The process of capacity assessment can be simplified into a series of questions:
What is the current capacity? and Is there excess capacity?
If there is excess capacity, is this a problem? Is underutilization a result of the nature of the fishery (e.g. highly variable stocks), the current market conditions (e.g. temporary price or cost fluctuations), or is it indicative of a serious problem of overcapacity?
What level of capacity is required in the fishery to meet the objectives of management?
What does this mean in terms of fleet sizes, effort levels and capacity utilization? Do we want a small fully utilized fleet or a larger underutilized fleet? How might this change over time (e.g. as a consequence of stock recovery)?
How do we move from the current situation to the desired situation?
Answering these questions, however, is more complex, as decisions need to be made how to measure capacity, and more critically, how to manage capacity if overcapacity is perceived to be a problem.
While capacity is a complex management problem, a carefully planned and coordinated research programme can result in comparable capacity estimates and an effective management programme that will reduce and even eliminate overcapacity in global fisheries without undermining, and perhaps even enhancing, other fishery management objectives.
Basic data collection will have to be augmented with economic information if net benefits from fishing are to be enhanced. Even though costly, this is a worthwhile activity since net benefits generated by the fishing industry could increase considerably if managed effectively.
A conceptual framework for management based on a multidisciplinary scientific model should be developed to determine what data need to be collected in each fishery, and second, to determine the direction of change and magnitude of impacts in each fishery from the adoption of fishery management regulations designed to reduce harvest capacity.
Estimates of overcapacity need to be discussed relative to seasonality in fisheries, mobility of fish stocks and fishers, and fluctuations in recruitment, for example, to determine what constitutes a level of overcapacity needing attention by fishery managers.
Capacity needs to be regularly monitored in each fishery of interest to ensure that the capacity levels are not rebounding once management regulations have been put into effect. Managers also need to discuss the steps needed to mitigate undesirable impacts of capacity reduction regulations on commercial and recreational fishermen, subsistence fishers, local communities, and fish stock abundance levels. These discussions are particularly important for shared stocks managed under regional management organizations and for developing nations that wish to have a share in the wealth that capacity management could generate in the future.
In the interim before such capacity reduction research and management programmes can be developed and adopted in global fisheries, steps can be taken to assess capacity levels in fisheries.
Where stock assessment data are available, output-based capacity estimates can be used to determine excess and overcapacity levels in specific fisheries. Where such data are not available, qualitative indicators can be used to determine if overcapacity could potentially exist in a fishery.
If three or more qualitative indicators suggest the existence of overcapacity, a finding of overcapacity for that fishery could be made. These qualitative indicators could be used to support development of a quantitative research and management programme to reduce or eliminate overcapacity in the future.
Since excess capacity and overcapacity in fisheries are essentially economic issues and the costs of correcting overcapacity could be substantial, benefits need to be maximized in any capacity management programme proposed to ensure that those who benefit compensate those who bear its costs. While a long-term potential yield in a fishery ensures the maximum sustainable harvest from a fish stock, it does not necessarily mean that the net benefits generated by the fishery are at a maximum. Developing long-term targets using maximum economic yield would ensure that management regulations that adjust fishers incentives to conserve fish stocks are chosen to reduce overcapacity in fisheries.
Although such an approach could result in fewer fishers in existing fisheries, alternative fisheries and increased employment could develop, for example, once bycatch levels are reduced. As overcapacity is eliminated, the increased net benefits from fishing could be shared and used to enhance developing countries and local communities.