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Assessing and managing fishing capacity is vital to the future of capture fishing.
Assessing and managing fishing capacity is vital to the future of capture fishing.


Fishing capacity - the amount of fish (or fishing effort) that can be produced over a period of time (e.g. a year or a fishing season) by a vessel or a fleet if fully utilized and for a given resource condition - and the governance of fisheries to avoid overcapacity are unquestionably the most serious challenges of present-day fishery management.

The March 1995 Rome Consensus on World Fisheries, the November 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF), and the December 1995 Kyoto Declaration and Plan of Action noted the need for management of fishing capacity. Since then, the issues of capacity, capacity management and the problems of overcapacity - especially as a key threat to the long-term viability of exploited fish stocks and the fisheries that depend on them - have become essential elements of work to avoid the degradation of fishery resources, the dissipation of potential food production, and significant economic waste.

Overcapacity is a significant, if not the primary, reason for overfishing in domestic and global fisheries. As well as being biologically unsustainable, the level of overcapacity observed in the mid-1990s was also economically unsustainable, and many fisheries have come to rely on subsidies to persist. Over a decade ago Garcia and Newton estimated that world fishing capacity would need to be reduced by 25 percent for revenues to cover operating costs and by 53 percent for revenues to cover total costs.

Possible solutions

Overcapacity and overfishing (typically associated with overcapacity) are really symptoms of the same underlying management problem: the absence of well-defined property or use rights. Unfortunately, while the technical solution to this problem is to implement appropriately-designed rights-based fisheries management programmes, such solutions to this fundamental management problem are not simple because of concerns about the economic, financial, and short term food security impacts on fishers and fishing communities when addressing the problem that also need to be addressed as part of the design of programs to transition fisheries to rights-based management programmes.

Basically, there are two categories of fisheries management approaches that are used to manage fisheries.  In the first, there are management measures based on trying to prevent fishers from catching as many fish by, in essence, making it more difficult and more costly to operate. Measures in this category are called “incentive blocking measures” or “input controls” and include temporal, spatial, and/or gear regulations such as allowable fishing seasons/days, open and closed areas, mesh sizes, allowable gears, and engine or other vessel-related restrictions. Incentive blocking measures, unfortunately, do little to address the underlying causes of overcapacity and using these frequently leads to overcapacity.

Management measures from the second category (“incentive adjusting measures”) are being implemented in a growing number of fisheries around the world, but they are more contentious than input controls because they clearly determine who can catch which fish and how many fish can be caught.  However, where they have been implemented, rights-based measures in this category have tended to prevent the development of overcapacity (and overfishing) or, in situations where overcapacity already is present, limit, if not reduce, overcapacity.

Action taken

Adopted by the 23rd session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) in February 1999 and endorsed by the FAO Council at the session it held in November 2000, the International Plan of Action for the Management of Fishing Capacity (IPOA-Capacity) specifies a number of actions to be urgently taken with regards to the main section of the document:

  • assessment and monitoring of fishing capacity;
  • preparation and implementation of national plans;
  • international consideration; and,
  • immediate actions for major international fisheries requiring urgent attention.
The crowded fishing harbour at Madras, India.
The crowded fishing harbour at Madras, India.

Indeed, the immediate objective of the IPOA-Capacity is for "States and regional fishery organizations, in the framework of their respective competencies and consistent with international law, to achieve worldwide, preferably by 2003 but no later than 2005, an efficient, equitable and transparent management of fishing capacity".

The FAO fishing capacity program has been focusing on both "Urgent Actions" and "Mechanisms to Promote Implementation" that are mentioned in the IPOA/Capacity. Because of the strong linkages between management strategies and their effects on capacity. FAO has developed a multi-faceted approach, addressing: immediate issues of capacity - such as definition, detection, measurement, avoidance and reappearance of overcapacity; and more durable solutions involving the reduction of overcapacity - strategies for identifying, mitigating, and reducing overcapacity; and the linkages between management measures and their effects on capacity.

FAO activities that are most directly linked to overcapacity include: the development and dissemination of substantive matters relating to the capacity issue; the development and dissemination of practical information relating to the definition, measurement and reduction of capacity; the fundamental linkages between capacity problems and fisheries management measures; practical information on working to address and resolve the many challenges presented by managing fisheries and the issue of overcapacity; and ways and means for addressing, reducing and minimizing the recurrence of overcapacity.

Regionally, Regional Fishery Bodies (RFBs) and similar organizations - such as CCAMLR, FFA, GFCM, IATTC, ICCAT, IOTC, NAFO and SEAFDEC - continue their work relating to the implementation of the IPOA-Capacity and one such organization, the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization (LVFO), has developed the world’s first Regional Plan of Action for the Management of Fishing Capacity on Lake Victoria and its Basin.

At the national level, most States are working in some way to address fishing capacity. While some States have formally adopted (or plan to adopt) a NPOA-Capacity, considerable numbers have developed, or plan to develop, a NPOA-Capacity, and many have incorporated capacity considerations into their day-to-day fisheries management systems. Preliminary assessments of capacity at the fishery level have been undertaken by around three quarters of States responding to a 2004 FAO survey, and all of the major producers responding to the survey had undertaken preliminary assessments of capacity.

Not surprisingly, the major constraints and issues relating to capacity management that have been identified by Member States (and that are particularly serious for developing countries) include difficulties in finding alternative employment for displaced fishers, pressures imposed by industry (harvesting and processing) not to reduce fleets or catch, difficulties in monitoring-control-surveillance and a lack of institutional capacity to develop and implement capacity management plans as well as undertake the appropriate research required (e.g. stock assessments, capacity assessments).

Finally, work is also underway on related issues such as subsidies and other economic or financial incentives, and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.


The constraints to addressing capacity mean that free and open access, with the consequent problems of overcapacity and overexploited resources, remains a feature of many regions. Nonetheless, the work on identifying and addressing overcapacity reflects the commitment to ensuring the long-term biological and economic sustainability of fisheries resources around the world.

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