Precautionary approach

We support fisheries management based on the best available science in order to maintain stocks at sustainable levels. In cases where science is uncertain, we strongly advocate for the precautionary principle. If the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) principle is aimed at achieving desired outcome (a high sustainable long-term yield), the precautionary approach is based on avoiding an undesired outcome, such as impaired recruitment.

The Common Fisheries Policy shall apply the precautionary approach to fisheries management, and shall aim to ensure that exploitation of living marine biological resources restores and maintains populations of harvested species above levels which can produce the maximum sustainable yield.


The concept of the precautionary principle (or precautionary approach), is an old notion in environmental science. Its origins can be traced back to the Vorsorgeprinzip in German environmental policies for polluted marine environments during the 1980s although the exact origin is somewhat unclear (Peel, 2005).


The precautionary principle has many definitions. Precaution, in the dictionary, is caution in advance, or “caution practised in the context of uncertainty“. The precautionary principle is a moral and political concept, sometimes with legal consequences, that precaution should be taken in the face of uncertain risks, for example, in the management of resources when information and data is scarce regarding the possible outcomes of certain actions. In February 2000, the European Commission issued a Communication on the precautionary principle, intending to clarify and set out guidelines for its use. Since its adoption in 2000, the precautionary principle has come to influence much EU policy, beyond environmental decisions.

The precautionary approach is an important management tool to use when uncertainties are high. In our work, we refer to the application of the precautionary principle as described in the UN Fish Stocks Agreement (UN, 1995): “States shall be more cautious when information is uncertain, unreliable or inadequate. The absence of adequate scientific information shall not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take conservation and management measures.”

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the European Commission and FAO have different interpretations of the precautionary principle (see below), which creates discrepancies in the implementation of this concept in European policy.

ICES refer to the UN Fish Stock Agreement (above) for defining precautionary approaches. In their work, ICES has incorporated a safety margin in its stock estimates, called Bpa, a “precautionary reference point for spawning stock biomass.”  The Bpa is “designed to have a low probability of being below Blim,” which is the “limit reference point for spawning stock biomass”. A standard value for Bpa = Blim × 1.4; thus, when “the spawning stock size is estimated to be above Bpa, the probability of impaired recruitment is expected to be low”. 

European Commission legal glossary definition: “an approach to risk management whereby if there is the possibility that a given policy or action might cause harm to the public or the environment and if there is still no scientific consensus on the issue, the policy or action in question should not be pursued. Once more scientific information becomes available, the situation should be reviewed”.

FAO: “States and subregional and regional fisheries management organizations should apply a precautionary approach widely to conservation, management and exploitation of living aquatic resources in order to protect them and preserve the aquatic environment, taking account of the best scientific evidence available. The absence of adequate scientific information should not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take measures to conserve target species, associated or dependent species and non-target species and their environment”.



Last updated: May 16, 2023

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