The state of world fisheries and aquaculture 2022


Improving fisheries management

Objectives and targets

With less than ten years to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), accelerated transformative action is essential along the triple bottom line of ecological, economic and social sustainability. Blue Transformation9 offers significant opportunities to improve fisheries management to:

  • achieve secure equal rights to access resources, services and infrastructure, decent work and economic growth (SDGs 1, 8, 12, 14);
  • secure both nutritious foods and livelihood opportunities, with equal access to fisheries for women and men and reduced inequalities through social, economic and political inclusion of all (SDGs 2, 5, 10, 14); and
  • attain the sustainable and efficient use of inland and marine aquatic resources for responsible consumption and production (SDG 12).

To achieve these objectives, fisheries management must be science-based, context-specific, based on inclusive, transparent and multidisciplinary policies, and resulting in plans and actions developed in equitable ways. Managers must use targets based on both biological and social science parameters and, wherever possible, draw on local knowledge to establish management objectives and regulations, to collect, analyse and evaluate data, and to monitor fisheries management effectiveness. In coming sections, the necessary principles and transformative changes to improve fisheries will be discussed, including governance and policy reforms, effective management protocols, incorporation of innovative technologies and strong social protection systems.

Better governance and policy reform

The international community has adopted a legal framework for sustainable fisheries, recognizing the sector’s important role for food security and nutrition, economic development, protection of the environment and the well-being of people. The basic international instrument is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), adopted in 1982, which provides the legal framework for all maritime activities, including conservation and utilization of living marine resources.

In the early 1990s, the international community developed new approaches to fisheries and aquaculture management, embracing conservation and environmental as well as social and economic considerations. Under the auspices of FAO, several global instruments for fisheries management have been established. The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (the Code), adopted in 1995, provides detailed provisions for the responsible and sustainable management and use of living aquatic resources, with due respect for the ecosystem and biodiversity (FAO, 2021c). Voluntary in nature, the Code is probably the most cited, high-profile and widely diffused and used global fisheries instrument after UNCLOS. In its framework, four international plans of action and six international guidelines for responsible fisheries management have been developed, and two FAO legally binding agreements have been adopted addressing the issues of: (i) flag State responsibility in the high seas (the FAO Compliance Agreement); and (ii) port State responsibilities to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (the Port State Measures Agreement).

In 2021, FAO Members called for FAO to develop Voluntary Guidelines for Transshipment to ensure that all movements of fishery catches are sufficiently regulated, monitored and controlled to prevent IUU harvests being laundered into the supply chain (Box 14); the Guidelines will build on the primary responsibility of the flag State to implement regulations.


Transshipment – the transfer of catch from one fishing vessel to either another fishing vessel or a carrier vessel – is widely practised in all regions to reduce fishing operating costs and maximize fishing opportunities. The international community has for some time expressed concerns about the risks that transshipment represents in supporting illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing operations and related criminal activities. IUU fishing undermines national and regional efforts to manage fisheries sustainably and conserve marine biodiversity. IUU fishing distorts competition, puts legitimate fishers at an unfair disadvantage, and negatively impacts the well-being and food security of people in coastal communities, particularly in developing States and small island developing States.

An FAO in-depth study on transshipment,1 called for by the Thirty-third Session of the Committee on Fisheries (COFI, July 2018) and presented at its Thirty-fourth Session (February 2021), concluded that transshipment, if insufficiently regulated, monitored and controlled, can increase the risk of IUU-caught fish entering the food supply chain, and the analysis of transshipment practices showed that significant risks exist that transshipment contributes to laundering IUU-caught fish into the market.

The Thirty-fourth Session of COFI welcomed the study and called on FAO to proceed with developing draft voluntary guidelines for transshipment. The objective of these guidelines is to provide assistance for the development of transshipment regulations or the review of existing ones, with a view to integrating these within the broader regulatory framework, and to ensure compliance with existing regulations through standards for effective monitoring, control and surveillance. The FAO Secretariat has elaborated draft guidelines for this purpose, building on the primary responsibility of the flag State to implement transshipment regulations. The current draft introduces transshipment declarations and landing declarations, ensuring that all movement of fish is documented.

An expert consultation that brought together the best technical, operational and legal expertise from all regions was held in October 2021 to review the draft guidelines. A technical consultation is planned for 2022 to negotiate the voluntary guidelines for transshipment with a view to their adoption before submitting these to the Thirty-fifth Session of the Committee on Fisheries for review and endorsement.

Based on a biennial questionnaire, FAO monitors progress in the implementation of the Code and its related instruments. The self-reporting by FAO Members reveals informative trends along the themes of the Code; however, varying numbers of respondents over the years make detailed analysis challenging. While there has been progress, effective implementation of the Code and related instruments is hampered by limited budgetary means and human resources, incomplete policy and legal frameworks, and inadequate scientific research and information, particularly for developing States.

The success of global instruments and normative processes depends on regional efforts; they must be implemented and translated into actions at the country and regional levels, as appropriate. The United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement, an implementing agreement under UNCLOS, contains fisheries management principles and focuses on regional cooperation within regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs)and regional fisheries advisory bodies (RFABs), collectively referred to as regional fisheries bodies (RFBs). RFBs play a central role in fisheries management, cooperating to ensure common approaches on various cross-cutting issues, at both the global and regional levels and on specific technical matters. Some RFBs are under the FAO constitutional framework, but FAO also supports other RFBs, including through the Regional Fishery Body Secretariats’ Network, which fosters cooperation and facilitates consultation and sharing of experiences. FAO supports and oversees these processes and developments and assists with the strategic reorientation processes of some of its RFABs.

In areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), sustainable utilization of fisheries resources requires the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, which is the aim of the ongoing negotiations for a new international legally binding instrument (ILBI) under UNCLOS for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). FAO provides fisheries information and guidance on issues related to FAO’s mandate, and RFMOs assume a key role in supporting the implementation of the ILBI, particularly concerning area-based management tools and environmental assessments. In addition, the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreed during its twelfth Ministerial Conference on disciplines addressing fisheries subsidies with a focus on overfished stocks and IUU fishing. The associated WTO fisheries funding mechanism in support of the implementation of the new rules foresees a specific role for FAO to contribute with technical expertise.

In a time of challenges caused by overexploitation of natural resources, continued food insecurity and poverty, and changing climate, the international community increasingly recognizes the importance of regional and international cross-sectoral collaboration and cooperation in facilitating achievement of the objectives set out by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The outbreak of COVID-19 has strongly reaffirmed this and reasserted the central role of cross-sectoral cooperation to address the challenges of global fisheries governance. Initiatives to enhance cross-sectoral collaboration among regional seas organizations and RFBs, to further strengthen their complementary roles in supporting local, national and regional implementation, are ongoing with the concerted support of FAO, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Secretariat, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). These organizations need to strengthen further their collaboration, including through the Joint Working Group on IUU fishing and related matters.

Better management and production

Ecosystem considerations

The ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) was adopted in 2003 by the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) as the overarching framework for fisheries management and development and it laid out several significant principles:

  • First, all fisheries should be managed and, to do that, they should be assessed.
  • Second, management should be precautionary and tailored to the specific characteristics of each fishery system.
  • Finally, both fisheries assessment and management should be participatory, based on best available knowledge, and should cover, in an explicit and balanced way, the ecological, social and economic dimensions of fisheries.

These principles – and the need to consider the interactions and interdependencies between multiple components of the ecosystem and to balance ecological, economic and social benefits – have been widely accepted by most organizations and fora dealing with fisheries management. However, implementation of the EAF has yet to fully transform fisheries management, and imbalances remain in the way ecological, social and economic dimensions of fisheries are considered across regions and countries.

Managing a fishery in accordance with the EAF requires identification of the relevant elements in an ecosystem and the linkages between them. This is doable in the case of highly developed large-scale fisheries, but it is a daunting task in the context of data-poor, multispecies fisheries, in particular small-scale fisheries. Although the information needs are much broader under the EAF than in conventional fisheries management and assessment, new skills and tools and multidisciplinary approaches can provide the basis for a sound analysis and management.

Management outcomes can be measured using simple indicators (preferably developed with the participation of stakeholders) (Box 15). Fishers and other fishery stakeholders have a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be directly applied in fisheries management. The responsible entities should focus on facilitating participatory and collaborative approaches and governance processes such as co-management or citizen science, in order to empower stakeholders by developing their capacities and reducing conflicts while facilitating adaptive management. This is an efficient way to achieve sustainability – ecological, social and economic – in a changing environment.


Fisheries management encompasses a system of suitable, science-based objectives implemented through context-specific strategies, regulations and tools. This includes a system for encouraging compliance and monitoring to ensure that management can adapt and adjust to unforeseen deviations from the planned path. Effective management systems can achieve social and economic benefits while maintaining the sustainable production of fishery resources and the function and structure of the ecosystem they depend on. Where fisheries are effectively managed, fishery stocks are above target levels or rebuilding, ensuring the sustainable production of fisheries resources.1

However, assessing and measuring management effectiveness should go beyond simple metrics of whether stocks are at sustainable levels and should assess whether the main elements of such systems are well designed and effectively implemented. Although management systems are as diverse as the fisheries they target, effective fisheries management requires four basic processes: (i) a legal framework for a legitimate mandate to manage fisheries; (ii) an appropriate institutional arrangement; (iii) inclusive and participatory decision-making processes; and (iv) mechanisms to implement regulations, monitor their effectiveness and ensure accountability. Within each of these processes, there are actions and strategies that need to be tailored to the contextual (e.g. socio-economic, ecological and cultural) realities of the areas of operation of the fisheries.

Several attempts have been made in developing and implementing systems to measure fisheries management effectiveness, including management effectiveness in exclusive economic zones,2 the Fisheries Management Effectiveness component of the Ocean Health Index3 and the Fisheries Management Index.4 These initiatives have both commonalities (e.g. similar elements of the management systems were identified as critical) and differences (e.g. some were specific to fishery stock while others were at the national level) and have had different degrees of success at generating high-level information on the effectiveness of management systems at a regional or global level. Yet, measuring effectiveness at more localized levels aimed at supporting national agencies to identify strengths and weaknesses in their management processes requires specific in-country efforts to capture information from multiple sources in a participatory, multi-stakeholder manner. Equally important, any system aimed at measuring management effectiveness needs to consider the different contexts in which the fishery systems are embedded. For instance, the EAF Implementation Monitoring Tool has been designed to help countries monitor progress and achievement in the implementation of the ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) as well as identify gaps and challenges where greater efforts are required to improve the country´s national fisheries management.5

Developing and monitoring a national system for measuring fisheries management effectiveness that includes both process (i.e. whether key elements and steps of fisheries management are in place) and outcome indicators (i.e. whether the intended social, economic and ecological objectives and targets are met) is critical in the quest for improving fisheries management globally. The effective implementation of these systems will entail additional efforts in improving data and information as well as inclusivity, accountability and transparency to provide a real-time participatory view of the performance of fisheries management goals, indicators and strategies.

Tenure, rights and co-management

There are numerous societal objectives that can be met by fisheries resources and aquatic ecosystems to improve human well-being and equity between various stakeholders while ensuring that the systems that sustain these services are not irretrievably compromised. The EAF facilitates explicit and balanced consideration of the wide range of ecological, social and economic objectives that fisheries resources and aquatic ecosystems offer, and it requires engagement and co-management involving a broad range of stakeholders in the prioritization of objectives and management decision-making.

The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security10 and the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (SSF Guidelines)11 support achieving the EAF triple bottom line. Both guidelines help to clarify who should engage in objective-setting and management decision-making and how and when – not only in fisheries, but also in a broader range of sectors operating around the same environment. In doing so, the interconnections and relations among persons, groups and entities with stakes in living aquatic resources – the webs of interest – become apparent, opening the way for constructive dialogue, collaboration and shared solutions.

Collaboration inevitably requires trade-offs, which means foregoing some aspects of a sector to accommodate others. Nonetheless, recognizing the tenure and the rights of access to and use of fisheries and fisheries-related resources by fisherfolk and their communities helps highlight the interactions and connections between human needs associated with better food, income and livelihoods (including fishing), sustaining better aquatic ecosystems and improving production.

Inland fisheries

Inland fisheries invariably take place in multiple-use environments and are often considered secondary activities to domestic water use, industry, hydropower generation and agriculture that abstract, store and pollute water, or degrade and disrupt natural aquatic ecosystems. Managing inland fisheries in this context is a challenge since fisheries authorities do not usually regulate activities beyond the fisheries sector, and relevant agencies can include, inter alia, departments and ministries responsible for water resources, agriculture, forestry, health, environment, tourism and other extractive uses.

As a result, collaborative efforts of varying scope are required at diverse levels and need to be interlinked. At the central level, an inter-agency arrangement may be established to address cross-sectoral issues of national interest such as food and nutrition security and achieving the SDGs. At the local end of the spectrum, a water management committee with the participation of farmers, fishers, foresters and local authorities may decide on actions to be taken regarding the regulation of local water resources and the equitable distribution of benefits and costs.

This holistic approach at several levels enables the recognition of larger-scale, longer-term issues and their viable solutions across sectors. It reduces conflicts, especially between different fishery sub-sectors and between fisheries and other sectors, because it requires clear articulation of the needs of inland fisheries for water and broader ecosystem health as well as the underlying economic, environmental and ecological justification for this. The role of fisheries managers will be to advocate for the sector to trigger support and access to financial resources from the government, donors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector.

Effective monitoring and enforcement

The success of the framework of binding and non-binding international instruments that guide responsible fisheries management (see the section Better governance and policy reform) cannot be guaranteed without effective monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS), enforcement, strengthened national-level inter-agency coordination and increased information exchange.

Effective MCS needs to build a culture of compliance and law enforcement. In this regard, more attention needs to be given to: enforcement of MCS plans and protocols; regular capacity-building and training; use of risk analysis12 to target actions; and sharing of MCS and enforcement information. Coordinated action is needed to support developing States in strengthening their MCS, and this coordination can be achieved through FAO’s Global Capacity Development Portal (FAO, 2021c).

The need for inter-agency cooperation and coordination is often neglected, despite gaps repeatedly identified at the national level. Efforts need to focus on the establishment of formalized inter-agency mechanisms (FAO, forthcoming, a) that aim to: (i) identify the mandates and roles of respective agencies; (ii) identify the availability of pooled resources, assets and information; and (iii) establish clear procedures for cost-effective implementation of the provisions of relevant international instruments that guide responsible fisheries management.

Finally, although recognized as essential for effective MCS and enforcement, information collection and exchange are often neglected. For effective fisheries management, the relevant authorities must have sufficient information to fulfil their mandates. Information, however, is often not available or not in a useful format or time frame. The international community is working to put together a framework for global information exchange that should obviate barriers built around confidentiality, proprietary use of data, security, lack of standardization and timeliness. Efforts are focused on developing international tools – such as the FAO Global Record of Fishing Vessels (FAO, 2021e) and the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) Global Information Exchange System (GIES, currently in the pilot phase) – upgrading or developing regional and national systems as required, and establishing links or synergies between these and the systems of other government institutions mandated to manage sectors using aquatic resources.

Best practices, innovations and technologies for improving fisheries management

Technological advances are becoming instrumental for the MCS of effective implementation of conservation and management measures. From personal mobile devices to satellites, cutting-edge technologies are more and more accessible and affordable to wider States’ authorities, allowing for a transformational leap in fisheries management.

Innovations in fishing technologies are contributing to the economic performance and management of fishing fleets worldwide. However, while industrial and semi-industrial fleets in Europe, North America and East Asia are early adapters of new technologies, the uptake of innovations is slower in small-scale fisheries in developing countries. Technological innovations introduced in fishing fleets and fishing gears are reported in The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020 (FAO, 2020a) and have been updated recently (Van Anrooy et al., 2021). Innovations that improve fisheries management include not only the use of global positioning system (GPS), vessel monitoring system (VMS), Automatic Identification System (AIS), e-logbooks and e-monitoring, but also other technologies that increase fishing efficiency, reduce the environmental impact of fishing, and improve safety at sea, the working conditions of fishers on board vessels and quality of aquatic products.13

Challenges to adoption of innovations in fisheries management include moving from paper-based approaches to digital tools and methods (Box 16), timeliness of reporting, and the need for cost-effective solutions to strengthen monitoring of small-scale fishing vessels, long-distance fishing fleets and transshipment operations. Solutions to these challenges are being found, with their adoption accelerated following the onset of COVID-19.


The Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (SSF Guidelines) state that:

All parties should promote the availability, flow and exchange of information, including on aquatic transboundary resources, through the establishment or use of appropriate existing platforms and networks at community, national, subregional and regional level, including both horizontal and vertical two-way information flows. Taking into account the social and cultural dimensions [of SSF], appropriate approaches, tools and media should be used for communication with and capacity development for small-scale fishing communities.1

Likewise, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 9c calls to significantly increase access to information and communications technology (ICT) and to strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.

Digitalization is increasingly proving efficient as an innovative tool for inclusion of small-scale producers, including small-scale fisheries, in natural resource management processes and value chains. When ICTs are locally led or co-developed, taking into account the needs of end users and marginalized groups, or contribute to strengthening existing networks and inclusive technologies, the potential for positive impact is much higher.2 There is little doubt that ICTs hold potential to improve the lives of small-scale fisheries actors, but to bridge the digital divide, ICT4SSF development should be ethical, transparent and orientated specifically to meet the needs of the poor and the marginalized. For example, in fisheries monitoring systems, co-generated and co-owned data foster transparency and accountability, and they enable small-scale fisheries actors to have an active role in decisions in resource governance. However, given the unequal accessibility to information between sexes, individuals, groups, communities or businesses, ICT development must be mindful of how to add value for small-scale fisheries actors to achieve SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities) and to ensure no one is left behind.

Conscious of the challenges ahead, numerous innovative solutions based on existing technologies have been developed to focus not only on the compilation of accurate information on fishing activities regardless of where they occur, but also on its timely accessibility by all stakeholders. Some of them use, inter alia, sophisticated satellites to provide images and close to real-time information on ships’ movements and identities. Others use remote electronic monitoring tools that employ on-board cameras to compile independent and accurate information about commercial fishing activities. To the same end, new electronic recording and reporting system devices have been developed, and progress has been made in integrating artificial intelligence to assist in the analysis of the significant amount of fisheries-related data generated by the new technologies. The use of drones is an innovative and economical solution for enhanced fisheries control and surveillance capacity. Lastly, due to the importance of having access to timely and relevant information for international cooperation to combat IUU fishing and improve transparency, global information sharing tools such as the FAO Global Record and the GIES under the PSMA are increasingly recognized as essential to support effective MCS.

Better lives: social protection and decent work

Social protection and decent work have been recognized as priority issues in several international instruments14 and regional consultations led by FAO. Recently, FAO, IMO and ILO have joined forces to shape the fisheries sector of tomorrow by promoting safety and decent work in fisheries through the application of international standards.15 However, at the national level, most of these instruments are still not fully adopted or implemented.16 The sector is still struggling with poor enforcement of labour legislation, infringements on small-scale fishers’ rights, child labour and barriers to access social protection, including a lack of updated fishers and social registries.

Based on Chapter 6 of the SSF Guidelines, expert advice, wide consultations and policy dialogues among key stakeholders, FAO calls on Member countries to enhance social protection and decent work in fisheries by:

  • implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (United Nations, 2011) through the development of national action plans, including the provision of access to remedy human rights violations, as a basic standard to prevent, mitigate and remedy business-related human rights impacts;
  • ratifying and implementing the ILO Work in Fishing Convention, 2017 (No. 188) to improve working and living conditions on board fishing vessels and assist the enforcement of other fishery agreements;
  • encouraging relevant training and capacity-building with respect to labour laws and vocational skills of fishworkers to support fishers to build and strengthen their professional organizations and trade unions to empower their political participation in the sector and beyond;
  • improving information and registry of fishers, in particular small-scale fishers, and fishworkers to ensure inclusion of the fisheries sector in the design of social protection schemes and access of fisherfolk to these programmes;
  • ensuring coherence between fisheries policies and social protection policies and programmes; and
  • taking into account the clear linkages between IUU fishing and decent work deficits and considering coordinated action and cooperation involving relevant administrations and organizations at the national and regional levels to address these deficits.

When aligned with fisheries management measures within the EAF, social protection programmes and fisheries management that account for decent work and human rights can positively impact both resource conservation and the protection of fisherfolks’ livelihoods. For example, the results from an impact evaluation by Seguro Defeso (the unemployment insurance scheme in Brazil) during fishing closures showed that the greater the household exposure to the programme’s benefits, the higher the percentage of children enrolled in school, the better the quality of the beneficiaries’ housing and the lower the percentage of youth simultaneously out of school and out of work. The results also indicated that the programme mitigated the need to seek alternative employment and that in some communities, fishers who benefited from the insurance scheme were less likely to break the closed season bans (FAO, forthcoming, b).

Supporting fisheries management in data- and capacity-limited regions

Sustainable capture fisheries is a common goal for all countries and a major target of SDG 14 (Life below water), yet countries’ capacity to take the necessary action differs considerably. There is currently a clear gap between developed and least developed countries in terms of technical and institutional capacities (Ye and Gutierrez, 2017) across the three main steps in fisheries management: (i) data and information gathering and processing; (ii) assessment and production of management advice; and (iii) enforcement, monitoring and reporting of management measures.

Capacity development initiatives are needed to cover all these processes. The importance of tailored approaches that can be implemented within the constraints of financial and human capacity limitations and the complex governance challenges for developing world fisheries cannot be overstated. For example, promoting complex models that are data-intensive and catered primarily to the developed world as the basis for catch allocations or determining fleet capacity has shown its limitations, being unrealistic for most of the world’s fisheries, particularly inland and small-scale fisheries (Hilborn et al., 2020). Fortunately, the past 50 years of capacity development in fisheries management have taught some valuable lessons about what sort of processes are fundamental to increase countries’ capacity to achieve effective fisheries management (Table 15).


NOTE: EAF = ecosystem approach to fisheries.

For several decades, FAO has been active in supporting countries in enhancing their fisheries management capacities through, for example, training in data collection and sampling protocols, data-limited stock assessment methods, design of management plans aligned with the EAF, and implementation of systems to monitor compliance of management measures. This support has evolved over time responding to new global and regional challenges and the needs of recipient countries, but additional support is needed for fishers’ and fishworkers’ organizations through training in fisheries management, negotiation skills, leadership and communications, among others, to ensure successful co-management (Gutierrez, Hilborn and Defeo, 2011). Moreover, capacity development within RFBs can be cost-effective to increase countries’ technical and institutional capacities.

While specific projects or one-time interventions can assist countries in providing short-term solutions, capacity development programmes should be long-term and continuous in order to facilitate ownership of the necessary knowledge and provide lasting impacts in achieving effective management. Other obstacles outside the realm of capacity development initiatives include high turnovers of staff, political instability and shortages of funds.

back to top TOP