A new fishing rights allocation system was introduced in South Africa in 2001. The system, its application and the complaints by fishers were assessed. In response to the weaknesses in the 2001 system, a participatory multicriteria decision analysis (MCDA)-based approach was proposed as a new system for evaluating applicants. To test the approach, workshops were held with fishers and the authority responsible for allocating rights. The MCDA system allowed the concerns (criteria) of different stakeholders to be integrated into a coherent framework and for their priorities to be reflected in scores and weights. Simple MCDA approaches, accessible to fishers and the authority, were used to elicit scores and weights, thus providing a record of the process and a theoretically justifiable basis for the use of a weighted sum of scores. Although the perception was that the authority and fishers' priorities were very different, they proved to be similar and could be accommodated in an integrated system. © 2007 The Authors. Journal compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.