Cease or prohibit spearfishing

How is the evidence assessed?
  • Effectiveness
    not assessed
  • Certainty
    not assessed
  • Harms
    not assessed

Study locations

Key messages

  • Five studies examined the effects of ceasing or prohibiting spearfishing in an area on marine fish populations. Two studies were in the Mediterranean Sea (France, Corsica). One study was in each of the Tasman Sea (Australia) and the Indian Ocean (South Africa). One study was a review of marine reserves around the world.



  • Abundance (4 studies): Two of three site comparison studies in the Mediterranean Sea, the Tasman Sea and the Indian Ocean found that prohibiting spearfishing, and line fishing, in protected areas increased the abundances of European seabass and gilthead seabream (years unknown) and of coral reef fish species, compared to protected and unprotected fished areas, after two to seven years. The other study found that fish densities differed between spearfished and non-spearfished areas after 10–12 years, and was affected by depth and/or fish size. A review of reef marine reserves around the world reported that two non-spearfished reserves in the northwestern Atlantic had more snappers and grunts after two years in one, and higher densities of reef fish, including snappers and grunts after 20 years in the other, compared to nearby fished reefs.
  • Condition (3 studies): Two site comparison studies in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean found that prohibiting spearfishing (and linefishing) in marine protected areas resulted in larger European seabass and coral reef fish species, compared to protected and unprotected fished areas, after two to seven years. A review of global reef marine reserves reported that reef fish were larger in one reserve in the northwestern Atlantic that had banned spearfishing for 20 years, compared to nearby fished reefs.



  • Commercial catch abundance (1 study): One replicated, site-comparison study in the Mediterranean Sea found that prohibiting spearfishing in specific zones of a marine reserve resulted in higher commercial and recreational fishery catches of targeted common dentex compared to zones that allowed spearfishing and areas outside the reserve after one to three years.



About key messages

Key messages provide a descriptive index to studies we have found that test this intervention.

Studies are not directly comparable or of equal value. When making decisions based on this evidence, you should consider factors such as study size, study design, reported metrics and relevance of the study to your situation, rather than simply counting the number of studies that support a particular interpretation.

Supporting evidence from individual studies

  1. A review in 1993 of studies of reef marine reserves (Roberts & Polunin 1993) reported that prohibiting spearfishing in two areas in the north Atlantic Ocean/Gulf of Mexico, off the Florida Keys, USA, resulted in increased abundance of targeted snappers and grunts (species not given) two years after closure, and higher densities and larger lengths of several reef fish, including snappers and grunts after 20 years, compared to nearby fished reefs. Two years after spear fishing was prohibited, abundance of snappers and grunts at Looe Key Reef marine sanctuary increased by 93% and 439% respectively, and in addition, several previously absent species also appeared in the prohibited area which were rare in fished areas. Data for the densities and lengths of reef fish in the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary 20 years after spearfishing was prohibited were not provided. Eleven case studies of reef marine reserves across the world were reviewed (search/selection method not reported); two had evidence for the effects of prohibiting spearfishing.

    Study and other actions tested
  2. A site comparison study in 1995 of coastal waters in the Mediterranean Sea, southwestern France (Jouvenel & Pollard 2001) found that prohibiting spearfishing in a marine reserve for an unknown number of years, resulted in higher abundance and greater length of European seabass Dicentrarchus labrax and higher abundance of gilthead seabream Sparus aurata, compared to unprotected fished areas. Average abundance of both species was higher inside the reserve (seabass: 3.9 fish/400 m, bream: 0.7 fish/400 m) than outside (seabass: 0.7 fish/400 m, bream: 0.1 fish/400 m). Average length of seabass was higher inside the reserve (381 mm) compared to outside (212 mm). In addition, average length of gilt head bream was lower inside the reserve (379 mm) than outside (400 mm), but this was not tested statistically due to low sample size outside of the reserve. Data were collected in July 1995 over 26 km of coastline with varied habitat types from Cape Bear to Terrimbau Bay. In the centre is the Banyuls-sur-Mer marine reserve (10 km), where spearfishing was banned throughout (year implemented not reported), but other fishing practices were allowed. Snorkellers counted and recorded lengths of all seabass and gilthead bream along 64 transects of 400 m within 5 m of the shore.

    Study and other actions tested
  3. A site comparison study in 2002–2004 of four rocky reef areas in the Tasman Sea, New South Wales, Australia (Curley et al. 2013) found that prohibiting spearfishing inside a marine protected area for 10–12 years resulted in differences in the overall density of targeted reef fishes on shallow but not deep reefs, and individual differences in density were found for only two of seven fish species/groups compared to unprotected reference areas, and the effect varied with fish size. The densities of all sizes of commonly harvested fish differed between protected and non-protected areas at shallow but not deeper depths (data reported as statistical results). Abundance of legal sized (>200 mm), but not small red morwong Cheilodactylus fuscus was higher inside the reserve than outside at both shallow (1.3 vs 0.3/200 m2) and deep (2.8 vs 1.2/200 m2) reefs, and abundance of legal-sized (>200 mm) yellowfin bream Acanthopagrus australis was higher inside than outside at shallow reefs (0.7 vs 0.3/200 m2) but similar at deep reefs (0.2 vs 0.1/200 m2). There were no effects of protection on densities of five other groups (see paper for details of groups), but there were differences with depth and sampling time (data reported as statistical models). Spearfishing was banned in January 1992 at the Gordons Bay area (0.1 km2) of the Bronte-Coogee Aquatic Reserve. Recreational line fishing and collection of rock lobsters and bait weed were permitted but eastern blue groper Achoerodus viridis may not be taken by any method. Between November 2002–2004, fish were sampled six times by underwater visual census at one location within the reserve and three reference areas outside (10–80 km away). At each location and at two depths (<3.5 m and 4–12 m), five replicate 40 × 5 m transects were surveyed.

    Study and other actions tested
  4. A site comparison study in 2006–2011 of four coral reef sites in a marine protected area in the Indian Ocean, South Africa (Maggs et al. 2013) found higher abundance and larger size of four coral reef fish species in a zone closed to offshore (vessel-based) spearfishing and all other vessel-based fishing, compared to edge zones where only offshore spear and line fishing is permitted. Individual catch rates were higher inside the no-take zone than the fished zone for all four species in each year: slinger Chrysoblephus puniceus (3.1 vs 0.8 fish/angler/h), Scotsman Polysteganus praeorbitalis (1.2 vs 0.3 fish/angler/h), poenskop Cymatoceps nasutus (0.4 vs 0.2 fish/angler/h) and yellowbelly rockcod Epinephelus marginatus (0.6 vs 0.1 fish/angler/h), and average lengths were also higher (slinger: 293 vs 240, Scotsman: 415 vs 359, poenskop: 417 vs 380, rockcod: 495 vs 435 mm). In addition, three of the four species (slinger, Scotsman, rockcod) showed increases in size over time (data not tested statistically). The Pondoland Marine Protected Area (800 km2) was designated in 2004 and comprises a central ‘no-take area’ (400 km2) closed to all offshore (vessel based) exploitation. On either side of the no-take zone are two controlled fishing areas where offshore line fishing and spearfishing are permitted. No commercial fishing, such as trawling or long-lining, is permitted anywhere in the protected area. From April 2006 to June 2011, quarterly research angling was conducted at two sites in the no-take zone and two in the nearby exploited zone (6 h angling in each zone) at 10–30 m depth. Data were analysed for four species depleted by line fishing.

    Study and other actions tested
  5. A replicated, site-comparison study in 2000–2012 of mixed bottom (rock, sand and seagrass Posidonia oceanica) areas inside and outside a marine reserve in the Mediterranean Sea, off Corsica (Marengo et al. 2015) found that catch rates of common dentex Dentex dentex targeted by two different fishery types were higher in zones where spearfishing was prohibited for one to three years, compared to a zone that allowed it and/or areas outside the reserve. For the artisanal fishery (small commercial boats), average catch rate differed between all three zones and was highest in the no spearfishing zones (no spearfishing: 99, general: 17, outside: 26 g/50 m net). For recreational fishing activity, average catch rate in the no spearfishing zones was higher compared to the general zone (no spearfishing: 355, general: 56 g/50 m net) (no catch data outside). Bonifacio Strait Natural Reserve (79, 640 ha) was created in 1999 and has four partially protected zones (each encompassing no-take zones) where spearfishing is prohibited but small-scale artisanal (mainly trammel nets and longlines) and other recreational fishing (mainly longlines and hook and line) is permitted. In the rest of the reserve (general zone) spearfishing is allowed. A total of 962 commercial artisanal boats were sampled May-July 2000 to 2012 (except 2009) onboard or on landing, and 459 recreational boats between March-October in 2006, 2008, 2011. Retained dentex catch was recorded by zone fished (inside reserve: partially protected and general zones, and outside reserve), gear type, and fishing effort.

    Study and other actions tested
Please cite as:

Taylor, N., Clarke, L.J., Alliji, K., Barrett, C., McIntyre, R., Smith, R.K., and Sutherland, W.J. (2021) Marine Fish Conservation: Global Evidence for the Effects of Selected Interventions. Synopses of Conservation Evidence Series. University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.

Where has this evidence come from?

List of journals searched by synopsis

All the journals searched for all synopses

Marine Fish Conservation

This Action forms part of the Action Synopsis:

Marine Fish Conservation
What Works 2021 cover

What Works in Conservation

What Works in Conservation provides expert assessments of the effectiveness of actions, based on summarised evidence, in synopses. Subjects covered so far include amphibians, birds, mammals, forests, peatland and control of freshwater invasive species. More are in progress.

More about What Works in Conservation

Download free PDF or purchase
The Conservation Evidence Journal

The Conservation Evidence Journal

An online, free to publish in, open-access journal publishing results from research and projects that test the effectiveness of conservation actions.

Read the latest volume: Volume 21

Go to the CE Journal

Discover more on our blog

Our blog contains the latest news and updates from the Conservation Evidence team, the Conservation Evidence Journal, and our global partners in evidence-based conservation.

Who uses Conservation Evidence?

Meet some of the evidence champions

Endangered Landscape ProgrammeRed List Champion - Arc Kent Wildlife Trust The Rufford Foundation Save the Frogs - Ghana Mauritian Wildlife Supporting Conservation Leaders
Sustainability Dashboard National Biodiversity Network Frog Life The international journey of Conservation - Oryx Cool Farm Alliance UNEP AWFA Bat Conservation InternationalPeople trust for endangered species Vincet Wildlife Trust