Three pillars of sustainability in fisheries

Frank Asche, Taryn M. Garlock, James L. Anderson, Simon R. Bush, Martin D. Smith, Christopher M. Anderson, Jingjie Chu, Karen A. Garrett, Audun Lem, Kai Lorenzen, Atle Oglend, Sigbjørn Tveteras, Stefania Vannuccini (2018). “Three pillars of sustainability in fisheries.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  115 (44), 11221-1122. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1807677115


The United Nations proclaims that sustainable development comprises environmental, economic, and social sustainability. Fisheries contribute to livelihoods, food security, and human health worldwide; however, as the planet’s last major hunting and gathering industry, whether, and if so, how fishing can achieve all three pillars of sustainability is unclear. The relationships between environmental and economic sustainability, as well as between economic and social sustainability, continue to receive attention. We analyzed data from 121 fisheries worldwide to evaluate potential trade-offs. We found no evidence of trade-offs, and instead found that environmental, economic, and social objectives are complementary when fisheries are managed. Our results challenge the idea that the three pillars of sustainability are in conflict, suggesting that rights-based systems can be designed to support all three pillars.


Sustainability of global fisheries is a growing concern. The United Nations has identified three pillars of sustainability: economic development, social development, and environmental protection. The fisheries literature suggests that there are two key trade-offs among these pillars of sustainability. First, poor ecological health of a fishery reduces economic profits for fishers, and second, economic profitability of individual fishers undermines the social objectives of fishing communities. Although recent research has shown that management can reconcile ecological and economic objectives, there are lingering concerns about achieving positive social outcomes. We examined trade-offs among the three pillars of sustainability by analyzing the Fishery Performance Indicators, a unique dataset that scores 121 distinct fishery systems worldwide on 68 metrics categorized by social, economic, or ecological outcomes. For each of the 121 fishery systems, we averaged the outcome measures to create overall scores for economic, ecological, and social performance. We analyzed the scores and found that they were positively associated in the full sample. We divided the data into subsamples that correspond to fisheries management systems with three categories of access—open access, access rights, and harvest rights—and performed a similar analysis. Our results show that economic, social, and ecological objectives are at worst independent and are mutually reinforcing in both types of managed fisheries. The implication is that rights-based management systems should not be rejected on the basis of potentially negative social outcomes; instead, social considerations should be addressed in the design of these systems.

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