Human behaviour: The key source of uncertainty in fisheries management

Elizabeth A. Fulton, Anthony D.M. Smith, David C. Smith, Ingrid E. Van Putten

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

428 Scopus citations


There is broad consensus that the main problem facing fisheries globally is too many boats chasing too few fish. Unfortunately it is also possible to argue that there are too many proposed solutions and not enough practical answers to improving fisheries management. There is a deepening divide between those who propose alternative regulatory controls on fishers, including establishing large areas permanently closed to fishing, and those who argue for better alignment of incentives combined with broad participation of resource users in fishery management decisions (in simple terms, between top down and bottom up systems of governance). However despite the choice of policy instruments used, a consistent outcome is that resource users behave in a manner that is often unintended by the designers of the management system. Hence whilst uncertainty is broadly recognized as a pervasive feature of fisheries management, to date most of the attention has focussed on only part of that uncertainty - scientific uncertainty about the status of exploited resources. The effect of uncertainty generated on the human side of fisheries science and management has received much less attention. However, the uncertainty generated by unexpected resource user behaviour is critical as it has unplanned consequences and leads to unintended management outcomes. Using empirical evidence of unexpected resource user behaviour and reviewing current responses to unexpected management outcomes, we identify different approaches that both improve prediction of human behaviour in fisheries systems and identify management measures that are more robust to these sources of uncertainty. However, unless the micro scale drivers of human behaviour that contribute to macro scale implementation uncertainty are communicated effectively to managers and considered more regularly and in greater depth, unanticipated responses to management actions will continue to undermine management systems and threaten the sustainability of fisheries.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2-17
Number of pages16
JournalFish and Fisheries
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Fisheries
  • Human behaviour
  • Management
  • Uncertainty


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