Protecting Our Oceans, People, and Planet

The world depends on our ocean, the fish within, and the communities of people protecting and managing it. Sustainable fishing ensures that we care for this precious resource.

But our ocean is in danger. We are facing an unprecedented global decline in marine fish populations. Ineffective management of our coastal seas — home to critical ecosystems — has led to overfishing and other destructive fishing practices.  With nearly 500 million people worldwide depending on small-scale fisheries, coastal overfishing is one of the greatest and most immediate threats to our ocean and the people who depend on it.

Human-induced challenges like overfishing and climate change require solutions that help people adopt more sustainable and responsible fishing practices and management. A behavior-centered and community-led approach to sustainable fisheries management will safeguard people and nature.

» Learn more here about Rare’s work and approach to sustainable fisheries management through its global coastal fishing program, Fish Forever.  Learn more below about the topic of sustainable fishing. 


What Is Sustainable Fishing?

Sustainable fishing is managing and maintaining fish populations at a healthy level to avoid exploiting natural resources. In its simplest form, it means fishing (the act of catching fish) that can be done indefinitely on a target population.

While fishing sustainably may relate to different types of fishing—commercial, recreational, or subsistence fishing—they all have one important thing in common: sustainable fishing takes people into account. Not only is fishing sustainably about maintaining healthy marine life populations and fisheries for future generations, but it’s also about maintaining people’s jobs and livelihoods.

Often, community fisheries are the primary resource fishing communities have for food, employment, and survival.


Why Is Sustainable Fishing Important?

Sustainable fishing is important because it:

  • Protects ocean biodiversity and habitats to ensure a healthy and resilient ocean
  • Protects livelihoods of coastal and Indigenous communities
  • Helps fishing communities adapt to climate change
  • Contributes to global food security
  • Prevents food loss and food waste in the supply chain

But according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over 35% of the world’s fisheries are overfished or over-exploited, meaning they’re fished at too high a level for sustainable use. Fish catch is declining worldwide, and fishers are left scrambling to catch what’s left, particularly when facing increased demand for fish. If this trend of overfishing continues, we will lose these fisheries and their vital fish populations.


An hour before sunrise, the Mercedes fish port is already packed.
An hour before sunrise, the Mercedes fish port is already packed. Photo Credit: Jason Houston for Rare.


Challenges to Sustainable Fishing: Overfishing and Climate Change

What Is Overfishing?

Overfishing is taking more wildlife out of a body of water faster than species can reproduce to repopulate. This unsustainable practice threatens marine habitats, fish populations, and the coastal communities and economies that depend on these fish and ecosystems.

Coastal overfishing is especially damaging, given that the world’s territorial seas are one of the most important areas of the ocean for biodiversity, food, and livelihoods.

22 million sq. kilometers of territorial waters worldwide are home to 70% of global marine biodiversity.

What Is the Cause of Overfishing?

Overfishing has many causes, which include:

A race to catch the last fish: Coastal overfishing occurs when there are no rules or little enforcement related to how many fish can be caught sustainably. With no incentive to fish sustainably, individual fishers tend to take as much fish as possible. Addressing overfishing and other cooperative dilemmas, where people pursue their individual, short-term interests at the expense of the group’s long-term interest, requires understanding challenges related not only to the resources but also to the people using them.

Industrial fishing: Large-scale industrial fishing exploits ocean resources. Non-selective fishing practices like bottom trawling, long-line fishing, and fine-mesh nets produce millions of tonnes of bycatch (the incidental capture of non-target marine species). These destructive practices damage coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other critical marine habitats. Further, industrial fishing incursions on territorial seas can threaten coastal ocean resources and communities.

Population growth and demand for seafood: More than three billion people worldwide rely on fish as their primary source of protein. With the global population rising at an unsustainable level, the demand for fish is likely to double by 2050.

Lack of effective regulations, policies, and enforcement: Ineffective local to global regulations and fisheries management lead to the mass exploitation of our oceans.

Other issues that have encouraged a global rise in overfishing include poor governance of fisheries, chronic underinvestment in small-scale fisheries management, and destructive fishing practices. If left unchecked, coastal overfishing could create catastrophic consequences for coastal communities’ food and livelihoods and the greater ocean economy and health.

» Learn more about addressing cooperative dilemmas like overfishing through Rare’s TEDx Talk.

Fisherman hauling his catch in a basket in Pará State - Brazil
Fisherman hauling his catch in a basket in Pará State – Brazil. Photo Credit: Enrico Marone.

Sustainable Fishing and Climate Change

Climate change is fundamentally changing our ocean. Ocean acidification and coral bleaching threaten the well-being of marine life everywhere. Rising sea temperatures cause fish species to migrate to colder water. Rising sea levels put coastal communities in danger like never before.  Climate change directly impacts the ocean, coastal fisheries, and the way of life of millions of people.

The good news is that healthy, sustainable fisheries can help fishers and communities adapt to the changing climate, mitigate environmental impact, and protect marine life critical to food security and livelihoods.

Natural habitats improve the ecological health of ecosystems and make them more resilient to climate change. For example, mangroves and seagrasses buffer coastal communities from storm surges and absorb carbon dioxide in the ocean to help reduce rising sea temperatures. Reserves and no-take zones protect habitats for many species, promoting vast biodiversity within fisheries. Species and genetic diversity help wildlife populations stay resilient against climate change threats.

Stay Connected

Sign me up for occasional emails to learn more about Rare’s work and how I can support its mission. I know I can unsubscribe at any time.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sustainable Fisheries Management

Managing fisheries sustainably is a dynamic and adaptive process that requires science and data for decision-making, enabling policies, local leadership, innovative financing and community-led management approaches, and strong participation from the public and local partners. A crucial part of managing sustainable fisheries is the concept of maximum sustainable yield—the maximum catch a fisher can extract from a population long term without catch numbers declining.

Community-led management systems are a proven approach to sustainable fisheries management that must balance maintaining fisheries, protecting fish populations, and sustaining the livelihoods of the people who depend on them.  These systems include the following activities:

  • Establishing a managed access area with reserves. Managed access areas are areas of water mapped, legally established, and managed cooperatively between local government and local fishers, who enjoy exclusive rights to fish in the area. Reserves are areas within or adjacent to the Managed Access area where fishing is off limits so that fish populations can regenerate and spill over into the fishing grounds.
  • Developing a localized rule-making system. These rules must be enforced and incentivized, and the entire community needs to be on board.
  • Working with local leaders to enact policy. A policy must be implemented to enable a community management system to work and evolve.
  • Formalizing fisheries and helping them build wealth. Coastal fishing communities must be empowered with innovative finance solutions to capture the benefits of effective coastal fisheries management and develop their financial resilience to crises and shocks.
  • Using data to inform the system every step of the way. How are fish size, species composition, and catch weight changing as the community implements sustainable strategies? A process needs to be put in place to capture this data and more to see where improvements still need to be made or adapted.

Sustainable Fishing Methods, Practices, and Behaviors

What makes fishing practices or methods sustainable ultimately depends on the type of fish in the area and the state of the fishery.

Methods that might be used to rebuild fish stocks from unsustainable or destructive fishing methods include:

  1. Regulating the gear. The easiest first step is to look at the destructive equipment allowed and swap it out for sustainable fishing gear. Increase the mesh size of fishing nets. Prohibit long-line fishing in exchange for hand-line fishing.
  2. Establishing reserves and replenishing zones. These are mandated areas where no fishing is allowed. Reserves allow fish to have a place where they can seek refuge, grow, and reproduce. Communities should place replenishing zones near vital fish habitats, such as coral reefs.
  3. Considering closing the fishery for a specific amount of time. While this may not be reasonable for many communities, if a fishery is depleted to an extreme point, it may need to close for a certain period.

Once fisheries build back their fish populations, or if a fishery is looking to maintain or increase its sustainability, fisheries stakeholders can create more sophisticated sustainable fishing practices. These might include:

  1. Creating open-and-closed seasons. Like other hunting seasons, fisheries can create open-and-closed seasons where fishers can catch specific fish species.
  2. Setting up harvest control rules or quotas. Fisheries can set quotas on certain types of fish. Once the fishery reaches that quota, the fishery closes for the remainder of the year to allow the population to grow and reproduce.

Further, beyond specific practices and methods, Rare’s coastal fisheries program, Fish Forever, has identified four target fisher behaviors that will help to create more sustainable coastal fisheries: 1) become a registered fisher, 2) record fish catch, 3) respect fishing regulations, and 4) participate in fisheries management. Learn more

Jacquelyn Caranay, a fish buyer, keeping records of the fish she's buying using the OurFish app.
Jacquelyn Caranay, a fish buyer, keeping records of the fish she’s buying using the OurFish app. Photo Credit: Ferdz Decena for Rare.

The Importance of Data for Sustainable Fisheries

Regularly collecting and reviewing fisheries data is a critical practice for maintaining sustainable fisheries. Fishing fleets and resource managers need enough information to understand how fishing practices impact fish populations and ecosystems. The three primary indicators that scientists and fisheries managers look at to determine fisheries’ health are fish size, fish maturity, and species composition.

A high count of large, adult fish reflects a resilient and thriving ecosystem. Large, mature fish are key to a fishery’s health because they are the individuals that will reproduce and contribute to growing fish stocks. Species composition data can also reveal important trends in fish population health. A drop in fish species often relates to a declining health factor caused by environmental threats like climate change or poor fishing practices like destructive fishing gear.

By collecting data over a long period, fishers can better analyze data trends and understand seasonal differences that are out of their control compared to destructive fishing practices they can mitigate.

» For data, tools and resources related to sustainable fishing, visit Rare’s Fisheries Data Portal.

Using Behavior Change to Increase Sustainable Fishing

Since human behavior causes unsustainable fishing, understanding and addressing it provides a solution.

Rare uses the science of human behavior to combat urgent conservation and development challenges like unsustainable fishing and climate change. Based on this experience, we know that helping individuals adopt more sustainable behaviors can have transformative and positive effects on both the natural resource and the resource user.

The Center for Behavior & the Environment at Rare (BE.Center) is the world’s first center dedicated exclusively to behavioral science and design for the environment. The BE.Center partners with Rare’s Fish Forever program to help coastal fishing communities — fishers, fish buyers and traders, community members, and their local government — do the following:

  • Apply behavioral and social science insights and behavior-centered design (see below) to achieve tangible, sustainable, and long-term results for fisheries’ productivity.
  • Apply local fisheries solutions grounded in how human beings behave
  • Adopt more responsible behaviors related to coastal fishing. Based on evidence from Rare’s Fish Forever program implementation, the following four target fisher behaviors will help to create more sustainable coastal fisheries: 1) become a registered fisher, 2) record fish catch, 3) respect fishing regulations, and 4) participate in fisheries management. Learn more

Applying the science of human behavior to unsustainable fishing challenges helps coastal fishing communities shift from feeling like they live and work in a competitive state, where one fisher’s catch is another’s loss, to recognizing that an alternative, cooperative state exists where fishing at more sustainable levels leads to better fishing outcomes for everyone. In the latter state, Fishers are then more likely to believe they should responsibly fish for the good of the community and that everyone else believes fishers should responsibly fish. These beliefs themselves do not change behavior. Fishers will likely change their behavior if they believe others will do so.

What is Behavior-Centered Design?

Rare uses Behavior-Centered Design (BCD), a process that blends the best insights from behavioral science with the user-focused strengths of design thinking, to identify the most effective behavior change intervention for a target audience.

The behavior change intervention considers whose behaviors need to change, the behavioral strategies most likely to encourage sustainable fishing, what barriers exist to adopting these behaviors, and what needs to change to help a fishery become more sustainable, among other considerations.

Let’s take, for example, wanting a fishing community to follow a reserve’s rules, such as no-fishing zones or restricted gear. Solutions should be developed and implemented locally to create behavior change, with input from fisheries stakeholders. Coastal fishing communities need to shift from feeling like they live and work in a competitive state, where one fisher’s catch is another fisher’s loss, to recognizing that an alternative exists.

The goal is to create a cooperative state where fishing at more sustainable levels leads to better fishing outcomes for everyone. Fishers are more likely to believe they should responsibly fish for the good of the community and that everyone else believes fishers should responsibly fish. Even so, these beliefs themselves do not change behavior. Fishers will likely change their behavior if they think others will do so too.

» Learn more about Fish Forever’s Behavior-Centered Design and the Theory of Cooperative Behavior Adoption, which helps practitioners design effective solutions to these cooperative challenges.

Learn More About Sustainable Fishing

We offer several other resources that explain the ins and outs of sustainable fishing and how Rare’s Fish Forever program works with coastal communities to revitalize their fisheries.

Fish Forever Data Portal – Understand more about your fisheries and help enhance your ecosystems with this data portal.

Fisheries Management Assessment Tool – Make science-backed fisheries management decisions, assess how interventions are performing, and adjust with this tool. 

OurFish App – Capture and track fish data with this financial and management app.