The Global Fishing Index assesses global and country-level progress towards fisheries sustainability: are countries effectively managing fisheries to end overfishing and restore fish stocks to sustainable levels of abundance?
Specifically, we asked three questions:
Our analysis included 1,439 stocks spanning 142 coastal countries and territories and focused on fisheries within each country’s national waters, a band of ocean that extends 200 nautical miles offshore from each country’s coastline. Together, these countries accounted for about 92 per cent of total global marine catches in 2018, our baseline year for data.2 In future editions, we aim to expand coverage to include additional countries and jurisdictions, including the high seas.
Along with stock status, we also highlight the data gap – that is, how much remains unknown about the state of a country’s fish stocks. To do this, we divided stocks into those that had been ‘assessed’ and those that were ‘unassessed’. Assessed stocks had official published stock assessment results or sufficient data to estimate current stock abundance, relative to unfished levels. Conversely, unassessed stocks lacked this information and were of unknown abundance.
All data and analyses were subject to strict internal quality control and assurance processes. Additionally, an independent assessment of the Progress score and Governance analyses was undertaken. Based on the activities, it has been determined that the analyses processes align to the agreed technical methods and documentation, and the analyses processes do not alter or manipulate the relevant dataset(s) beyond the stated intent and agreed technical methods.
Importantly, our results are only as good as the underlying information. Increasing global data collection, sharing and transparency in fisheries is key for driving not only future improvements to the Index – but our understanding of the state of fisheries.
Refer to the Technical Methods available on this page or the downloads page for a detailed explanation of the methods used by the Minderoo Foundation to produce the 2021 Global Fishing Index. The Technical Methods should be read in conjunction with the Global Fishing Index Key Insights report, Governance Conceptual Framework and Indicator Codebook.
What is the state of fish stocks, and how far have countries progressed toward restoring all stocks to sustainable levels?
To understand the global state of fisheries, we used publicly available information and reconstructed catch estimates generated by the Sea Around Us initiative to develop two metrics:
We combined these two metrics into a single Progress score, which captures each country’s level of progress towards achieving SDG target 14.4. This score ranges from 0 (no evidence of progress) to 100 (a system in which all catch has been assessed and all stocks are at or above sustainable levels).
In line with SDG target 14.4, the Progress score represents the biological sustainability of fish stocks, rather than ecological sustainability, and does not consider the broader impacts of fishing on marine communities or ecosystems. Despite their importance, with few exceptions, there is an absence of information and methods for assessing these broader aspects of sustainability at a global scale. However, we will explore these alternative ecosystem-based approaches in future iterations of the Index.
To calculate stock sustainability, we determined the proportion of assessed fish stocks at the global and country level estimated to be at or above a level of abundance that enables MSY. MSY is the maximum catch that can be continuously removed from a stock, under constant conditions, without affecting long-term productivity. MSY is the most common type of reference point used in fisheries to determine sustainability and is embedded in international policy, such as the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea.
We estimated the current level of abundance, relative to unfished levels (based on biomass – that is, the total mass of the population in tonnes) for as many stocks as possible within each country’s waters in 2018. This included fish stocks that occur completely within a country’s national waters (national stocks), stocks that are a shared responsibility of neighbouring countries (shared stocks), and stocks that move across multiple exclusive economic zones, are caught by many countries and are managed collaboratively by a regional fisheries body (straddling stocks), that were identified in a country’s reconstructed catch data.
Where available, we extracted relative abundance estimates from recent official3 stock assessments (527 stocks). Where stocks lacked a recent official assessment but had sufficient data publicly available, we used established data limited models – the Bayesian Schaefer Model (BSM) and an updated version of CMSY (known as CMSY++)4 – to produce novel estimates of relative abundance (912 stocks). To increase confidence in assessment results, we excluded any CMSY++ results that did not have robust estimates of ‘end biomass’, i.e. published or expert-based biomass estimates since 2014, to inform the model. These models rely on species’ productivity and catch time series data to estimate fisheries reference points, such as MSY and biomass, and were developed to help monitor stocks with little data.5 The addition of these new estimates substantially increased the scope and resolution of fisheries data globally and allowed for comparison across countries.
Next, we used the relative abundance estimates to classify the status of each stock. Stocks whose abundance was estimated to be at or above the level that produces MSY were classified as ‘sustainable’, while those whose abundance was below this level were classified as ‘overfished’. This approach recognises that MSY should be viewed as a lower limit, not a target for stock sustainability. Although the actual level of abundance that produces MSY varies across stocks based on their biological characteristics, we applied a single threshold for all stocks in our dataset. This approach enables direct comparison between countries and removes any incentive for countries to set lower, unsupported levels of MSY.
Specifically, our method assumes that MSY occurs at 50 per cent of unfished levels of stock abundance,6 with a 10 per cent margin of error, which means that a stock is considered ‘overfished’ if its current abundance is less than 40 per cent of its unfished abundance. Note, 219 stocks in our dataset were assessed based on spawning stock biomass (SSB) – the total weight of fish in a stock that are old enough to reproduce. In these instances, stocks with an SSB greater than or equal to 20 per cent of the unfished level of SSB were classified as ‘sustainable’, while those whose abundance was below this level were classified as ‘overfished’. These approaches for classifying stocks align with the method used by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).7
Finally, global and country-level stock sustainability metrics were calculated as the proportion of assessed stocks classified as ‘sustainable’ within the global dataset and within each country’s national waters, respectively.
We recognise that calculating MSY requires quantitative data and technical expertise, which is not available for all fisheries, and that in the absence of this data, other indicators of stock status can be used. We aim to incorporate other indicators that are used to assess stock status, such as risk-based approaches and indicator species, in future versions of the Index.
To fully understand the state of a country’s fisheries, it is important to consider not only what is known – that is, the state of assessed stocks – but also what is unknown. Quantifying how much remains truly unknown is a key challenge in fisheries. For example, we do not have a clear understanding of how many stocks exist in a country or region to calculate exactly how many remain ‘unassessed’.
In this version of the Global Fishing Index, we use catch as a proxy for understanding this knowledge gap. This is not a perfect proxy, as the ability to assess a large proportion of the catch depends on the size and diversity of fisheries in a country’s waters. For example, temperate countries’ fisheries are often dominated by a small number of species, while countries in the tropics have highly diverse, multispecies fisheries.
To calculate data availability, we quantified the proportion of the total reconstructed catch within each country’s waters from 1990 to 2018 that was represented by the assessed stocks in our dataset. We focused on this historical period to account for stocks that were previously abundant or caught in high amounts but have since been reduced to very low levels of catch.
First, we estimated the total reconstructed catch from within each country’s waters for this 29-year period. The Sea Around Us catch reconstruction process combines reported ‘official’ catch estimates with other information (such as trade records, seafood consumption rates, national employment data and vessel registries) to provide a more comprehensive and accurate estimate of total marine catch within a country’s national waters. In the absence of formally defined stock boundaries, species catches were split into stock-level catches using marine ecoregions.8 Marine ecoregions constitute ecologically distinct areas and were used to represent the geographical ranges of individual stocks within a species.
To estimate what proportion of the total catch has been ‘assessed’, we divided the combined catch (in tonnes) of the assessed stocks in our dataset by the total reconstructed catch within each country’s waters for 1990 to 2018.
Data on nationally managed catch
We also evaluated the proportion of ‘nationally managed catch’ that had been assessed for each country. This includes catches from national and shared stocks, but excludes catches from straddling stocks, such as tuna or other highly migratory species, that move across multiple exclusive economic zones, are caught by many countries and are managed collaboratively by a regional fisheries management organisation (RFMO).
To calculate data availability for nationally managed catch, we applied the same approach as that used to calculate the total data available, limiting the analysis to the catch from national or shared stocks only.
We multiplied each country’s stock sustainability and data availability scores to produce a single Progress score for each country, out of 100. This Progress score represents each country’s progress towards SDG target 14.4, in which all fish stocks are restored to sustainable levels of abundance.
We used the data availability for nationally managed catch to ensure a country’s Progress score reflects national performance and was not driven by regional management action. We ‘capped’ the score for any country with less than 10 per cent of their nationally managed catch assessed. The cap was set at the global median (23 out of 100). This cap has the effect of keeping these countries within the middle scoring range until the assessment threshold is met. Sixty-eight countries met the cap criteria, but only 26 scored higher than the cap value and had their score adjusted.
What governance mechanisms are in place to ensure fishing is sustainable?
Fisheries governance includes the economic, political and administrative systems that guide the regulation of the fisheries sector.9 This includes customary social arrangements alongside laws, policies and rules implemented by government, as well as through the private sector, including fisher organisations, seafood buyers and market-related measures.
With many stocks already below sustainable levels, failures in governance threaten fish stocks, the livelihoods of coastal communities and the food security of millions of people. To understand today’s situation, and highlight how we can turn it around, the Global Fishing Index assessed a country’s capacity to govern their fisheries sustainably.
To assess governance capacity, we followed the process outlined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for constructing composite indicators.10 This includes developing a conceptual framework, collecting data, scoring each indicator and weighting and aggregating the indicators, attributes and dimension scores to produce a single governance result for each country.
We focused on six areas of fisheries governance, referred to as ‘dimensions’, which are critical for ensuring sustainable fisheries (Figure 1). These dimensions were further broken down into 18 ‘attributes’, which represented specific, yet interconnected elements of governance and were measured using 72 indicators.
Figure 1: Six dimensions of governance assessed in each country. These dimensions comprise 18 attributes, which are measured using 72 indicators.
The six dimensions of governance
Policy and objectives:
evaluating a country’s laws and policies on fisheries, including its environmental, economic and social sustainability goals. This includes the ratification of key international agreements on fisheries management and conservation, as well as worker rights and safety in fisheries. This dimension also assesses harmful subsidies (government funding that enhances fishing capacity and is linked with overfishing).
assessing the resources, expertise and tools available to manage fisheries, including financial, technical and professional capacity. This dimension also assesses various management measures, particularly science-based measures, such as harvest control rules.
Information availability and monitoring:
measuring the range, quality and resolution of information available in each country to inform fisheries management and decision-making. This includes information about catch and fishing effort, the state of fish stocks and the size and structure of the fishing fleets operating inside a country’s national waters.
Level and control of access to fisheries resources:
assessing the extent to which fishing fleets (domestic and foreign) have access to a country’s fisheries. This dimension also assesses the diversity of tools used to regulate and monitor access, including fishing licence requirements and spatial zoning (e.g. marine protection or exclusion areas).
Compliance management system:
evaluating the strength of a country’s fisheries compliance and enforcement program, including monitoring and surveillance to detect illegal fishing and the use of sanctions to penalise infractions. This dimension also examines the perceived integrity of the fisheries authority and judicial system and the level of high-risk fishing activities, including flags of convenience vessels registered to foreign countries to evade regulation or tax.
Stakeholder engagement and participation:
assessing the capacity of stakeholders (including fishers, seafood processors, governmental and non-governmental organisations, research institutions and local communities) to meaningfully participate in fisheries governance and management processes, including whether the managing authority enables these interactions and whether the stakeholders have the capacity to engage, for example through fisher organisations.
Data collection and analysis
We collected governance data for each country using publicly available information including published datasets, reports and peer-reviewed journal papers. These data were supplemented with an online questionnaire and interviews with local fisheries experts, including government officials, scientists and academics, fishing industry representatives and non-government organisation (NGO) staff. We collected 274 completed questionnaires across 116 countries and conducted 216 interviews across 76 of the assessed countries. Data were collected between August 2019 and May 2020.
We used this data to score each of the 72 indicators (out of 100). Indicator scores were then averaged to produce attribute and dimension-level scores. We surveyed 43 experts (including government officials, NGO staff, academics and industry members) to understand the relative importance of each of the six dimensions for ensuring sustainable fisheries and calculating dimension-level weights. We then combined the six dimension-level scores to produce an overall weighted average assessment score (out of 100) for each country.
We used multiple decision criteria to convert the assessment scores to a Governance capacity level, ranging from very low (no evidence of a system for governing fisheries) to very high (representing a well-developed system with very high capacity to secure sustainable fisheries). This approach considers the strength of the governance system, based on the overall assessment score, as well as the level of balance across the dimensions, based on dimension-level scores (Table 1). This approach recognises that each of the six dimensions are crucial for ensuring a well-functioning governance system and that a high score in one dimension cannot fully compensate for a low score in another.
Where a country does not meet all required criteria, it was capped at the highest Governance capacity level in the lower balance criteria.
Table 1: Rubric used to determine a country’s Governance capacity to ensure sustainable fishing in national waters, between zero (‘Very low’) and 12 (‘Very high’), based on overall assessment score and balance across dimensions. A country must meet the assessment score and balance criteria to advance to the next capacity level.
We understand there is no single ‘best’ system for governing fisheries to achieve sustainable fishing. We also acknowledge that our assessments are biased towards a conventional, ‘top-down’ governance approach. Additionally, there will be cases where a country may score poorly for a specific attribute or dimension due to the indicators used, despite having an alternative system in place that may achieve the same outcome. We are working to improve our ability to recognise and measure alternative systems and approaches in future versions of the Index.
Our framework does not consider fishing activities conducted by a country’s fleet outside their national waters. As a result, fishing by ‘distant water fleets’ is assessed against the country in which the fishing occurs. We recognise that many countries do not have the capacity to monitor or enforce foreign fishing activities within their waters, and that governance of these fleets is also the responsibility of the vessel’s flag state – the country where the vessel is registered and whose flag it is authorised to fly. We will be addressing ‘flag state’ responsibilities and behaviour in future reports.
The governance results do not necessarily reflect the effectiveness of the elements in place. Achieving sustainable fisheries will depend on a country’s ability to implement and enforce policies, plans and management activities that are committed to ‘on paper’. Countries must first make these commitments and build the systems capable of effective governance. Then they must work to implement them fully and effectively.
Based on current Progress and Governance capacity, how are countries performing against SDG target 14.4?
We awarded each country a single overall grade, based on current performance and the outlook for restoring fish stocks and ensuring sustainable fisheries. The highest possible grade is A, followed by B, C, D, E and F.
Grades were determined based on a country’s Progress score and Governance capacity. First, the Progress score was used to identify the grading band. Progress scores between 0-10 represent ‘negligible progress’, Progress scores between 10-40 represent ‘limited progress’, Progress score between 40-70 represent ‘some progress’, Progress score between 70-90 represent ‘significant progress’ and Progress score between 90-100 represent achieving SDG target 14.4 and flourishing, sustainable fisheries. We then used the Governance capacity level to determine the final overall grade. Where a country had limited Governance capacity (i.e. level 5 or lower), it was downgraded, representing an increased risk of the over exploitation of fish stocks in the future and/or limited prospect of improvement from current levels of progress towards SDG target 14.4 (Table 2).
Countries fall into a grading band for different reasons, and it is important to review country-specific results and recommendations on our website.
Table 2: Rubric used to determine a country’s overall grade, based on its Progress score and Governance capacity.