Can the Market Save the World’s Fisheries?

One investment firm thinks sustainable fisheries and Wall Street profits can go hand in hand.

Published March 1, 2016

A new plan to save the ocean is coming from somewhere surprising: Wall Street. An investment firm thinks they can nurture sustainable fisheries in developing countries and make a buck at the same time. Some are calling it a big deal. Others think they’re naive.

The reality is, fish are in bad shape. The United Nations says about 30 percent of world fish stocks are being harvested at an unsustainable pace. Some researchers think that figure is as high as 45 percent.

Efforts to rebuild fish populations—mostly in the past half-century—have had some successes. But just as often, efforts to manage fish stocks sustainably fail because money and political will dry up, laws aren’t enforced, or fisheries managers are simply overwhelmed by the complexity of an ecosystem.

A firm called Encourage Capital thinks they have an approach that can succeed. The firm’s particular brand of investing is about trying to encourage positive social or environmental changes through targeted capital investments.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropic organization and the Rockefeller Foundation tapped Encourage to develop an investment strategy as part of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Vibrant Oceans initiative.

Encourage produced a 400-page how-to guide for nonprofits, governments, and private investors to use their money to encourage more sustainable fishing.

Their strategies include working with local governments on new management policies, organizing fishers into cooperatives, investing in regional companies, and outfitting fishing fleets with high-tech equipment that could help fishers prove the sustainability of their efforts.

Here’s an example: the firm thinks that capital investments could drive a shift in Chile’s fishing industry. They suggest investing in new equipment and infrastructure for the country’s growing frozen fish industry; working with local fishing communities to create cooperatives; and pushing the government to improve its management and enforcement of illegal fishing. Such investments would theoretically turn a profit for investors, while also improving the sustainability of Chile’s fisheries, they say.

Encourage admits they haven’t reinvented the wheel. They say the broad answers to fisheries conservation have already been figured out. “We wanted to understand and present these things in a way other people could understand,” says managing partner Jason Scott. “People don’t have time to dig into these really complicated sectors.”

Their guide is drawing praise and skepticism from people who’ve spent years in the fisheries world.

“Some of the partnerships, data-driven management, and market approaches could be game changers,” says Eli Fenichel, a bioeconomist at Yale University. Indeed, the market approach has worked before.

In the late 1980s, British Columbia’s halibut management efforts had deteriorated into a furious six-day fishing season during which captains hauled in as many fish as they could without regard for fishers’ safety or the fishery’s health.

So regulators decided to stop limiting the season and instead try limiting how many fish each boat could take. Under the old system, most halibut were frozen and sold for fish sticks, but with a longer season fishers could catch and deliver fresh halibut almost year round. Prices soared as halibut turned into a premium product, benefiting both fishers and fish. That was in contrast to the Alaskan market, just across the border. US regulators stuck with the old system, and watched prices stagnate relative to their neighbors.

Chris Costello, an environmental economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is working with Encourage on its strategies. He says a holistic approach is what sets them apart.

Traditional approaches, he says, “don’t work because they don’t change the underlying incentives to race to fish and catch more and more.” He thinks Encourage can get fishers invested in the sustainability of their prey with profit-sharing and other motivators.

But Fenichel is not convinced they know what they’re doing. “Looking at some of the detailed investments that are being proposed, some look creative, but some look like the same old thing,” he says. The same old thing, with the same old problems. “I suspect they are either underestimating the cost of getting buy-in, enforcement, et cetera, or are overestimating return,” he says. “I hope I’m wrong, and perhaps some smart, energetic, social entrepreneurs can pull this off.”