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Fisheries Self-governance: New Directions in Fisheries Management


The widespread emergence of self-governance raises interesting and important questions. Have there been policy or institutional changes that have enabled or empowered industry self-governance on this global basis and are there factors that are limiting the development of fisheries self-governance R. Townsend from the New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries and R. Shotton from the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department at the FAO ask in a report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

Defining Self-Governance

The institutions that we call “self-governance” here are often subsumed within the broader category of “co-management”. The term “co-management” has been used to describe essentially any governance alternative to centralized command-and-control regulation. We distinguish self-governance here as the delegation of important aspects of management decision-making responsibility to the domain of fishing industry participants: i.e. self-governance is about the fishery participants themselves making governance decisions. The relevant economic concept is that the fishing industry has incentives to increase the value derived from the resource. The objective of selfgovernance is to empower the industry to operationalize these incentives.

This definition of self-governance excludes a variety of institutions that are often considered co-management. Notably, self-governance is more than a consultative process, however well-developed. And while reliance on private decision-making is accommodated within the most common definitions of co-management, the focus of co-management is more commonly on creating new governance institutions, especially at the community-level. Self-governance uses existing or new private institutions, rather than creating new political or government institutions or delegating authority to existing lower levels of government. Co-management is often positioned as an alternative to rights-based management such as individual transferable quotas (ITQs). Self-governance, in contrast, expands upon rights-based management by increasing the scope of decisions that are assumed by industry.

Various fishing industries, in embracing self-governance, have assumed de jure or de facto control of many fisheries management functions that are traditionally the domain of government. The case studies documented here describe situations where the industry: determines seasons; manages closed areas and marine protected areas; administers catch monitoring programmes; fixes daily and seasonal catch limits; rotates fleets; manages research; imposes penalties for violation of rules; implements individual quotas/individual transferable quotas; rationalizes fleets; manages product quality; and manages competing demands for the resource between commercial and non-commercial users – an astonishing range of activities reflecting laudable self-responsibility.

An Overview of the Cases

National context of self-governance

Self-governance of fisheries occurs within the context of legal, political, economic and cultural institutions that shape the opportunities for such self-governance. Consequently, self-governance of fisheries often has characteristics that are particular to a country. The cases described here are therefore organized by country or region, with introductory chapters for four of these countries (New Zealand, Canada, the United States of America and Japan).

New Zealand

New Zealand’s path-breaking commitment to a comprehensive ITQ programme under its Quota Management System (QMS) is widely known. Perhaps less well known is that New Zealand has also made significant steps in the devolution of management responsibilities to the fishing industry. Administration of the day-to-day accounting for the QMS is now provided by an industry-owned company, FishServe, under a combination of devolved responsibility for some functions to industry and contracted provision of other administrative services on behalf of the Ministry of Fisheries (Harte2). Scientific research is provided through contestable tender and the responsibility to provide research is devolved to some industry groups.

In the 1990s, New Zealand actively promoted the devolution of responsibility for management services to industry, even though the industry interest in assuming greater responsibility was initially limited. The Orange Roughy Management Company (recently merged into the Deepwater Group) was among the first to develop cooperation among its members, not least prompted by a new industry facing the large costs of developing a new national offshore deepwater fishery. This cooperation has led to management of several sub-quotas within quota management areas (QMAs) to prevent localised depletion (Clement, Wells and Gallagher). The Orange Roughy Management Company has also become active in developing research, including deepwater acoustic surveys and their design, due in part to industry dissatisfaction with the results of traditional stock assessment methods. The Challenger Scallop Enhancement Company has made the most comprehensive efforts to embrace self-management (Mincher). This effort was motivated by an opportunity to enhance scallop recruitment by seeding and to optimize catches by spatial rotation of harvesting. Although initial suspicions regarding rights-based management meant that crayfish fisheries joined the QMS after it had become established, various crayfish management organizations (CRAMACs) have now become deeply involved in the delivery of research and management advice (Yandle). There were also limited efforts to self-managed aspects of crayfish management, including one case of voluntary quota-shelving by the industry. Deep-sea crab quota was recently sold by tender, and the winning bidders have joined together in Crabco to undertake both the research needed to underpin the fishery and also its future exploitation (Soboil and Craig). The unitisation of the deep-sea crab quota holders into Crabco is a path-breaking implementation of Scott’s (1955) sole owner concept. A similar company, Surfco, has been created for exploitation of part of New Zealand’s surf clam resources. While not described in this volume, a number of other industry organizations in New Zealand have undertaken self-governance initiatives, including those for hoki, squid, paua (abalone) and Foveaux Strait oysters.

The high level of government interest in devolution of management responsibilities prior to 2000 has since shifted towards a more traditional government-led comanagement approach (Harte). And, cost recovery, an explicit national policy, remains a contentious issue. But the industry role in QMS administration through FishServe, by itself, places New Zealand in a unique position of fisheries self-governance, and the ongoing Crabco and Surfco initiatives are potentially revolutionary developments in fisheries governance.


Canada has been innovative and flexible in its implementation of approaches to fisheries self-governance. The Canadian system is officially “co-management” and industry groups are generally careful to use that term rather than self-governance. Under this co-management regime, Canada often devolved substantial authority to industry via contractual joint project agreements (JPAs).

The cases in this volume reflect the diversity of the Canadian approach to co-management/self-governance. For British Columbia geoduck, the Underwater Harvesters Association is broadly responsible under a JPA for implementing an ITQ programme, finances most research, monitors biotoxins, manages marketing and has recently moved to re-seed its stocks (James). A similar administrative programme by industry has been established for red sea urchins (Featherstone and Rogers). Remarkably, the group of 100 red sea urchin harvesters negotiated and implemented a voluntary individual quota programme for two years when government had been reluctant to impose the programme. After government approved a formal ITQ programme, the Pacific Urchin Harvesters Association remained responsible for administrative of the landings validation programme. In British Columbia sablefish, an individual vessel quota (IVQ) programme initially propelled an industry-run dockside monitoring programme (Sporer). Subsequently, the Canadian Sablefish Association has expanded its responsibilities to include contracting for at-sea monitoring, biological sampling, logbook management and stock assessment.

In the Nova Scotia sea urchin fishery, the government allocated individual areas for harvesters to self-manage (Miller). In the complicated inshore groundfish industry, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) required inshore harvesters to form “community” associations to manage total allowable catch (TAC) allocations (Peacock and Annand). The form of those associations was left to the participants to determine and the nature of the organizations has varied widely. At least one of these organizations uses an informal ITQ arrangement. In the Nova Scotia snow-crab fishery, the DFO introduced an innovate approach to allow the benefits of an expandingfishery to be widely shared without creating overcapitalisation. In issuing new permits, the DFO required that new entrants join in groups of 10 to 20 ‘qualifiers’ as companies that would exercise the newly allocated fishing rights (Peacock and Eagles). In the Atlantic scallop industry, the DFO has allowed a well-organized industry to lead the direction of both research and management (Stevens et al.). This scallop industry has a successful voluntary programme to maximize yield per recruit. The industry has recently invested heavily in sonar mapping of the entire fishery habitat area to provide the seven companies with information to significantly reduce fishing costs. The scallop industry is deeply involved in research design to the point that the industry has funded “succession planning” in anticipation of retirement of the DFO scientist responsible for scallop research. Examples of fisheries self-governance in Canada that are not represented in this volume include the Bay of Fundy herring (Stephenson and Lane, 1993), Cape Breton Area 19 crab (Loucks, 2005), and Pacific groundfish (Turris, 2000). Blewett (2002) provides a comprehensive listing of fisheries co-management initiatives in British Columbia, some of which have aspects of self-governance.

Government and industry in Canada have developed a generally pragmatic, and thus adaptive, approach to co-management/self-governance. Greater industry responsibility is typically developed incrementally, as government gains confidence in the capacity of individual industry groups. The Government has not insisted upon a “one size fits all” approach to self-governance, but rather has supported implementation of different approaches that individual industries support. The Government has allowed industry to demonstrate the feasibility of management options as in the implementation of ITQs for geoducks on the condition that industry develops an effective monitoring programme (James).

The efforts by the DFO to help (or even to force) industry to overcome barriers to self-management have been especially notable. Government apparently has an informal rule that if two-thirds of an industry supports a co-management approach, they will support the efforts of that majority (Wilson). JPAs have used a number of interesting devices to encourage cooperation. For example, the DFO has required the use of association-provided monitoring and reporting mechanisms in both geoducks (James) and red urchins (Featherstone and Rogers). The DFO has allocated part of the TAC to industry associations as “use of fish” allocations to support industry research in several Pacific fisheries, including sablefish, groundfish and halibut (Blewett, 2002). The result is often that harvesters must join the relevant association (and hence pay dues) to participate in the industry, though some of practices have been subjected to court challenge, and government may face future restrictions on its activities in this area. In Atlantic Canada, the DFO has forced the creation of governance organizations in groundfish (Peacock and Annand) and snow crabs (Peacock and Eagles).

Canada has implemented cost recovery throughout its fisheries. All harvesters are required to purchase third-party dockside monitoring services. Other services may be funded through direct industry provision or by government levies. Exactly what costs are recovered varies across fisheries and is arguably arbitrary (Wilson). Canada also uses its licence fees to extract rents from the fisheries. Licence fees are based on 3 percent of landed value in less valuable fisheries and 5 percent of landed value in more valuable fisheries.

Canada can exercise flexibility in co-management in part because the Minister with responsibility for fisheries has wide discretion (often described as “absolute discretion”) to manage fisheries. The DFO has used this power to implement the range of management approaches described in this volume. But this absolute discretion has brought an inherent limitation to the evolution of fisheries governance. While almost all Canadian fisheries have limited entry and many fisheries have individual quotas, these programmes do not create permanent rights. Any future Minister can revoke existing use rights or issue more rights to new users. It is a common theme in industry discussions that this impermanence of rights needs to be addressed (see Wilson, James, and Featherstone and Rogers).

The challenges of managing the Pacific salmon fisheries and the Atlantic groundfish stocks are widely known, and these difficulties may overshadow the remarkable successes of co-management/self-governance in Canada. The significant economic benefits achieved in the British Columbia geoduck fishery and the Atlantic scallop fishery, in particular, offer unequivocal evidence of the potential for self-governance to increase economic rents—even in fisheries that already have IQs.


The three case studies presented for Australia arise in State fisheries. In the Queensland stout whiting fishery, the five permit holders implemented a voluntary TAC in conjunction with government (Thwaites and Andersen). In the western king prawn fishery in Spencer Gulf of South Australia, the Prawn Fishery Management Committee designs a system of spatial and seasonal closures that target larger, more valuable prawns and increases catch per unit effort (Zacharin, Dixon and Smallridge.) A “Committee at Sea”, in a remarkable display of industry responsibility, manages the fishing activities of the 39 vessels to implement this plan. In the Exmouth Gulf prawn fishery of Western Australia, where one company owns 15 of the 16 permits, the industry association works with the Department of Fisheries to implement seasonal, spatial and time-ofday fishing closures to achieve both biological and economic objectives (Kangas et al.). Economic objectives include reducing harvest costs and increasing the average size (and hence value) of prawns. A similar programme, but with more limited self-governance, operates in the Shark Bay prawn fishery of Western Australia (Kangas et al.)

These self-governance experiences reflect the broader Australian approach to fisheries management. Industry and government have often successfully developed collaborative approaches based upon input controls whereas elsewhere in the world, input controls often fall into a downward regulatory spiral where government regulates some inputs, industry innovates to counter the regulations, government imposes more onerous input regulations, and so on. With industry involved in the design and implementation of input controls, Australian managers have achieved some remarkable successes with this approach. For fisheries such as prawns, input controls may have advantages over output (quota) systems. In prawn fisheries, annual recruitment is often highly variable, difficult to estimate in advance of the fishing season and may be only weakly correlated with spawning stocks. Economic efficiency may require adaptive management to minimize harvest costs and to maximize yield per recruit. Larger prawns often command substantial premiums, so the return to efficient seasonal management may be large. This has been a common objective of both prawn fisheries described in this volume.

United States

In the United States, self-governance has emerged in both state and federally managed fisheries. Self-governance is often organized via cooperatives, because fisheries cooperatives enjoy limited antitrust exemptions. However, these cooperatives should not be confused with more traditional cooperatives: they are usually single-purpose fishery management organizations. With the exception of the Chignik salmon cooperative, none of the US cooperatives described here provide the traditional functions of supplying inputs, processing and marketing.

In US federal fisheries, several cases of self-governance were organized to achieve ITQ-like management during the ban on new ITQ programmes during 1996–2002 and within the context of general scepticism about the potential benefits of ITQs in US fisheries. Here, the efforts at self-governance activity by industry are largely to achieve the fisheries management results that have been delivered by governments in many other countries.

Much of the US self-governance is in the Pacific – and in Alaska in particular – the most fisheries-dependent American state. The Pacific whiting cooperative divided the quota for catcher-processors among four firms (Sylvia, Munro Mann and Pugmire). The Pacific whiting cooperative was the first of the west coast cooperatives and provided the model for most subsequent Alaskan cooperatives. Efforts to create a similar cooperative for the Alaska pollock catcher-processor fleet were initially stymied by decisions by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Authorisation terms for Alaska pollock cooperatives were subsequently specified in the American Fisheries Act (Wilen and Richardson). The pollock cooperatives essentially negotiated individual transferable allocations in each of four separate sectors of the fleet (catch-processors and three catching sectors that delivered to onshore processors, to catcher-processors and to motherships.) For both the Pacific whiting and the Alaskan pollock cooperatives, much of the benefit of self-governance came in the form of getting greater value from landings as fishing slowed under individual allocations. Product recovery increased from 17 to 24 percent in the Pacific whiting catcher-processor fleet and from 19 to 30 percent in the Alaskan pollock catcher-processor fleet. This result is consistent with the argument of Homans and Wilen (2005) that increasing catch value may be at least as important as reducing costs as fisheries are rationalized. The weathervane scallop cooperative established individual transferable allocations in a fishery that is managed under a joint state-federal regime (Brawn and Scheirer.) In an interesting innovation, the scallop cooperative allocated the crab bycatch (which is entirely discarded but can result in closure of the fishery when bycatch limits are exceeded) as well as the target scallop species. The result was a dramatic reduction in the ratio of bycatch to target catch.

The Chignik salmon cooperative was an interesting effort to respond to declining salmon prices by reducing the fishing costs through coordinated fishing (Knapp). The Alaska Board of Fisheries established an allocation that divided the fishery between a cooperative with about 80 percent of the harvesters and an open access fishery for the 20 percent who declined to join the cooperative. This allocation of a share of a fishery to a self-governance organization may provide an important model for other governments trying to promote or to allow self-governance in fisheries that cannot achieve unanimous agreement. Ultimately, in what many believe to have been a backward step, a state court declared the Chignik cooperative illegal.

In the United States, there are also small-scale, informal, almost hidden examples of fisheries self-governance. Given the common US antipathy towards ITQs, industries may have good reason to be quiet about their cooperative management efforts. Further, the informality of these regimes is also a way to reduce transactions costs. The Yaquina Bay roe herring fishery is a small state fishery with only ten permits (Leal.) The permit holders negotiated an equal sharing of the TAC, which reduced fishing costs and allowed the fleet to increase product quality by fishing when roe content was optimal. Nine of the permit holders formed a non-profit corporation to buy out the tenth permit. The agreement also allows the members to coordinate their fishing in this short, but highly valuable, fishery with other fishing activities. In a similar manner, one sector of the federal tilefish fleet, based in Montauk, New York, negotiated an agreement among its four members to share the sector TAC (Rountree, Kitts and Pinto da Silva.) The agreement reduced costs, increased quality and coordinated delivery of a steady stream of product to the market to maximize value. Another example of a small, albeit shortlived, self-governance agreement arose in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands lobster fishery (Townsend, Pooley and Clarke, 2003). These small self-governance cases raise the interesting possibility that there may be other cases of “niche” self-governance in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere) that are largely hidden.


A number of previous studies have discussed the important role of local fishery cooperative associations (FCAs) in fisheries management in Japan (e.g, Asada, Hirasawa and Nagasaki, 1983; Ruddle, 1987; and Makino and Matsuda, 2005.). As Uchida and Makino explain, management is implemented by fisheries management organizations (FMOs), most of which are derivative of FCAs. The FCAs are allocated collective fishing rights, often in the form of territorial use rights. While these rights are nominally bestowed by prefectural or national governments, they have long historical roots. An FCA may itself function as an FMO; multiple FCAs may be represented in an FMO for stocks that span multiple FCAs; or a sub-group of harvesters within an FCA may form an FMO to manage a specific fishery under the jurisdiction of the FCA.

The 13 FCAs in the Ise Bay sandeel industry use a combination of seasonal closures and variable marine protected areas to insure adequate spawning stocks (Tomiyama, Komatsu and Makino). The process to determine the season opening date considers how the size of harvested sandeels will affect price. The sakuraebi (shrimp) fishery in Suruga Bay is managed by two FCAs (Uchida and Baba). A “Fishing Committee” coordinates the fishing activities of all 60 licence holders. Revenues from fishing are shared among all harvesters from the same port. The primary effect of the coordination is to maximize the value of landings. In the sandfish fishery of Akita Prefecture, the Akita Federation of FCAs implemented a three-year fishing moratorium to rebuild stocks (Suenaga). During the moratorium, the prefecture government bought back licences. After the moratorium, the representative organization agreed to a government-set TAC that is divided among twelve FCAs, which manage the allocated TACs. Eight FCAs allow competitive fishing of the allocated quota, three FCAs use non-transferable individual quotas and one FCA fishes its quota collectively. In the walleye pollack fishery in the Hiyama region, fishing of the grounds is rotated to avoid vessel congestion (Uchida and Watanobe). Within the Nishi section of the Hiyama region, a system of pooling revenues is used to further increase incentives to cooperate to reduce costs and thus increase profits.

The Kyoto Bottom Trawlers Union implemented permanent marine protected areas to rebuild snow crab stocks (Makino). Seasonal closed areas are used to reduce bycatch of snow crabs in the brown-sole trawl fishery. Mesh size of trawls were increased and crab exclusion devices were added; minimum sizes were increased for soft-shelled crabs. These changes resulted in a five-fold increase in catch per unit effort and an eight-fold increase in economic yield per unit effort.

There are 1 600 FMOs in Japan, so these five cases can hardly represent the full range of experience. But the cases in this volume show that cooperatives continue to evolve. Both the national and prefectural governments have shown interest in encouraging these cooperatives to develop into more capable fisheries management institutions. This requires careful intervention by government to avoid local harvesters rejecting central government directives as initially happened in the case of sandfish (Suenaga). These case studies also show a concerted effort to deliver more useful and understandable science to FCAs. Scientific studies were important in designing the seasonal closures in the Ise Bay sandeel fishery (Tomiyama, Komatsu and Makino), the marine protected areas in the Kyoto snow crab fishery (Makino) and the stock rebuilding closure in the sandfish fishery (Suenaga).

The Japanese cooperatives often function to reduce short-run costs of harvesting and to coordinate deliveries in order to improve prices. The latter function at times includes some exercice of market power over prices. The cooperatives have been much less active in reducing overcapitalisation within their sectors. As Uchida and Makino suggest for the sakuraebi fishery, the system may function to maximize short-run profits under a constraint that the number of harvesters is fixed. While governments sometimes engage in licence buy-backs to reduce effort, the FMOs covered in this volume do not have strategies to match fishing effort to the stock.


The European Union (EU) has struggled to define a Common Fisheries Policy that balances the principles of equal treatment of fleets in all EU waters with the need to restrict fishing activity to achieve management goals. In several countries, producer organizations (POs) have emerged as institutions able to coordinate the competing demands of management and allocation. Two of the European cases in this volume involve producer organizations that have developed such programmes.

In the Spanish fleet that harvests in the Celtic Sea, seven producer organizations are each allocated a portion of the national TAC (Garza-Gil and Varela-Lafuente). These producer organizations then allocate harvesting rights to individual vessels, which can reallocate the rights among themselves. The result is essentially a PO-run individual quota programme.

In the Shetland Islands, the industry and the local community used two strategies to maintain local control of its whitefish industry (Anderson). In 1993, the Shetlands Fish Producer Organization (SFPO) purchased vessels to acquire 2 386 tonnes of landings history (fixed quota allocations, or FQAs) for use by its members. Because this vessel history was available only to vessels within the SFPO, any ‘quota history’ sold outside the Shetlands lost its access to this purchased history. As the quota history was more valuable in the Shetlands, a strong incentive was created to keep quota in the Shetlands. In 1998 and 1999, the Shetlands Islands Council financed the purchase of an additional 4445 tonnes of ‘catch history’ to insure that the quota remained within the Shetlands. That quota was to be used in part to assist new Shetlands entrants into fishing. The European Commission has since ruled that the catch history purchased with assistance from the Shetlands Islands Council violates EU rules about subsidies, although the original SFPO purchases did not. Alas, this decision strikes down an innovative effort to use market-based tools to pursue local social objectives.

A fleet of vessels from Denmark, Norway and Sweden have traditionally harvested Matjes herring under a set of voluntary rules established by the Danish “Matjes Committee” during 1992–1997 (Raakjær and Olesen) and the Norwegian and Swedish harvester organizations voluntarily agreed to the rules imposed by the Committee. The purpose of this coordination was to maximize landed product quality and hence price. When external factors caused the Danish industry to largely withdraw from the fishery, the voluntary coordination ended. This in one of the few failures of industry self-governance and the lessons it offers are salutary.

Six vessels were granted permits to fish in the shrimp fishery in Gullmar Fjord of Sweden for 2004–2006 (Eggert and Ulmestrand). Because this area is a marine reserve, the number of total fishing vessel-days is restricted to 100, which are shared equally among the vessels. The vessels also agreed to a larger mesh size to increase the average size of shrimp harvested and so allow the six vessels to earn higher prices both because they could fish later in the season when prices where higher and because larger shrimp bring a price premium.

In the French Bay of Brest scallop fishery, harvesters formed a cooperative to manage a juvenile seeding and spatial rotation programme (Alban and Boncoeur). Financing of this programme was changed from a public subsidy to licence fees in 2001. When higher licence fees were implemented, harvesters were allocated individual catch quotas.

Chile and Mexico

Here, self-governance has usually arisen within a restricted pool of resource users. Under past open-access practices, any benefits of self-governance were rapidly eroded by unrestricted entry. In this context, the governments of developing countries face an especially difficult task in trying to limit access to fisheries. Often, high unemployment makes limiting access politically difficult, if not impossible – despite the counterproductive consequences. Even if a government formally limits access, its ability to enforce those limits may be weak or non-existent. For these reasons, devolved governance in developing countries often takes the form of local co-management with significant community involvement. But, the two cases in Mexico and Chile indicate that the institutional framework for self-governance is emerging in at least some developing countries. Moreover, limited access and self-governance seem to mutually reinforcing institutions in these cases.

In the Punta Allen lobster fishery, cooperatives manage exclusive fishing concessions (Sosa-Cordero, Liceaga-Correa and Seijo). The cooperatives partition these areas into individual “campos” or marine plots. Harvesters erect and maintain artificial habitats (“casitas”) that are used to harvest lobsters. The effect is to create individual territorial use rights within a higher-level system of territorial rights allocated to cooperatives.

Since 1992, exclusive harvest rights for benthic resources in Chile can be allocated to artisanal fishing associations as Management and Exploitation Areas for Benthic Resources (MEABRs). Management of the loco (abalone) fishery, which was closed between 1989 and 1992 due to overharvesting, was a primary objective in establishing the MEABRs (Castilla and Gelcich). The government has made establishment of a benthic resource management plan a precondition for local harvest of benthic resources. This strongly encourages creation of MBEARs. Since implementation of the MEABRs, landings have increased fivefold, average size of harvested loco has increased and catch per unit effort has increased.


1. Author citations without dates here are to chapters in this volume.

Further Reading

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August 2008