Starting in the Middle Ages, fishers from the same port gathered in guilds, where they jointly controlled the practice of their activities, including establishing rules for vessel size, length of nets and hours of operation.

With the growth of the modern state, power became more centralized and governments started to take more of an interest in regulating fisheries to ensure common principles and standards. Self-management all but disappeared in the years after World War II when rapid industrialization and the growth of large-scale fishing operations prompted central governments to increase their involvement in the regulatory aspects of fisheries. Unable to influence the complex rules governing their livelihoods, fishers became alienated; non-compliance with government regulations was rife. Government subsidies led to massive overfishing and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Today, almost 95 percent of the evaluated Mediterranean fish stocks are overexploited.

A recent study indicates that community-based co-management – where responsibility is shared between the government and users – is the most effective way to sustain fishers. The study, which was published in Nature in 2011, challenged the notion that common property is always poorly managed and thus should either be privatized or regulated by the central government. Researchers investigated 130 fisheries in 44 countries, finding that the involvement of community leaders, fishers, scientists and governments in fisheries created a strong sense of empowerment, cohesion and trust, which contributed greatly to sustainable outcomes.

Towards sustainable fisheries management

WWF strongly advocates a co-management model where all major stakeholders – fishers, scientists, civil societies and governments – have a voice and a role to play in establishing the processes and rules for fisheries management in a given area. Giving the users a lead role in making decisions and developing plans for managing marine resources builds self-esteem and buy-in, making it far more likely that they will comply with the rules and abide by the sanctions imposed for non-compliance.


Established in Catalonia, Spain in 2012, it is the first of its kind in Europe and in the Mediterranean region. The Committee seeks to improve the management of the Catalan sandeel fishery, which yields less than 1 000 tonnes of catch each year for human consumption. The initiative – supported by WWF – was initiated by local fishers and civil society. The Committee includes fishers, Catalan and Spanish government authorities, scientists and civil society organizations, all of whom participate equally in setting rules and overseeing their implementation. A subset of the Committee meets at least once a month; decisions are taken by consensus whenever possible. In 2013, the Committee was awarded the WWF Award for Conservation Merit.