Getting to grips with fisheries governance

Just what is “fisheries governance”? And even more importantly, how does it impact ecosystem-based fisheries governance? Our latest blog post lays out the nuts and bolts of fisheries governance and our research plans for deepening our understanding of what makes for good governance…




It’s one of those abstract words which, if you don’t come across it very often, might feel hard to grasp. But governance is an essential part of how modern societies operate, and that’s no less true when it comes to fisheries governance. Without effective fisheries governance, there can be no effective management of fisheries – and that means we have far less of a chance of harvesting fish stocks sustainably

So what is fisheries governance exactly? Our researchers here at SEAwise define it as “the overall framework of politics, policies, laws, norms, values, regulations, and institutions that guide the management and conservation of fishery resources (within a specific polity)” – in the case of SEAwise, our “specific polity” of interest being the EU, and how it interacts with other polities such as the UK.


From international to local: Why does Europe need effective fisheries governance?

Nations may observe borders, but fish, other marine life, and marine ecosystems don’t. Many European waters are also fished by fleets from multiple countries (as is also often the case across the rest of the world). These two facts mean that fisheries management must be coherent and coordinated, to ensure that management measures are implemented consistently across areas and stocks crossing multiple state boundaries. As a hypothetical example, if Denmark were to stop fishing for Baltic herring completely to allow the stock to recover, but none of the other Baltic states did the same, it’s very unlikely that the measure would be effective. In such a case, actions related to fisheries management are poorly coordinated between countries. That’s where effective governance could make all the difference.

The need for coherence and coordination in the form of governance becomes even more pressing – and challenging – in the context of Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management (EBFM). This is because EBFM is a holistic approach encompassing all ecological, social, and economic elements that affect and are in turn affected by fisheries (as we explain in this blog post), from marine mammal bycatch to coastal communities to offshore windfarms. As such, EBFM requires connecting fisheries management with a much wider network of actors and governing bodies, which itself requires strong governance to bring about and maintain.


Key ingredients for effective fisheries governance: inclusivity, transparency and legitimacy

“What makes for effective fisheries governance?” is not a simple question. But we know there are several interlocking ingredients that are key to creating the conditions it needs to flourish:

Inclusivity: All relevant stakeholders, authorities, and institutions need to be involved in conversations and decision-making processes around the setting of fisheries management objectives and the measures to achieve these. This of course includes fishers themselves, with calls growing for better recognition and use of the data and knowledge that fishers can provide about where and what they fish. 

Transparency: Ensuring that information on decision-making processes are readily accessible to anyone enables stakeholders to understand how they can get involved and to hold decision-makers to account by keeping their decisions and performance visible to all. It also contributes to trust, helping stakeholders to remain motivated to engage with governance processes.

Legitimacy: This is essentially a judgement of a governance body’s right to make decisions. It can emerge from the perceptions that fisheries management strategies and measures have been developed in a fair way (that is, inclusive and transparent!) and/or that these strategies and measures are achieving their aims. A lack of legitimacy in fisheries governance lessens the likelihood that actors such as fishers will be motivated to comply with the management measures that such bodies set. 


What is the current status of fisheries governance in Europe?

Within the EU, the main legal framework for fisheries management is the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Its aims are to safeguard fish stocks, fishing livelihoods, and marine ecosystems. The CFP is implemented via a range of rules relating to fishing quotas, technical measures, market and trade policy, and control and enforcement. Gains have been made under the CFP in recent years, with the EU Commission reporting in June 2023 that compared to 2003 when most EU stocks were ‘heavily overfished’, the number of sustainably managed fisheries has significantly risen.

However, translating strategies and measures from paper to practice across multiple regions remains a challenge; the EU Commission acknowledges that a current lack of cooperation means that decision-making processes between EU, national, and regional levels remain too uncoordinated to enable effective implementation of EU fisheries legislation. As such, some fish stocks – particularly in the Baltic, Mediterranean, and Black Seas – continue to be heavily exploited and may in the future undergo irreversible declines. And this issue extends beyond the CFP, with SEAwise researchers highlighting that Europe’s wider marine governance system – covering all kinds of industries and policy frameworks – is highly fragmented. This issue has undoubtedly contributed to the failure so far to reach ‘good environmental status’ for the EU’s marine ecosystems under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD).


What is SEAwise doing in response?

As part of our ‘Social and Economic Effects of and on Fishing‘ work theme, a team of social scientists within SEAwise will use a framework for evaluating the EU’s fisheries governance system against EBFM-derived indicators. The next stage in their work will be to survey governance actors from a range of sectors across SEAwise’s Case Study regions, and to build several sub-regional case studies to establish a deeper understanding of how effective fisheries governance arrangements in the EU currently are – and to identify the actions needed to give EBFM the best chance to succeed in Europe.

Has this blog post sharpened your appetite for learning more about fisheries governance? Find the report on the first stage of our work on this topic here.

We use third-party cookies to personalise content and analyse site traffic.

Learn more