A New Definition for ‘Destructive Fishing’ to Kickstart A Fresh Era in Fishing Policy  

By Hannah Richardson, Senia Febrica, Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster, Bolanle Erinosho

This blogpost speaks about the importance of a new definition for ‘destructive fishing’ developed through an iterative process from 2021 to 2023 by experts in this field. The definition draws attention to the “significant and irreversible damage caused to the wider marine ecosystem, threatens not only biodiversity but also the ability of marine systems to contribute to the well-being, livelihoods, and food security for millions around the world” (McCarthy et. al., 2024). 

Forming consensus on the working definition 

Destructive fishing is a broad term encompassing practices or measures which may, or may not, contravene international and regional agreements, policies, regulatory regimes, conservation strategies and management measures by relevant authorities (e.g., government, regional fisheries management organisations, and international bodies) (Febrica et. al., 2021). The concept encapsulates a diverse range of fishing activities, including the removal of important species which ecosystems rely upon, as well as the indiscriminate devastation of species, and destruction of marine habitats and other marine resources. However, while destructive fishing is recognised as prejudicial to sustainable fishing, and central to the achievement of U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 14 ‘Life Below Water’, the term remains vague, making it difficult to define, and therefore to track and quantify progress  towards mitigating it  (Willer et. al., 2021) 

Over the past three years, a new working definition of ‘destructive fishing’ has successfully been drafted following a rigorous consultation process involving 80 fisheries experts from over 30 countries. Resulting from this process, a new paper, titled: “Destructive Fishing: an expert-driven definition and exploration of this quasi-concept, was on March 28, 2024, published in Conservation Letters. The working definition of destructive fishing outlined in the paper provides a consensus-led draft for leaders to build upon in international policy discussions and will meaningfully support countries to prohibit destructive fishing practices. This blog post summarises key messages from the paper.  

Many policies and international frameworks – including the UN Sustainable Development Goals – recognise the need to end destructive fishing practices to conserve marine resources, protect the ocean and ensure peace and prosperity for people and the planet. However, despite its widespread use, “destructive fishing” is currently undefined and therefore immeasurable.  This vagueness of the term has rendered it a quasi-concept, undermining the ability to develop and implement effective solutions. As lead author, Dr Arlie McCarthy, explains:  

“We cannot measure progress towards reducing destructive fishing practices without knowing what counts as ‘destructive fishing.’”  

With this challenge in mind, from 2021 to 2023, a project team comprising of Fauna & Flora, Brunel University London, BirdLife International, University of Cambridge, Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity at the University of Oldenburg, and the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) have worked assiduously to facilitate a consultative, expert-led process to find a working definition of destructive fishing.  

Since 2021, Hub researchers including Senia Febrica (University of Strathclyde, UK), Warwick Sauer and Alexander Winkler (Rhodes University, South Africa), Joseph Aggrey-Fynn (University of Cape Coast, Ghana), Bernadette Snow (Scottish Association for Marine Science, U.K), and Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster (The University of the West Indies, Barbados) contributed to the written survey ‘Defining Destructive Fishing in August 2021. Later, in November 2022, Hub researchers Bolanle Erinosho (University of Cape Coast, Ghana), Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster (The University of the West Indies) and Senia Febrica (University of Strathclyde, U.K) were invited to the project consultative meeting that defined destructive fishing as:   

“Destructive fishing is any fishing practice that causes irrecoverable habitat degradation, or which causes significant adverse environmental impacts, results in long-term declines in target or non-target species beyond biologically safe limits and has negative livelihood impacts.”  

To form consensus on the working definition, the Delphi technique – an anonymous, iterative process of expert consultation – was used to synthesise the opinions of a range of 80 fisheries experts representing 32 nationalities, including academics, practitioners in NGOs, and those working directly in the fishing industry and associated fields.   

Dr Nibedita Mukherjee, Senior Lecturer, Brunel University London, explains:  

By synthesising expert knowledge from individuals in diverse fishing-related fields, we aimed to understand how a definition might be applied, and propose a starting definition. Developing a definition that all parties can agree on is essential if we are to find solutions and benefits for both people and nature.”   

This, as Hannah Richardson, Project Lead and Technical Specialist, Destructive Fisheries at Fauna & Flora, comments is key as  

 “Fisheries are fundamental to global food security, but if we want to ensure the future health of fish stocks – and our ocean – we need to avoid fishing methods that are destructive to marine ecosystems and everything living in them. This new definition is an incredibly important step forward for the ocean and the sustainable livelihoods of fishers around the world. Without clear guidelines of what destructive fishing is, it is nearly impossible to bring in the international policy or action to address it.”  

Now that a starting definition has been proposed, the ambition of the Project Team is to work with policymakers to further develop a consensus-built definition of “destructive fishing” at international policy forums, to encourage adoption of the definition at an international and national level.   

The team also aims to pilot approaches to measure the prevalence and magnitude of destructive fishing, through a Monitoring Framework launched in 2023. The framework outlines the types of evidence that could be used to determine whether and how destructive fishing is taking place, providing national governments and the private sector with a crucial tool to identify and mitigate destructive fishing.  

Chris McOwen, Lead Marine Scientist at UNEP-WCMC, adds:  

“It is important that we build on the current momentum and continue to work with interested governments and industry to refine the definition, and explore how it can be tailored to meet the context and needs of countries and regions. Moving forward we will work to raise awareness on destructive fishing in international discussions and explore how the working definition can be broadened to consider destructive fishing in terms of societal and economic impact.”  

One Ocean Hub’s research on destructive fishing  

The One Ocean Hub treats the environmental, social, and economic impacts of ‘destructive fishing’ as inter-connected with one another Febrica et. al., 2021 a; b). The Hub research across our focus countries and regions documented that destructive fishing is depleted fish stocks, devastate small-scale fishers and local communities’ opportunities for economic growth, livelihoods, food security, and ability to practice their culture (see Morgera and Nakamura 2021; Cochrane et al, 2020; Potts et al, 2020). 

Drawing from the Hub’s research in the Caribbean, Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster, Head of the Environmental Law, Ocean Governance & Climate Justice Unit of the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill  notes:  

Destructive fishing practices in the Caribbean are part of a vicious cycle which impacts the livelihoods, culture, food and nutrition security of peoples and the economies of these large ocean, small island developing states (SIDS).

The depletion of ocean ecosystems and decimation of populations of target and non-target species by destructive fishing further fuel destructive practices, as fisherfolk are often forced to engage in destructive fishing practices to satisfy their basic social and economic needs.

The adoption of a standard definition at the international and regional level, such as the Regional Sea Programme for the Wider Caribbean and national level is critical to developing legislation and other effective mechanisms, which safeguard the human rights of the coastal peoples most vulnerable to the effects of destructive fishing.  

Bolanle Erinosho further mentions:

“Destructive fishing is undermining our ability to conserve and sustainable use of the ocean. My research as part of the One Ocean Hub reveals the pressing need to map the problems posed by destructive fishing in the ocean, the role of supply chains, and the challenges associated with the existing legal frameworks that address the issue.” 

The destructive fishing project is funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) Collaborative Fund which is supported by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, the Rothschild Foundation, the A.G. Leventis Foundation, the Isaac Newton Trust and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation. 


The Hub’s work on destructive fishing will continue through its legacy work on  strengthening the linkages between SDG14-SDG16

Related SDGs:

  • Life below water
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions