Can we save our fisheries with lessons from our forests?

Payments to encourage the conservation of important natural resources are being used to protect forests, but can they also play a role in restoring depleted fisheries?

27 November 2014
Fishermen hauling in nets near the Kenyan coastal town of Shimoni (Photo: Anna Kika via Flickr)

Fishermen hauling in nets near the Kenyan coastal town of Shimoni (Photo: Anna Kika via Flickr)

A few years ago I spent some time working with coastal fishing communities in Southwest Bangladesh. My main job was to work out which fish were being caught where and in what quantities – hours of painstaking counting, measuring and identification.

But in spending weeks at a time in this watery wilderness and getting to know the communities, I started to understand the complexity of the social and environmental problems faced by many small-scale and artisanal fisheries, and to think about how they could be addressed.

We now have within our grasp the tools needed to rebuild depleted fish stocks and manage them for a sustainable future. But when new fishing rules are introduced, fishers often experience a short-term cost. They may have to travel further to fish, or their fishing gear may become illegal. As a result, in countries which lack the cash or political will to implement robust systems of monitoring, control and surveillance, these rules tend to be ineffective and fish stocks fail to recover.

Lessons from Bangladesh

In the coastal fisheries of Bangladesh, some important biodiversity areas are off-limits but fishers set their nets where they know they will catch fish, regardless of the rules their livelihoods depend on it and the chances of punishment are slim. The unlucky few who are caught might pay a bribe, lose their nets, face a hefty fine or even serve jail time, but it won't stop them doing it again.

Enter Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). PES are positive incentives offered to people in exchange for specific behaviour or for ecosystem service outcomes. Until recently, the concept has been associated mainly with the management and conservation of terrestrial resources, but recent interest from the marine conservation community has spurred discussion of PES in fisheries.

The idea is that by providing individual fishers, fishing communities or fishing companies with some kind of incentive, not necessarily monetary, perhaps the short-term cost of sustainable fishing behaviour can be reduced or mitigated.

In Bangladesh's hilsa fishery, which stretches from the rivers at the heart of the country right out to sea, moves have already been made towards a system of this kind. The national government currently channels funds from a vulnerable group feeding programme to compensate fishers for their losses during closed fishing seasons.

This is just one of the many ways PES could be applied in a fisheries context – payment might come from industrial fishing companies, NGOs, or even the consumer, and it could be used to support anything from an overall management plan to the provision of a specific ecosystem services. But can it really work? The hilsa scheme in Bangladesh is certainly not without its flaws.

In our recent paper, we looked specifically at fisheries in the developing world and asked: what is the potential role of PES in complementing current regulatory regimes, and what challenges do these fisheries present for PES design and implementation?

The moving forest

A great deal of theoretical debate surrounds the definition of PES and whether it is suitable for application in a marine and coastal environment (PDF) – ownership and boundaries can be ambiguous, and unlike trees, marine resources move, sometimes vast distances. In theory, a fishery therefore needs to satisfy certain preconditions for PES to be suitable. For example, there needs to be a clear and secure system of property rights; for the payments to be conditional there must be capacity for monitoring, control and surveillance; and there must be potential for a system of sustainable financing of the scheme.

We explored this suitability in four developing world fisheries, including the Bangladesh hilsa fishery, all selected to represent a broad range of institutional and ecological circumstances. Although each of these fisheries could certainly benefit from the introduction of a PES scheme, we found none of them were entirely suitable according to theory.

For example, Western and Central Pacific Ocean skipjack tuna migrate across national boundaries, so any PES scheme would require increased levels of coordination between the relevant national and international governance bodies. In the Mozambican shallow water shrimp fishery, there is a lack of ecosystem understanding and reliable catch data, making it difficult to prove a direct link between management actions and outcomes.

What does this mean?

Our research indicates that a developing world fishery will rarely lend itself to PES on first assessment. But that is not to say such an approach would be inappropriate.

There are a number of payment schemes out there which could be vastly improved by applying, to whatever extent possible, positive incentives conditional on specific behaviour or additional outcomes – the key principles in PES. Too much time spent debating the definitional intricacies of PES means not enough time spent experimenting and documenting practice.

Does it matter whether it is a PES scheme, a PES-like scheme, or a compensation scheme, as long as incentives are conditional on actions, if not on conservation impact?

Of course, applying these principles would require creative and innovative approaches to management and governance, but when used in combination with conventional regulatory measures, PES could help drive the reforms which these fisheries so desperately need. A scheme could be designed to facilitate the process of rights clarification, or to alleviate the costs of or incentivise improvements in monitoring and enforcement, for example – which are major barriers to sustainable small-scale fisheries globally.

An area of particular promise is international PES. High income countries not only have more financial resources available for initial investment, but also have a responsibility for the stewardship of the foreign fishing grounds which they exploit.

The first example of a mechanism like this is the EU payment to Mauritania for the management of its Banc D'Arguin National Park, which contains important nursery and breeding grounds for the EU's commercial fishery in Mauritania. Not only does this example break down some of the theoretical obstacles to PES in fisheries, it is likely to be extended to other major fisheries in the region.

What I learnt on the water in Bangladesh might seem obvious, but it is all too often ignored. No matter how well-timed or well-placed a fishery closure, it's not going to have an impact unless you achieve a certain level of compliance.

Despite the complexities of the marine environment, by altering incentives for compliance with rules, in some circumstances PES may well be a way forward.

Annabelle Bladon ( is a PhD student in the Imperial College Conservation Science research group. She works on Payments for Ecosystem Services and developing world fisheries.