Qualitative risk assessment frameworks, such as the Productivity Susceptibility Analysis (PSA), have been developed to rapidly evaluate the risks of fishing to marine populations and prioritize management and research among species. Despite being applied to over 1,000 fish populations, and an ongoing debate about the most appropriate method to convert biological and fishery characteristics into an overall measure of risk, the assumptions and predictive capacity of these approaches have not been evaluated. Several interpretations of the PSA were mapped to a conventional age-structured fisheries dynamics model to evaluate the performance of the approach under a range of assumptions regarding exploitation rates and measures of biological risk. The results demonstrate that the underlying assumptions of these qualitative risk-based approaches are inappropriate, and the expected performance is poor for a wide range of conditions. The information required to score a fishery using a PSA-type approach is comparable to that required to populate an operating model and evaluating the population dynamics within a simulation framework. In addition to providing a more credible characterization of complex system dynamics, the operating model approach is transparent, reproducible and can evaluate alternative management strategies over a range of plausible hypotheses for the system.