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McKinsey on Society


Voices The Socially Conscious Consumer

A sustainable fish story

Sheila BoniniSenior Expert
McKinsey & Company

Bio to go here.

Nakul SaranExpert
McKinsey & Company

Fisheries employ 180 million people worldwide; they also provide a significant percentage of the animal protein consumed globally, particularly in developing economies. Fish and fishery products are among the most widely traded agricultural commodities, with exports worth more than $109 billion in 2010.1 But marine fisheries today are under pressure. Overfishing has hurt many important fisheries. Some have recovered, but on balance overfishing has impoverished the global marine ecosystem and with it many of the communities that depend on it.

Some important strides have been made to tackle the problem. Socially conscious consumers can buy fish that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and other international certifying bodies have approved as coming from healthy fisheries. But only a small percentage of the world’s fishing stock is certified. The MSC reports that more than 11 percent of global fishery landings have either been certified as sustainable by the council or are working toward that goal, up from 7 percent of all landings in 2007.

Q.Should governments have the power to impose fishing quotas on private, recreational fishers?
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That’s not enough to meet seafood demand from Walmart shoppers, let alone consumers in general, as Walmart sustainability director Andrea B. Thomas points out in this edition of Voices on Society. To confront the issue, the giant retailer requires all its fish suppliers to have a fishery-management program, with the goal of encouraging the entire fishing industry to gradually improve its sustainability practices.


One of the most promising ways to address overfishing involves not giant factory trawlers but small charter boats and even surfcasters on the beach. Our research suggests that fishery managers can significantly boost sustainability by providing proper incentives to recreational fishers, in addition to conducting certification and fishery-management programs.

There are about 700 million recreational fishers worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and they represent a sizable share of fish consumers for many fisheries. The Gulf of Mexico, for example, is one of the world’s most significant recreational fisheries, with close to three million fishers taking some 21 million fishing trips in 2010.2 It is the ninth largest body of water on the planet and contains some of its most productive fisheries. In 2011, commercial fishers harvested 802,074 metric tons of fish and shellfish from the Gulf, and recreational fishers another 34,358 tons3 — both up considerably from a poor year in 2010, when many fisheries were closed for part of the year because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Red snapper is an especially significant species in the Gulf of Mexico. It yields the third highest value of commercially caught species and is the sixth most caught species by volume in the Gulf. There is such heavy demand for red snapper in the Gulf region that only about 10 percent of commercial red snapper is shipped elsewhere. Within the Gulf region, the value of red snapper is multiplied three to nine times between the time it is harvested and when it is sold at retail.

When we researched the red snapper fishery in 2010, we found that this heavy demand had created significant pressure from both the commercial and, especially, the recreational sectors. Unlike the Gulf fishery as a whole, recreational fishers dominate red-snapper fishing. Although the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) allocates 49% of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) to recreational fishers, in practice the recreational sector takes significantly more than its allotted share every year because of overfishing and dead discards.4

There are three main recreational fishing segments: charter operators, so-called “head boats” or party boats (boats that take out multiple fishers who are charged by the head), and private fishers. We found that perverse incentives within the fishery-management structure had led to ever-increasing fishing activity in all three segments. For example, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) limited fishing seasons as a way to reduce fishing pressure on red snapper. However, uncertainty about the length of the following year’s season created a contest to catch as many fish as quickly as possible among private fishers and charter-fishing operators, whose revenues depended primarily on maximizing the number of days available to take customers fishing. That led the GMFMC to further shorten seasons, catalyzing even more competitive fishing derbies.

Another factor driving this “race to fish” was the traditional management practice of placing an overall limit on how much fish could be harvested and allowing fishers to compete for the largest possible share. Intense competition led to overharvesting, and individual fishers had no incentives to practice good stewardship.

In addition, the GMFMC implemented a combination of low bag limits and high minimum-size requirements for recreational fishers. This also led to undesirable consequences. Although each recreational fisher can only keep two fish per day, it is widely acknowledged that many fish, most of them dead, are thrown back before two are taken home.5 The minimum size requirement also encourages fishers to throw many fish back when they might otherwise have kept those fish and stopped fishing for the day.

Some of the GMFMC’s moves have been more successful. Commercial fishers have been subject to an individual fishing quota (IFQ)—a limit for each fisher, rather than a fishery-wide limit for all participants— for some years, which is an important reason why the commercial red snapper fishery has become more sustainable.


It has proven harder to achieve sustainability on the recreational side. Although most recreational fishers had a strong desire to preserve the red snapper fishery, our analysis suggested that they lacked the tools and appropriate management guidelines to do so. Between 1991 and 2008, the annual recreational harvesting allocation was exceeded 13 times. In 2008, the total allowable catch for recreational fishers was exceeded by almost 100 percent.

This figure excludes dead discards, or fish that are returned dead or dying into the water because they are either not the target of the fishing activity or because fishing regulations prevent retention based on their species, size, sex or weight. Dead discards are a serious threat to sustainability. While there is no way of knowing exactly how many fish are thrown back before two are taken home, our interviews with experts and fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico fishery suggested a rate of discard mortality of approximately 1.2 times the weight of harvested red snapper

Reducing the dead-discard rate would have a significant impact on fishery sustainability. The model we built showed that even without collecting real-time data or enforcing strict adherence to fishing quotas, there could be a significant positive biological and economic impact on the entire fishery (and all groups that use it) if recreational fishers took the initiative to improve their catch-and-release practices to lower the dead-discard rate. Reduction of dead discards through better equipment, increased education, and punitive fines for high-grading (selectively harvesting higher-quality fish and discarding the rest) can improve the health of the stock as well, thus helping to enable longer recreational-fishing seasons.

Reducing the dead-discard mortality rate would make a big difference. But even if that proves hard to achieve, the fishery can still be made sustainable, if recreational fishers stick to their limits. For this to happen, the fishery-management council must provide the tools and incentives to increase accountability and promote adherence to fishing quotas.

Private fishers respond to different incentives compared to charter and head boat operators, suggesting that the two groups might best be managed separately. Measures likely to engage private fishers in sound fishery stewardship include voluntary reporting, angler-certification programs, and tournament fishing. These steps can all increase accountability and potentially help private fishers avoid overharvesting.

For charter and head boat operators, an IFQ system might be put in place. Charter and head boat operators can collect and report the necessary data. Adopting such a system would enable them to manage their catch levels to gain longer, more lucrative fishing seasons.6 Our 2010 modeling indicated, however, that even with an IFQ system in place for the charter sector, the recovery target for the red-snapper fishery would not be achieved by 2032.

Most likely it will take some combination of reducing dead discards, improving compliance with limits, and extending the IFQ system. Catches by recreational fishers represent an important part of total fish landings in the United States and other countries with significant recreational fisheries. The Gulf of Mexico red-snapper case illustrates the fact that recreational fishers have a vested interest in promoting healthy, sustainable fish populations. A smart incentive program for recreational fishers could help fishery managers work collaboratively with them to sustain fisheries.

The research on which this article is based was conducted in collaboration with California Environmental Associates, UC Santa Barbara and the Environmental Defense Fund.

  1. Overview: Major Trends and Issues, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (
  2. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  3. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
  4. Based on NMFS data, we estimate that recreational fishers exceeded their Total Allowable Catch by nearly 100 percent in 2008, and by 44% in 2009, excluding dead discards.
  5. While there are gear restrictions that can help reduce the mortality of fish that are thrown back, we used a conservative estimate of the dead-discard rate of 1.2 times the harvest, based on interviews with fishers.
  6. Continuous monitoring of catch levels is needed to track trends and to evaluate the impact of regulations or other changes. Without good monitoring and data on catch, it is difficult if not impossible to implement a catch-share program.

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