Can Congress Learn to Fish?
Property-based reforms solve the “tragedy of the commons” at fisheries.


Jonathan H. Adler

Many environmental problems are exaggerated. The threats facing marine fisheries, however, are quite real. Fortunately, the solutions are equally clear.

There is a growing consensus among fishery experts that greater reliance on private-property rights can prevent overfishing and ensure sustainability. Indeed, a panel of leading marine experts convened by the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Oceans recently concluded that property-based reforms are essential for sustainable management of marine resources. Such reforms encourage more efficient fishery exploitation by aligning the interests of fishery users with the health and sustainability of the underlying resource. Free-market theorists and fishery organizations have long advocated adopting these measures. Ironically, House Republicans have been the biggest obstacle to these free-market policies.

Marine fisheries present a classic example of what Garrett Hardin famously termed the “tragedy of the commons.” They are prone to over-exploitation as users race to consume the resource. Every fish caught benefits the one who caught it, even past the point at which the total catch threatens fishery collapse. No fisher has any incentive to exercise restraint, as there is no guarantee that other fishers will respond in kind. The result is an over-exploited resource, and the costs of over-fishing are borne by all.

Traditionally, many have doubted that property rights were suitable to marine resources because of the mobility and migration of fish and the difficulty in monitoring property interests in the open sea. As a consequence, fisheries have historically been held in trust by the government for the common use of all, subject to regulations governing everything from the size of the catch to the type of equipment used. Such regulations produce a “race to fish”: Everyone rushes to catch as much as possible until the catch limits are reached. The resulting scramble is so furious that some fisheries reach their annual catch limits in a matter of days. This system has largely failed to ensure fishery sustainability and has made commercial fishing a perilous occupation.

Over the past 30 years, policymakers and fishery experts have recognized the potential of property-based management systems to end the “race to fish” and encourage sustainable fishing practices. A common reform is the creation of individual transferable quotas (ITQs), or “catch shares.” Under the typical ITQ regime, the government sets the total allowable catch (TAC) for a given season, based on an ecological assessment of the sustainability of the fishery, and then each fishery participant is able to catch his allocated share. For example, the owner of a 5 percent quota may catch 25 tons in a season if the TAC is 500 tons. The TAC changes from year to year, but shares carry over and may be bought and sold.

Since the first ITQ programs in the mid-1970s, hundreds of such programs have been adopted around the world. Recent evaluations of them provide significant evidence that catch-share and rights-based management systems have positive economic and ecological effects.

The economic benefits of ITQ programs were confirmed in a 2012 study examining 15 catch-share programs in the United States and British Columbia. Whereas the frenetic “race to fish” tends to shorten fishing seasons, the rights-based security created by catch shares allows fishers to extend their fishing seasons, on average, from 63 to 245 days of the year. This slower, more deliberate fishing produces higher yields from less effort and investment, reduces discard rates (because fishers are able to focus their efforts on catching fish they intend to keep), and improves the quality (and thereby the value) of the catch. The longer season also reduces the need to fish in hazardous and costly conditions.