Bigger Fish to Fry…?

   The truth is that we will never save wildlife by killing it.

Steve Irwin


In her book “Governing the Commons”, Elinor Ostrom explains how fisheries are a Common-Pool Resource (CPR). A CPR is different from a private or a public good.


Private goods have what Ostrom calls “high subtractability”; a bowl full of sweets in your office works like this, taking one reduces the chances of someone else eating the sweets. But private goods also have restricted access (or low difficulty of excluding potential beneficiaries); the sweets are there but someone is safeguarding them. Think of a chicken farm or a department store.

Public goods are difficult to exclude and it applies to everyone (low subtractability); imagine virtual sweets, as taking one does not reduce the pool and everyone has access. Health, safety and knowledge are all public goods.

In contrast, common-pool resources have high subtractability, meaning that taking from the CPR reduces the pool size for everyone else; taking a candy from the bowl reduces the chances of someone else eating sweets. And, it is hard to exclude beneficiaries since everyone has access to the resources; everyone who passes through the office can take a candy.

The movie Forrest Gump has one of the clearest examples of common-pool resources; when Forrest and lieutenant Dan first began to fish shrimp, they couldn’t find any because the other boats were ahead of them. But after a hurricane, when all other boats were damaged, they were the only ones shrimping and became rich.

In this tale, if the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company took more than it should, their business would become unmanageable since fish stocks are common-pool resources, if a fisherman takes more than a fair share, others end up having less, and if overfished, everyone loses.

In some settings, however, rampant opportunistic behavior severely limits what can be done jointly without major investments in monitoring and sanctioning arrangements.” Ostrom, 2005.

Fishing as much tuna as you can may be a short-term gain for one business, but if fisheries want their business to endure, they must adopt sustainable approaches. These actions can be the result of a simple joint effort between beneficiaries, and in fact, these have been proven to be a solution which assures the environmental sustainability of the fish stocks, benefits the fisheries’ long-term economy, and the fishermen’s social values through collaboration.

Currently, there are several fisheries who apply these principles and follow strict guidelines of quantity, size and even gender of fish which are usually set by the participants.

Nevertheless, the efforts made at the beginning of the supply chain are in vain if they are not supported by distribution and consumption. It is becoming more common to find retailers who, as part of their strategy, only sell fish from sustainable fisheries. The UK-based Sustainable Fish Coalition in which companies can voluntarily agree to meet responsible sourcing of fish is a great example of what can be achieved.

There is still a lot to be done in most countries of the world, and balancing the environmental benefits against the local economy often results in the overexploitation of the oceanic resources.

Today marks the second United Nations World Tuna Day. Actively promoting collaborations such as the Sustainable Fish Coalition, not only assures sustainable development, but also increases the awareness in an influential way and helps to build a better world for all.

Support sustainable fisheries and apply this in your purchasing decisions by using this simple list

Take care of the small fry so there’s always a bigger fish to fry!


This blog was written for us by Felipe Gaitan, Environmental Strategist.

Wish to learn more about common pool resources?

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