Economics vital to fisheries health checks

With the health and wellbeing of fisheries, fishers and entire communities at stake, fisheries economists argue that more than a ‘gut feeling’ is needed when considering the financial and social implications of policy decisions

Illustration: Paul Dickenson

By Bianca Nogrady

How do you judge the health of a fishery?

Many people immediately think of the health of the fish and whether they are being harvested in a sustainable fashion, or the impact of harvesting on the environment.

But for fisheries economist Caleb Gardner from the University of Tasmania (UTAS) Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies there is much more to fisheries than their ecological health and wellbeing.

“If the only objective of fisheries management were to concentrate on sustainability, then we could just halve catches across all the fisheries and solve that,” he says.

“But that would be a really poor outcome economically, so clearly there’s more to the game than just sustainability.”

This is where fisheries economics comes in, he says. While it may be viewed as the poorer cousin of biological research, he argues that fisheries economics is just as essential for good fisheries management.

“Before I had economic training I participated in a lot of fishery management committees dealing with issues such as setting quotas where my role was to provide biological advice, but we tended to face decisions that were not just about biology but also about economics,” he says.

“I was finding that we tended to have pretty good information about biology based on good research, yet most of the economics decisions just got made off the cuff or by people’s gut feelings around the table. It didn’t match the level of detail that we’d put into the biology.”

Caleb Gardner has mainly worked with Southern Rocklobsters (Jasus edwardsii), where he sees considerable opportunity for the application of fisheries economics.

Economically, rocklobsters sit in a middle ground between fisheries such as abalone – which are cheap to catch but fetch a high beach price – and prawns – which generally cost a lot more to catch but have a relatively low beach price. Caleb Gardner says this allows plenty of room for informed adjustments to the fishery such as improved quota setting or setting rocklobster size limits in some areas.

“There’s quite a large performance gap in current management of rocklobsters,” he says.

“Most of the rules in place for rocklobsters were set up historically, based on biology, without formal economic input and so if you start applying some economic analysis then it’s pretty easy to find some big improvements.”

He says analysis generally involves trying to quantify the economic yield from the fishery, then looking at the impact of different ways of managing the fishery.

“That might involve asking simple questions about the existing rules – what would happen if you had a different quota, or a different season or a different size limit? What happens to the economic yield from the fishery? Can we improve economic benefits from the fishery and also make improvements in other aspects of the fishery, such as higher egg production?”

Making trade-offs

Having the input of fisheries economics to decisions about the management of fisheries is particularly important today, when there are many competing interests jostling for a piece of the resource pie.

Sarah Jennings, of the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics at UTAS, says the question of resource allocation among competing uses is central to fisheries management and that this is where economics really shines.  

“Economics is all about how people make choices when decision-making involves trade-offs, and about how people’s decisions change when we change the costs and benefits they face,” Sarah Jennings says.

“The trade-offs are just going to get more intense as we recognise that the marine environment underpins a multiplicity of values to a wide range of people.”

While marine resources are the basis of valuable commercial and recreational fisheries, they also hold significant cultural, ecological and environmental value.

Sarah Jennings believes that while, in general, the calibres of fisheries management and governance in Australia is good by world standards, we need to think more broadly about what the notion of a sustainable fishery really means.   

Ecological sustainability is only one part of the puzzle. Sarah Jennings maintains that we also need to consider the economic and social sustainability of fisheries right from the fish-capture stage to markets.

“Add to this the fact that marine resources will come under growing pressure from increasing demand for seafood as the population grows, and from changes in the abundance and distribution of fish due to climate change, and it’s clear that we find ourselves working in a dynamic environment characterised by complexity and uncertainty.”

Research opportunities

Sarah Jennings believes this makes fisheries economics an exciting area for students and young researchers to be working in.

There are research opportunities in areas as diverse as how moving to a fisheries target of maximum economic yield affects the environment, how oyster farmers can adapt to climate change, identifying the drivers of overcapacity in open access fisheries and what qualitative models can tell us about the stability of marine systems.

A forum ( has been created to strengthen research in the area of fisheries economics. The forum allows fisheries managers and PhD students to share research ideas and results, identify research opportunities and plan for events.

Sean Pascoe, a marine resource economist at CSIRO, has been working in fisheries economics for more than 25 years.

Much of this work has involved developing models for different fisheries to look at how many boats should be in the fleet, what they should be catching, how they should be catching it and when they should be catching it.

He has recently been working with the Queensland Government and industry to look at the economic, social and environmental outcomes of a range of potential management scenarios for the east coast prawn trawl fisheries with the aim of identifying the best approaches for the long term.

This is particularly important in prawn fisheries, where the prices for prawns have been falling substantially over the past few decades while fuel prices have kept rising.

“Fishers respond to the incentive that managers create, and different management structures create different incentives, some of which can be very beneficial in economics and some of which can be very bad,” Sean Pascoe says.

“Failing to take into account these incentives has resulted in quite a few fisheries in Australia being very biologically sustainable but economically very unviable and that’s particularly the case in Queensland – biologically they’re fantastic, economically many fishers are desperate to get out as they’re not doing very well.”

Economic reference points

Another challenge for fisheries is knowing what the goal posts are in terms of fisheries management – working out the target fishery biomass to achieve the best economic performance for the fishery.

Sean Pascoe has just finished a two-year FRDC-funded project (2011/200) using modelling to help develop some proxy economic reference points for both single and multi-species fisheries.

“We wanted some sort of way of estimating what the relationship is between the biomass at maximum sustainable yield and the biomass at the maximum economic yield to put in as a management target so we know to what extent we need to pull back effort or increase it,” he says.

“Many fisheries don’t have sufficient data to build the models you really need to come up with these estimates for, say, optimal catches, optimal biomass levels, with any great precision. For some of the really small fisheries, the actual cost of building those models would probably exceed their value.”

One of the key challenges for the field of fisheries economics is securing funding, Sean Pascoe says. “Research funds are tight, competition with more traditional biologically focused research is high, and often we find ourselves with fewer resources than we need to do the work properly.”

International conference

Sarah Jennings says that thanks to investment from organisations such as the FRDC, capacity in fisheries economics is growing in Australia.

One indication of this is the selection of Australia as host for the biennial International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade (IIFET) Conference 2014 in Brisbane in July. It is being jointly organised by CSIRO, the Queensland University of Technology, UTAS and the University of Adelaide.

This is the premier international fisheries economics conference, and will bring together more than 300 of the world’s best fisheries economists to both learn what has been happening here and to relate research findings in their own countries.

However, despite increasing numbers of practitioners, Sarah Jennings says that there are still many challenges ahead to make sure that fisheries economics becomes as routinely used as fisheries biology in fisheries management.

One challenge is for fisheries economists to better understand the interface between science and policy so they can provide answers tailored to the needs of policymakers. Another is to learn to work in a multidisciplinary environment.

“Fisheries are part of really complex and vital linked biophysical and human systems and if we are going to be able to provide strong scientific input into decision-making then we are going to have to find ways of integrating data and models across the social and physical sciences,” Sarah Jennings says.

“Bringing these disciplines together with the more traditional areas of fisheries science to make sure that when decisions are made that they take into account that whole spectrum of biophysical and human considerations is something that will keep us striving.” 

FRDC Research Codes: 2011-200, 2013-301

More information

Sarah Jennings, 03 6226 2828

International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade 2014