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Diagram of the precautionary approach in fisheries
Diagram of the precautionary approach in fisheries


Fisheries operate in a very extensive, complex, and interconnected system of aquatic ecosystems, with important natural fluctuations and possible long-term man-induced trends.

The functioning of the ecosystems is only partially understood. The various impacts of human activities, including fishing, and their potential reversibility are not completely understood. But with a few exceptions, the information available on the fisheries themselves is incomplete and often biased. As a result, the decisions related to fisheries development planning, management and conservation are made in a context of widespread uncertainty with potentially negative and possibly irreversible consequences for the resource, the environment and the people. Consequently, a precautionary approach is required with degrees of precaution proportionate to the degree of uncertainty, risk, and reversibility of the impacts. The conventional fishery management toolbox has always contained a number of such "precautionary" elements. Unfortunately, during the last half century, these elements have been either scarcely used or poorly enforced.

When uncertainty is low, preventive measures may be established. When the cost of a potential error is low, corrective measures may suffice. When both uncertainty, risk and costs become significant, risk assessment and management become necessary. Beyond a certain level of uncertainty and risk, considered unacceptable by society, bans and moratoria, prohibiting fishing (or aquaculture) may be put in place. In such cases, because of the potential economic and social impact, decisions will usually require negotiations between stakeholders.

Possible solutions

In order to reduce risk, the adoption and implementation of the precautionary approach is requested in a number of international instruments of importance to fisheries, inter alia:

  • Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) which states that "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall be not used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation".
  • The General Principles and Article 6.5 of the 1995 FAO International Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries which prescribe a precautionary approach to all fisheries, in all aquatic systems, and regardless of their jurisdictional nature, recognizing that most problems affecting fisheries result from insufficiency of precaution in management regimes when faced with the high levels of uncertainty encountered in fisheries.
  • The 1995 United Nations Fish Stock Agreement which developed a consensus on the need to introduce or strengthen the precautionary approach to fishery management, imbedding the concept in the draft text of its outcome, and outlining elements for its implementation.
Poor management decisions can affect an entire ecosystem
Poor management decisions can affect an entire ecosystem
Courtesy of NOAA/the National Estuarine Research Reserve Collection

Because uncertainty affects all elements of the fishery system in varying degrees, some degree of precaution is required at all levels of the system: in development planning, management, research, technology development and transfer, legal and institutional frameworks, fish capture and processing, fisheries enhancement and aquaculture.

Action taken

FAO took the lead by reviewing the implications of the precautionary approach for fisheries and imbedding the approach in the Code of Conduct and promoting its integration in the New York Fish Stock Agreement. FAO also developed, in collaboration with Sweden, technical guidelines for the precautionary approach to capture fisheries and species introduction, in support of the implementation of the Code of Conduct. The precautionary approach adopted recognizes that:

  • all fishing activities have significant impacts;
  • fisheries impacts are not negligible unless proved otherwise;
  • the complex and changing fishery system will never be perfectly understood;
  • scientific advice for management is therefore always affected by uncertainty;
  • management decision processes and sector's compliance add their own uncertainties;
  • impacts of fisheries on the system are therefore difficult to predict accurately; and,
  • consequences of management errors may be only slowly reversible.

As a consequence, and recognising that the conduct of fisheries requires that decisions are still made with incomplete knowledge, the approach requires inter alia that:

  • a level of precaution commensurate to risk be applied at all times to all fisheries;
  • it be applied systematically, i.e. in research, management and fishing operations;
  • potentially irreversible changes be avoided (to maintain options for future generations);
  • undesirable outcomes be anticipated and measures be taken to reduce their likelihood;
  • corrective measures be applied immediately and be effective within an acceptable time;
  • priority be given to conserving the productive capacity of the resource;
  • precautionary limits be put on fishing capacity on highly uncertain resources;
  • all fishing activities be subjected to prior authorisation and periodic review;
  • the burden of proof be appropriately (realistically) placed;
  • standards of proof commensurate with the potential risk to the resource be established; and,
  • the approach is formalized in a comprehensive legal and institutional framework.

The precautionary approach has now been widely-adopted by a number of fishery bodies (CCMALR, IPHC, IWC, ICES, NAFO, NASCO, ICCAT, MHLC, SEAFO), and its implementation is actively discussed in some others (APFIC, WECAF, GFCM) and advancing rapidly in ICES. The approach has also been indirectly applied by ITLOS in relation to the South Pacific Bluefin tuna case. It is also advancing rapidly in a few countries (e.g. the United States of America, Canada, Australia, South Africa). In all these cases, the precautionary approach has been largely confined to its biological elements and a more balanced application need to address social and economic risks as well.

Net being laid on the stern of a purse seiner
Net being laid on the stern of a purse seiner
Courtesy of NOAA

In fisheries, the practical implementation of the precautionary approach has progressed faster than in any other sectoral management framework. In addition, the representations needed (e.g. indicators and reference points) are also used in the sustainable development reference systems (SDRS) proposed by FAO for fisheries. The combination of the two concepts and their active implementation by regional fishery bodies represent a major change in the global fisheries management landscape with potentially significant implications for the resources and the sector. The outcome of the ongoing efforts has been:

  • determination of limit reference points materialising biological constraints and minimum requirements for sustainability;
  • determination of thresholds (or "buffers") to ensure that the limits are not accidentally violated;
  • improved methodology to evaluate uncertainty and the risk attached to it;
  • elaboration and evaluation of precautionary harvest control rules and assessment of their robustness;
  • the elaboration of rebuilding strategies and plans (and special control rules) for overfished stocks;
  • incorporation of uncertainty about the state of stocks into management scenarios;
  • improved communication between scientists and managers as to explicit uncertainty consideration and their impact;
  • more explicit statement of objectives by policy-makers as a basis for establishing target reference points;
  • development, adoption and implementation of precautionary fisheries management plans;
  • implementation of recovery plans for depleted resources; and,
  • more recently, participative risk assessment methods and processes have started to be systematically used (e.g. in Australia). 


More effort is needed to foster progress. As the subject is of utmost importance it seems likely that additional resources will be assigned and used for:

  1. identification, analysis, systematic organization and formal adoption of a limited number of reference points covering the ecosystem, economic, institutional and other social aspects;
  2. further identification of related sources of uncertainty and their impact in terms of risk; including for the human component of the fishery system;
  3. explicit relation of reference points to objectives of fisheries management and development policies as well as constraints imposed by the ecosystems and human well-being;
  4. appropriate co-representation of reference points as a means to convey in as simple a way as possible the issues, trade-offs, alternatives, etc. to managers, industry and the public;
  5. systematic analysis of the robustness of management strategies and processes to uncertainty;
  6. programme use of a "viability approach" (sensu Aubin, 1996) as part of the set of constraints to be determined acceptable trajectories for the fishery system; and,
  7. generalization of risk assessment, management and communication.
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