. Yet a third of fish stocks worldwide are overexploited or depleted1,2. Using individual case studies, many have argued that community-based co-management3 should prevent the tragedy of the commons4 because cooperative management by fishers, managers and scientists often results in sustainable fisheries3,5,6. However, general and multidisciplinary evaluations of co-management regimes and the conditions for social, economic and ecological success within such regimes are lacking. Here we examine 130 co-managed fisheries in a wide range of countries with different degrees of development, ecosystems, fishing sectors and type of resources. We identified strong leadership as the most important attribute contributing to success, followed by individual or community quotas, social cohesion and protected areas. Less important conditions included enforcement mechanisms, long-term management policies and life history of the resources. Fisheries were most successful when at least eight co-management attributes were present, showing a strong positive relationship between the number of these attributes and success, owing to redundancy in management regulations. Our results demonstrate the critical importance of prominent community leaders and robust social capital7, combined with clear incentives through catch shares and conservation benefits derived from protected areas, for successfully managing aquatic resources and securing the livelihoods of communities depending on them. Our study offers hope that co-management, the only realistic solution for the majority of the world’s fisheries, can solve many of the problems facing global fisheries.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. FAO Yearbook: Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics 2007 (FAO, 2009)

  2. 2.

    et al. Rebuilding global fisheries. Science 325, 578–585 (2009)

  3. 3.

    Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990)

  4. 4.

    The tragedy of the commons. Science 162, 1243–1248 (1968)

  5. 5.

    et al. Principles for sustainable governance of the oceans. Science 281, 198–199 (1998)

  6. 6.

    , & The struggle to govern the commons. Science 302, 1907–1912 (2003)

  7. 7.

    Social capital and the collective management of resources. Science 302, 1912–1914 (2003)

  8. 8.

    , & Current problems in the management of marine fisheries. Science 316, 1713–1716 (2007)

  9. 9.

    Community-based conservation in a globalized world. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 15188–15193 (2007)

  10. 10.

    & Fisheries Co-Management and Small-Scale Fisheries: A Policy Brief (ICLARM, 1994)

  11. 11.

    , , , & Sharing Power: Learning by Doing in Co-Management of Natural Resources Throughout the World (IIED and IUCN/CEESP/CMWG, 2004)

  12. 12.

    & More than one bag for the world fishery crisis and keys for co-management successes in selected artisanal Latin American shellfisheries. Rev. Fish Biol. Fish. 15, 265–283 (2005)

  13. 13.

    , & The precursors of governance in the Maine lobster fishery. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 15212–15217 (2007)

  14. 14.

    & The core challenges of moving beyond Garrett Hardin. J. Nat. Resour. Pol. Res. 1, 255–259 (2009)

  15. 15.

    United Nations Development Programme. The Human Development Index (UNDP, 2009)

  16. 16.

    A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325, 419–422 (2009)

  17. 17.

    Defining success in fisheries and conflicts in objectives. Mar. Policy 31, 153–158 (2007)

  18. 18.

    et al. A systematic approach to preclinical and clinical safety biomarker qualification incorporating Bradford Hill’s principles of causality association. Clin. Pharmacol. Ther. 88, 260–262 (2010)

  19. 19.

    & Paradigm shifts needed for world fisheries. Science 309, 1324–1325 (2005)

  20. 20.

    & Combining control measures for more effective management of fisheries under uncertainty: quotas, effort limitation and protected areas. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 360, 133–146 (2005)

  21. 21.

    Random forests. Mach. Learn. 45, 5–32 (2001)

  22. 22.

    Managing fisheries is managing people: what has been learned? Fish Fish. 8, 285–296 (2007)

  23. 23.

    , & Social-ecological transformation for ecosystem management: the development of adaptive co-management of a wetland landscape in southern Sweden. Ecol. Soc. 9, 2 (2004)

  24. 24.

    , , & Social learning promotes institutions for governing the commons. Nature 466, 861–863 (2010)

  25. 25.

    , & Adaptive co-management for building resilience in social–ecological systems. Environ. Manage. 34, 75–90 (2004)

  26. 26.

    , & Can catch shares prevent fisheries collapse? Science 321, 1678–1681 (2008)

  27. 27.

    Ecological indicators display reduced variation in North American catch share fisheries. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 754–759 (2010)

  28. 28.

    How do individual transferable quotas affect marine ecosystems? Fish Fish. 10, 39–57 (2009)

  29. 29.

    et al. Marine reserves as linked social–ecological systems. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2010)

  30. 30.

    Crossing scales, crossing disciplines: collective motion and collective action in the Global Commons. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365, 13–18 (2010)

Download references


N.L.G. was partially funded by the National Science Foundation (award 0308440) and a Fulbright–OAS Initiative in Ecology fellowship. O.D. acknowledges support by the Pew Charitable Trusts. We thank E. Ostrom, T. A. Branch, and X. Basurto for comments on the manuscript and A. E. Punt, W. N. Venables, R. Perera and S. Sethi for discussions on the methodological and statistical approach.

Author information


  1. School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Box 355020, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195-5020, USA

    • Nicolás L. Gutiérrez
    •  & Ray Hilborn
  2. UNDECIMAR, Facultad de Ciencias, Iguá 4225PO Box 10773, Montevideo 11400, Uruguay

    • Omar Defeo


  1. Search for Nicolás L. Gutiérrez in:

  2. Search for Ray Hilborn in:

  3. Search for Omar Defeo in:


N.L.G. designed the study, compiled and analysed the data and performed the statistical analyses; O.D. compiled and analysed the data. All authors discussed the results and jointly wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nicolás L. Gutiérrez.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    The file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results, Supplementary References, Supplementary Tables 1-6 and Supplementary Figures 1-7 with legends.

About this article

Publication history






Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.