Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 1–18 | Cite as

Governing fisheries through the critical decade: the role and utility of polycentric systems

  • C. CvitanovicEmail author
  • A. J. Hobday
  • J. McDonald
  • E. I. Van Putten
  • K. L. Nash


The next 10 years are considered a critical decade for fisheries. Declining fish stocks in combination with mounting climate pressure are likely to lead to significant and adverse socio-ecological impacts, threatening sustainability. Responding to these challenges requires modes of governance that are capable of dealing with the complexity and uncertainty associated with the world’s fisheries and their ecosystems. While a range of governance frameworks exist, the concept of polycentric governance has gained prominence in the environmental sector and is posited as a key principle underpinning the resilience of complex socio-ecological systems. However, the application of polycentric governance to fisheries management has been seldom explored. To examine this prospect, we review the literature on polycentric governance to elucidate its potential value in improving the outlook for fisheries and their associated ecosystems. We highlight a number of unique characteristics that overcome known limitations in other forms of governance—polycentric systems are highly participatory and promote the broadest levels of stakeholder involvement, they increase policy freedom at the local level, and they improve the spatial fit between knowledge, action and socio-ecological contexts to ensure that governance responses are implemented at the most appropriate scale. Through fisheries case-studies, we demonstrate that these characteristics are important in helping fisheries respond to complex challenges. Finally, we articulate key knowledge gaps that should be addressed through future research to understand the conditions under which polycentric governance systems are most suited, and the ways in which they can be operationalised most effectively.


Fisheries Governance Learning Networks Research needs Stakeholder participation 



We thank Robert Stephenson for useful comments and discussions that greatly improved this manuscript, and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and suggestions. Financial support was provided by the Centre for Marine Socioecology, University of Tasmania and CSIRO, Australia.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Marine SocioecologyUniversity of TasmaniaHobartAustralia
  2. 2.Institute for Marine and Antarctic StudiesUniversity of TasmaniaHobartAustralia
  3. 3.Faculty of LawUniversity of TasmaniaSandy BayAustralia
  4. 4.Oceans and AtmosphereCSIROHobartAustralia

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