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The fishing quota system faced with th challenges of sustainable development

The introduction of quotas was designed to preserve fish stocks and maximise the profits derived from their exploitation and remains an important subject of debate. INRA researchers in Versailles-Grignon have shown that although they may have an economic cost, restrictions on the transfer of anchovy fishing quotas in the Bay of Biscay may limit social inequalities and guarantee the viability of this sector in both France and Spain. Findings that are likely to provide food for thought by actors in the fishing industry.

Poissonnerie. Poissons de mer. Anchois.. © INRA, BOSSENNEC Jean-Marie
Updated on 05/09/2015
Published on 10/29/2013

The common anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus L.) is recognisable for its silvery belly, bluish back and the white rings around its eyes, as if it had just left the water. This salt-water fish lives in shoals in the Bay of Biscay, and is fished in two ways: a floating trawl is used by the French fleet and purse seiners by the Spanish. Since 1978, Spain has held 90% of the quotas for anchovy fishing, the remaining 10% being allocated to France. Transboundary fishing activities which, in a context of European policies, need to cope with the economic, environmental and social challenges faced by both countries.

A bioeconomic model to compare two management systems

INRA researchers in Versailles-Grignon and their Spanish colleagues focused on the viability of managing these transboundary fishing activities. The scientists used a bioeconomic model to compare two theoretical management systems:

  • a system based on an economic optimisation criterion maximising total profit, which would apply under a division of the total catches authorised through transferable individual quotas1;
  • and an alternative system where the distribution of quotas should, at each moment in time, respect three types of objectives: economic (the gains made by each country mustremain above a given threshold in order to guarantee profitability of the sector); biological (relative to maintaining fish stocks), and social (in terms of sustaining these activities). This system is based on a viability approach2, defined by meeting all these objectives, whatever their dimension, and this every year.

Optimum profit or viability, a question of choice

The researchers evidenced that the economically optimum distribution of fishing quotas would lead to allocating all fishing to the most efficient country, or in this case to France. Indeed, if the quotas were transferable, those holding the Spanish quota would have every interest in selling their fishing rights to the French. On the other hand, the imbalance that would develop between the two countries, even if it maximised profits, would cause severe damage to the Spanish fishing industry and to the communities and lifestyles linked to it. Economic efficiency would thus have a social cost.

The second management system represents an interesting alternative because it takes account of the constraints of social acceptability and reduces the inequalities in quota distribution induced by a transferable quota system. The viability approach limits the distribution of quotas in order to meet previously defined objectives concerning sustainable development. Such a system could be introduced by limiting the international transfer of allocated quotas. However, when compared to the transferable quota method, this system has an economic cost, insofar as it reduces overall profits. There is therefore a social choice to be made and a sectoral arbitration between profits and maintaining activities.
In the context of reforms to fisheries policies (scheduled in early 2014), a viability approach to the management of anchovy fishing in the Bay of Biscay thus showed that providing a framework for quota transfer would allow account to be taken of sustainability challenges, and notably limit the inequalities between countries that might emerge from an unrestricted quota market. These findings may help to achieve progress in public decision-making.

1 Individual transferable quotas allow the holder of fishing rights to sell part of his quotas to another operator: this system does not currently exist in Europe, but is being discussed in the context of reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy.
2 The viability approach can address issues relative to sustainable development by representing sustainability targets as a series of constraints such as, for example, the requirement that a certain number of indicators should be above specified thresholds: minimum fish stocks, jobs, profits, etc. The viability approach no longer just defines an optimum use of resources (optimum with respect to a criterion) but all viable uses of the resource, with viability being defined by meeting all objectives, whatever their dimension (economic, ecological or social) at all times.


Curtin R. and Martinet V. 2013. Viability of transboundary fisheries and international quota allocation: the case of the bay of biscay anchovy. Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics 61: 259.