How can governments help with overfishing?

One remedy for overfishing would be global adoption of and compliance with the United Nations’ voluntary Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, developed in 1995. The code provides a detailed consensus for responsible and equitable use of fishery resources, however evaluations of the behavior of the 53 countries who fish the majority of the global marine catch shows poor compliance with this code. Research of the 53 top fishing countries, involving surveys about adherence to the code measuring intent to comply, ratings of conservation versus economic aims, and the effectiveness of day to day compliance measures show many problems with expecting voluntary compliance with a code of conduct. Only six countries of the 53 surveyed exceeded the failure to comply threshold, and even those receive fail grades on some of the topics surveyed on. Most countries fail most at introducing ecosystem based management, controlling illegal fishing, reducing excess fishing capacity and minimizing by-catch and destructive fishing practices. 

Although many countries claim the intent to comply, the actual compliance falls below the intent by 9% on average. North America (Canada and the United States) scores high on intent to comply, but only in the mid-range on actual implementation of fishing policies. Developing regions such as Africa, Asia and Latin America fail in nearly every category, and the European Union has mixed scores among its member nations, showing the low priority given to improving fisheries management, even though the resources and knowledge exist to do so.

Cost for enforcement of the code and local legislation of fisheries management can be prohibitive. Code compliance seems to correlate with the countries scores on the World Bank governance index, showing that parameters such as political stability, violence, corruption and accountability impact the levels of voluntary compliance. Some developing nations such as Malaysia, South Africa and Namibia score more highly than several European Union member countries, showing that good management is not entirely resource dependent.

The voluntary nature of the current Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries means that there is no recourse for enforcing this code. Individual nations, especially developing nations, rarely address all of the areas of concern in their legal codes or do not have the resources for enforcement. Now that there is widespread scientific consensus on the impacts of overfishing and broad agreements on policy  issues such as limiting illegal catches, creating an international legal instrument that is enforceable should be the next step in protecting the marine ecosystems and future generations access to seafood.

Pitcher, T., Kalikoski, D., Short, K. (2009) Not honouring the code. Nature 475(5) pp658-659