Hope For Healthy Ocean Ecosystems With The Right Incentives

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New tools, practices, and partnerships are beginning to transform the way we manage our oceans, including local fisheries, biodiversity conservation, and marine spatial planning. There’s new hope for creating healthy ocean ecosystems.

healthy ocean

A research study titled “The right incentives enable ocean sustainability successes and provide hope for the future” says it all. There is reason to be optimistic if constituents work together on social and ecological norms that help to overcome the formidable challenges of overfishing, climate change, ocean acidification, and pollution. The authors suggest that the underused approach of evaluating conservation tools by their ability to align incentives can make a big difference. Having broader goals of sustainability is admirable, but incentives may be a pragmatic pathway to scale successes that lead to healthy ocean ecosystems.

The challenge is to elevate incentives to a global scale, according to the study’s authors, Lubchenco, Cerny-Chipmana, Reimera, and Levin. Funding for their study was provided by Oregon State University and the National Science Foundation.

To achieve positive outcomes, economic and even social norms must be the inspiration that alters incentives. Examples of systemic incentive changes include the introduction of well-designed rights-based or secure-access fisheries. So, too, can ecosystem service accounting align conservation and economic benefits. Incentives to fish sustainably, curb illegal fishing, or create large marine reserves start with modified social norms, which can enhance an individual’s or company’s reputation or self-image, leading to more healthy ocean ecosystems.

“In parallel to a change in economic incentives,” said Jessica Reimer, a graduate research assistant with Lubchenco, “there have been changes in behavioral incentives and social norms, such as altruism, ethical values, and other types of motivation that can be powerful drivers of change.”

In essence, getting the incentives right matters if we want healthy ocean ecosystems.

How do incentives work to reduce environmental threats facing the world’s oceans?

Any incentive program starts with awareness. As more people become informed about environmental issues, they demand action to address them. Changing consciousness, attitudes, and social norms around the world, the study’s researchers from Oregon State University and Princeton University say, sets the proverbial stage for incentives to create healthy ocean ecosystems. Incentives can be designed to enable smarter use of the ocean while also protecting marine ecosystems. And it seems that positive incentives — the “carrot” — work better than negative incentives, or the “stick.”

“As we note in this report, the ocean is becoming higher, warmer, stormier, more acidic, lower in dissolved oxygen and overfished,” said Jane Lubchenco, the distinguished university professor in the College of Science and advisor in marine studies at Oregon State University, lead author of the new report, and U.S. science envoy for the ocean at the Department of State. “The threats facing the ocean are enormous and can seem overwhelming. We believe it’s possible to make that transition from a vicious to a virtuous cycle. Getting incentives right can flip a disaster to a resounding success.” Those incentives, she says, can convert near-disaster situations into sustainable fisheries, cleaner water, and long-term solutions.

Simon A. Levin, the James S. McDonnell distinguished university professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University and co-author, had a similar perspective. “It is really very exciting that what, until recently, was theoretical optimism is proving to really work. This gives me great hope for the future.”

Examples of incentives that promote healthy ocean ecosystems

One distinct example of the progress toward healthy ocean ecosystems is the use of “rights-based fisheries,” or a system in which fishers receive a guaranteed fraction of the catch, benefit from a well-managed, healthy fishery, and become part of a peer group in which cheating is not tolerated. This change in norm eliminates a traditional “race to fish” concept, based on limited seasons. There are now more than 200 rights-based fisheries covering more than 500 species among 40 countries, the report noted. One was implemented in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper commercial fishery, which was on the brink of collapse after decades of overfishing. A rights-based plan implemented in 2007 has tripled the spawning potential, doubled catch limits, and increased fishery revenue by 70%.

Another success story surrounds combining “territorial use rights in fisheries,” which assign exclusive fishing access in a particular place to certain individuals or communities, together with adjacent marine reserves. Fish recover inside the no-take reserve and “spillover” to the adjacent fished area outside the reserve.

The concept of incentives has been infused into “debt for nature” swaps used in some nations, in which foreign debt is exchanged for protection of the ocean.

These “multiple turn-around stories in fisheries attest to the potential to end overfishing,” Lubchenco explained. With the right combination of social and economic incentives, it is possible to “recover depleted species, achieve healthier ocean ecosystems, and bring economic benefit to fishermen and coastal communities. It is possible to have your fish and eat them, too.”


The stakes are high for our oceans. The global market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is about $3 trillion a year. More than 3 billion people depend on fish for a major source of protein. Marine fisheries involve more than 200 million people. Ocean and coastal ecosystems provide food, oxygen, climate regulation, pest control, recreational, and cultural value. Traditional examples are like that of the European Union, which has issued warnings and trade sanctions against countries that engage in illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. This approach, based on strong environmental support among its public, does seek healthy ocean ecosystems, but incentives may, ultimately, prove a more powerful and longer-lasting lure.

“Given the importance of marine resources, many of the 150 or more coastal nations, especially those in the developing world, are searching for new approaches to economic development, poverty alleviation, and food security,” said Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman, a postdoctoral scholar working with Lubchenco. These needs of our global oceans have prompted many constituents to rise up. Individuals, scientists, faith communities, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and governments are all changing in ways that reward desirable and dissuade undesirable behaviors and promote healthy ocean ecosystems.

“Recognizing the extent to which a change in incentives can be explicitly used to achieve outcomes related to biodiversity, ecosystem health and sustainability . . . holds particular promise for conservation and management efforts in the ocean,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion.

Photo credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service via Foter.com / CC BY

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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