Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Marine conservation

The race to fish slows down

A fishery can allow participants to fish as hard as they can until its quota is reached, or allocate quota shares that can be caught at any time. A comparison of the systems in action reveals that shares slow the race to fish. See Letter p.223

A resource available for unlimited common use inevitably tends to be overused and subject to degradation. This is called 'the tragedy of the commons' in a widely read essay1 that has been influential in natural-resources management, environmental sciences and economics. In fisheries, the tragedy is manifested by fishermen racing to catch all they can before an annual limit is reached, with a fishery then being closed for the remainder of the year. Intensive fishing until the quota is fulfilled can result in a tendency to push fishing operations to the limit, marginalizing other concerns such as habitat protection or safety, and can result, for example, in fishermen being more likely to fish in bad weather (Fig. 1), rather than lose out on their limited chance to fish.

Figure 1: Pollock fishing in stormy seas in Alaska.

Dan Rafla/Aurora/Alamy

Fisheries managed using a quota system can endanger people if intensive fishing results in more fishing trips in bad weather. Birkenbach et al.2 report that an alternative system, known as catch shares, can extend the fishing season, potentially reducing the motivation to fish during bad conditions.

To counteract this tendency, fishery policymakers have often moved to systems that allocate shares of the catch quota to individual vessels or groups of vessels, allowing these quota shares to be caught at any time during the fishing season. On page 223, Birkenbach et al.2 analyse North American fisheries to test whether catch-shares systems reduce the race to fish in practice.

Fisheries in the United States are not alone in using allocation of secure catch shares. These have also been implemented by fisheries in various countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the European Union3, and are usually called individual transferable quotas. In many cases, they pre-date US use of this management system. Indeed, an analogy can be drawn between the use of catch shares and the regulation of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide levels through cap-and-trade programmes to reduce atmospheric pollution. In broad strokes, these systems include overall top-down regulation of the level of use (the 'cap'), accompanied by allocation of shares that can be traded or leased, with the intention of allowing market forces to change the incentives for use of the resource4.

A central problem of top-down regulation of a cap such as a fishery quota is finding a way to create incentives for participants to stay within the cap. Without an allocation of catch shares, the incentives are not only to race to fish as hard and as fast as possible before the total quota is reached, but also to find every means possible to circumvent the rules. Stringent enforcement of the rules is an option in theory, but is rarely done in practice. However, if participants can reliably depend on their right to a share of the resource through time, the incentive structure of the system might be sufficiently different to change fishing behaviour.

A guaranteed share might result in a more strategic (and profitable) fishing approach that could reduce the risks from fishing in bad weather, provide better prices by spreading the arrival of the fish at the market, and result in investments in fishing gear that maximize efficiency, rather than speed, of catch. An additional incentive to stay within the quota share is that the renewable resource of fish might grow faster, resulting in an increase in everyone's share over time.

Birkenbach and colleagues analysed 39 fisheries in the United States that use catch-share systems, and matched each of these to another fishery in the United States or Canada that had not undergone a change to catch-share management at the same time, but had similar target species, fishing methods and geography. The authors analysed data from these fisheries, and found that, on average, allocating catch shares slows down the race to catch the allowable quota, increasing the time to reach 80% of the quota by 0.9 months, on average. To give one example, in a catch-shares system, the Alaskan sablefish fishing season was increased by more than 2 months before the quota was exhausted.

The good news here is that longer seasons, with a slower race for the catch, should result in greater profits, safer fishing, more-stable fisheries and a reduced tendency to overshoot the quota levels, although such progress is by no means an inevitable consequence of slowing fishing. However, there was considerable variability between the different fisheries, including some cases in which catch shares resulted in a faster catch rate.

Although the authors' results show the advantages of a catch-shares system, the implementation of such systems still poses challenges. In most cases, neither the catch cap nor the allocation of shares are simple matters. In my own experience as a fishery manager, a host of problems5 arise. These are usually related to the initial allocation of the shares, which inevitably results in winners and losers in the access to the fishery-catch quota. These problems would probably also occur even if an auction for shares were to be used, as some have advocated6. Justifying the shares to which each participant is entitled is a tricky business and always results in complaints. When allocating shares to groups or cooperatives, deciding who is in or out of any group can also cause friction, to put it mildly. Further difficulties can arise when shares are traded after the initial allocation, given the possibility that share consolidations will be more easily available to larger business concerns and those with deeper pockets.

To address other ancillary effects of fishing, including habitat destruction, conflicts between fishermen using different types of gear or from different ports, and the issue of by-catch (unwanted species) when targeting the more valuable species of fish, other management restrictions are often put in place. With additional top-down regulation, fisheries managers might also begin to address these broader, ancillary environmental impacts, as well as the issues of equity among user groups, but this will necessitate a more-complicated management system.

The studies by Birkenbach and colleagues have shown that catch shares can be a successful approach to counteracting the inexorable tendency to overuse common resources, and may also foster a change in behaviour over time. Although many challenges remain, these lessons from fisheries might also be helpful for the management of other environmental systems. Footnote 1


  1. 1.

    See all news & views


  1. 1

    Hardin, G. Science 162, 1243–1248 (1968).

    CAS  Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Birkenbach, A. M., Kaczan, D. J. & Smith, M. D. Nature 544, 223–226 (2017).

    CAS  Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Essington, T. E. et al. Conserv. Lett. 5, 186–195 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Lubchenco, J., Cerny-Chipman, E. B., Reimer, J. N. & Levin, S. A. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 14507–14514 (2016).

    CAS  Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Rosenberg, A. A. Front. Ecol. Environ. 1, 102–106 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Huppert, D. D. in Advances in Fisheries Economics (eds Bjørndal, T., Gordon, D., Arnason, R. & Sumaila, U. R.) 74–85 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).

    Book  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrew A. Rosenberg.

Related links

Related links

Related links in Nature Research

Marine conservation: How to heal an ocean

Conservation: Fishing for lessons on coral reefs

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Rosenberg, A. The race to fish slows down. Nature 544, 165–166 (2017).

Download citation

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.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing