The European Commission advocate fisheries management based on Maximum Sustainable Yield

Published on July 8, 2006

“…it is time to manage European fisheries in a different way, looking for success rather than to seek merely to avoid failure”, these words are used in the introduction of the European Commission’s Communication on, “Implementing sustainability in EU fisheries through maximum sustainable yield”, published on the 5th July 2006.

Maximum Sustainable Yield

The Communication sets out the policy background to using maximum sustainable yield (MSY) as the basis from which to manage fisheries. It describes the policy approach that the Commission foresees in adopting MSY based fisheries management strategies, highlights the current levels of overfishing of EU stocks, describes the potential gains a MSY based approach has to offer and, invites Member States and the fishing sector to join the process in achieving MSY targets for all the EUs fish stocks.

MSY is defined as, “The largest average catch or yield that can continuously be taken from a stock under existing environmental conditions,” and, by and large, has remained a theory depicted on graphs used by fisheries scientists and economists rather than used as the overall goal of modern fisheries management. However, this is set to change following a commitment subscribed to by the European Community and Member States at the World Summit on Sustainable Development at Johannesburg in 2002. The commitment is to achieve sustainable fisheries by maintaining or restoring stocks to levels that can produce the MSY, where possible, by 2015.

In their Communication the Commission promote the implementation of fish stock management systems based on MSY, espousing that they will:

  • contribute to reversing the over exploitation of many of our fish stocks;
  • ensure that stocks will not collapse;
  • allow stocks and individual fish to increase in size;
  • create more fishing possibilities;
  • reduce fishing costs;
  • provide higher value per fish; and,
  • allow for greater guarantee of wealth.

They foresee that this will be achieved through long-term management plans, some of which are already being developed and implemented within the Community e.g. the multi-annual management plan for the Baltic Sea cod fishery . Such plans will aim to achieve an appropriate target rate of fishing for each stock, using a combination of incremental adjustments to TACs and fishing effort as well as technical measures.

The Commission highlight that of 43 stocks that were assessed by ICES in the North East Atlantic in 2004, 35 of them (81%) were overfished with only 8 being fished at levels that correspond to the highest yields. The extent of overfishing is on average 2 to 5 times above the fishing mortality level that would provide the highest yield, e.g. the North Sea cod stock is estimated to be fished 4.8 times harder than that needed to achieve a high yield, and the Baltic Sea cod is even higher, at 5.4 times.

The Commission say that this does not infer that TACs should be reduced by 2 to 5 times but considers that it will be possible to manage a gradual decrease in fishing mortality in such a way that only relatively small and temporary reductions in TACs is required.

The Communication recognises the likely economic and social effects the adoption of MSY based fishing regimes will likely have and highlights that structural adjustment of the industry – fishing fleets as well as the processing and ancillary sectors – will be necessary in the short term. It also highlights that Member States will need to decide and choose the pace of change and the level of financial assistance they make available through the European Fisheries Fund to help mitigate the social and economic impacts during the transitional phase of implementing these regimes before the economic benefits are realised.


It is not often that long term objectives are being established for fishery management and so a move to MSY based fisheries management will be a welcome and long overdue departure from the recent past and present crisis management that has been indicative of European and, in many other instances, global fisheries.

While there are clear biological benefits in increasing biomass and decreasing fishing mortality how quickly these benefits accrue will be critical with regard to the other elements of sustainability, i.e. economic, social and institutional.

To improve the chances of success there needs to be wide acceptance of harvest control rules and management measures. Economic loss will need to be buffered and expectations for stock recovery toward MSY must be made realistic so as not to cause loss of faith in an approach that has not had time to work.

Better data will be important in providing evaluation of MSY plans and the fishing industry should be encouraged to contribute more in providing this.

MSY is not easily applicable in multi-species systems. Target fishing mortality of productive species has to be set lower than FMSY in order that less productive species are not threatened.