TCS Daily


By Ronald Bailey - May 19, 2003 12:00 AM

"[T]he global ocean has lost more than 90% of large predatory fish," according to a new study published in Nature. The more than decimated species include tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut and flounder among others. The world's major fisheries have been nearly swept free of their largest and most commercially valuable fish by overfishing.

The researchers, Ransom Myers and Boris Worm, from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia pieced together catch data going back 50 years. The data show that with modern fishing methods every new stock of fish has been reduced by at least 80% in less than 15 years after they became exploited. This latest study bolsters the dire conclusions reached by many earlier reports that the globe's fisheries are in deep trouble.

The problem in a nutshell is that too many fishers are chasing too few fish. The Dalhousie researchers diagnose the problem as the result of overfishing, but do not look further into what is causing overfishing in the first place. The problem is that fishing occurs in what we call an open access commons. An open access commons is when natural resources are held in common, freely available to everyone for the taking. In such cases, as has happened with many of the world's fisheries, they will be overexploited and severely degraded. A fisher has no incentive to leave a fish in the sea so that it can reproduce because she knows that the next fisher will come along and take it anyway, so she may as well reap the rewards of the catch immediately. Thus has this perverse incentive structure driven the world's fisheries to their current sorry state.

The Dalhousie researchers claim in a press release, "the solution to this global problem is simple." What's their solution? "Recovery requires overall reduction in fishing mortality (the percentage of fish killed each year)." In other words, catch fewer fish. So far, so obvious. How do they plan to achieve this goal? Among other things, reduce fishing quotas, reduce fishing effort, cut subsidies, and create marine reserves.

They are correct as far it goes. Fishing subsidies have to be slashed. The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that the total expenses for the world's fishing fleets exceeds total revenues by $50 billion annually. In other words, taxpayers the world over are paying fishers to kill as many fish as possible and it's no wonder that they're doing so. The plain fact is that the world has far too many fishers and probably at least half of them will have to find something else to do for living. They have no more right to be fisher than anyone else has to be a farmer-if they can't make a living fishing, taxpayers have no obligation to support them as fishers, period.

But the main flaw in the researchers' recommendations is that they still evidently believe that political management of the world's fisheries can be effective. This is recipe for ruin. Consider for example, that since the 1970s, that U.S. fisheries have been managed by 8 Fisheries Management Councils, composed of a mix of commercial and recreational fishers, marine scientists and state and federal fisheries managers. The dynamic of these councils has been that the financially stressed fishers always argue that the scientists are underestimating the number of fish, and then complain to their Congressional representatives who then put pressure on the Council to keep the fishery open and so on until the fishery nears collapse. Consequently, under their supervision most U.S. fisheries are, at best, holding steady if not getting worse.

There are two ways to handle a commons problem-the first is to regulate it and the second is to privatize it. It is an unfortunate historical fact that whenever a fishery gets into trouble, the first response is to set up some sort of regulatory scheme. To reduce fishing pressure, a wide variety of regulations have been tried. These include setting limits on boat sizes, permissible equipment, net meshes, and so forth. One of the most absurd such regulations is Maryland's requirement that watermen use decades old sailboats and hand operated tongs to harvest oysters. Even so, the oyster harvests in Maryland are only about 1% of what they were a century ago.

Unfortunately, the Dalhousie researchers did not consider the privatization alternative. Wild fish catches - despite vast subsidies, modern equipment, and bigger boats - have remained essentially flat for the past decade, bouncing between 80 and 86 million metric tons annually. Meanwhile, nearly all of the world's increased demand for fish and seafood has been met by private aquaculture, soaring from 13 million metric tons in 1990 to 33 million metric tons in 1999.

And some (even if perhaps not all) wild fisheries can be privatized. Consider the cases of New Zealand, which privatized its fisheries in 1986, and Iceland, which did it in 1990. In both cases, fishers were assigned individually transferable quotas (ITQs) that give them a right to a percentage of the catch in each fishery. The quotas are allocated to fishers in perpetuity, and can be freely bought, sold or leased. The right to fish commercially belongs to the fishers, not to the public. In other words what was once a common resource is transformed into private property. ITQs are the right to catch a set share of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC). TACs are set annually based on scientific analyses of fish populations. The result of privatization is that fishers have a strong incentive to maximize the number of fish in the sea because their allowed catches go up as the fish population increases. This is the exact opposite of the incentives that fishers face when operating in either an open access commons or a politically managed commons. And it's working. In March 2001, the non-profit Marine Stewardship Council, an environmental group based in London, certified the Hoki fishery (the largest and most valuable New Zealand fishery) as "a well-managed and sustainable fishery."

Another advantage of ITQs is that it permits the orderly reduction of excess fishers. Since the ITQs can be purchased, owners who want to leave the industry can sell them and depart with a bit of money to help set themselves up in another profession. ITQs also limit entry. If someone wants to enter a fishery, he or she must first purchase ITQs from current owners. Privatization cuts subsidies, cuts the numbers of fishers, and provides incentives to protect fisheries, all at once.

Dalhousie researcher Boris Worm told the New York Times, "On land we did it with the buffalo. They went from 30 million to a thousand and we saved them because we wanted to. With fish we haven't thought the same way yet." He's right, but he neglects an important part of the buffalo story-the buffalo were saved because a few private ranchers preserved them from hunters. The bison living in our national parks came from those private herds. Like the buffalo, if we want our fisheries to flourish again, it is clear that the best way to do it is to enclose the fishery commons and make our fisheries into private property.

Ronald Bailey, Reason's science correspondent, is the editor of Global Warming and Other Eco Myths (Prima Publishing) and Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet (McGraw-Hill).

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