When push comes to shove in recreational fisheries compliance, think ‘nudge’


Mary Mackay is a PhD candidate (at the Centre for Marine Socioecology University of Tasmania, Australia) researching the role of incentives, regulations, and nudges in influencing compliance behaviour of marine resource users. I had a chance to catch up with Mary at the recent International Marine Conservation Conference in Malaysia and hear about the work she is currently doing and her recent publication. As it was so interesting, I then convinced her to stop by Fish Thinkers and share the details in the guest post below:

When push comes to shove in recreational fisheries compliance, think ‘nudge’

Common to recreational fishing research is a lack of official reported data, which makes it pretty hard to get a full idea of what’s going on. From some reconstructed data, it is predicted that recreational fisheries only account for 1 million tons of catch annually, a small proportion relative to global catch (industrial and subsistence) at approximately 120 million tons. While the total global recreational catch is relatively small compared to the global commercial catch, at the local scale we know that some species are fished more heavily by recreational fishers than commercial fishers. For example, in Australia, recreational harvest is substantial and exceeds the commercial catch for a number of species, including Yellowtail Kingfish, Blue Swimmer Crab and Snapper. So, the need for effective management in recreational fisheries is crucial for a number of reasons, such as conservation and economic stability, not to mention more fish for fishing.

How best to manage recreational fisheries? It’s usually pretty similar to commercial fisheries with a heavy emphasis on the use of regulations, such as catch limits. However, achieving an adequate rate of compliance with these rules in recreational fisheries is difficult, because it is incredibly costly to monitor enough fishers regularly (amongst other reasons). So, I am using a behavioural understanding to figure out how to best encourage voluntary compliance with the rules, to complement the use of deterrence efforts like financial punishments. Collaborators and I thought nudges might be a useful way to do this and wanted to explore more.

What is a Nudge?

“If deterrence relies on ‘shoving’ people to make certain decisions (such as complying with rules), a ‘nudge’ can be thought of as a more subtle way to encourage a decision that is in people’s best interest”

Nudges are subtle, simple changes to our everyday environment which influence our decisions. The idea was popularised by a law professor and a behavioural economist, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, the latter has since been awarded the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize for his work. These two noticed that while in (traditional economic) theory individuals act as ‘profit maximisers’, in practice people are far less rational. Nudge theory is based off the understanding that even though we might not always act rationally, we can somewhat predict the irrationality in our behaviours and play on these patterns in behaviour, to help people make better decisions. In their seminal book they note that “By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families and society”.

For a quick explanation of nudges, watch the video below, from the Behavioural Insights team in New South Wales.

Here are a few examples of the main types of nudges that we are working with;

pic 1

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and other nudge examples exist. If you’re interested in them, Cass Sunstein discusses more here.

Nudges for recreational fisheries compliance

In our most recent paper we wanted to try and provide some nudges based on other successful studies in changing behaviour, to try and improve compliance with some of the most pertinent compliance issues in Australia. We did come across some examples that are already in place, and this is what we found;

  • An example of a simplification and framing nudge can be seen in some pretty persuasive messaging to convince people to aim higher than the minimum size limit on the Trout fishing Tasmania ruler. At the legal minimum size limit the message “It may be to size but do you really want it” appears. Then, along the ruler at increasing measurements it states “Not bad!” “Impressive!”, “Worth bragging about!” and “Officially a monster!”.

pic 2

  • An example of a change to the environment nudge, to reiterate the size limits of a popular recreational fish, is being used at a popular fishing spot in Tasmania, with a spray-painted, stylised picture of a Sand Flathead along with the message “Measure your catch”.

pic 3

  • A framing nudge can be seen in Tasmania’s FishCare key message, which states “Put the little ones back gently” to encourage fishers not to retain juvenile or undersized fish.

pic 4


We wanted to provide some nudges, based on other studies that successfully changed behaviour, to improve compliance with some of the common non-compliance issues in Australian recreational fisheries. While we do suggest some nudges, and also highlight the ones that are already in use, we do so with caution. There are a number of circumstances when nudges might not work, or require finessing. For any nudge to be used they need to be rigorously tested beforehand to avoid any unintended consequences. Some of the research we’re working on now is doing exactly that and we have tested one type of nudge on compliance behaviour with some very interesting results, so keep an eye out for future blogs on this!

Further information

For the full background on nudges and the compliance issues we found in Australian’s recreational fisheries, along with some examples of potential recreational fisheries compliance nudges, read the full paper here or email me for a copy on mary.mackay@utas.edu.au and follow me on twitter @MaryMackay8 for updates on future research and publications.

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