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Too Few Fish in The Sea
The overfishing problem is real. So is the conservative solution.


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Jonathan H. Adler

Marine fisheries the world over are in trouble. A study published last week in the scientific journal Nature found that commercial fishing has decimated stocks of large ocean species, including tuna, swordfish, and cod. In many cases, fish populations have declined 90 percent from their pre-industrial levels. Some fish stocks are completely depleted. Just last month the Canadian fisheries ministry shut down several cod fisheries off its Atlantic coast, and Europe may soon follow suit.

The new study, while alarming, told environmental analysts little they did not already know. Approximately 70 percent of fish stocks worldwide are either fully or overexploited. The state of fish in U.S. waters is not much better. The National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledges that dozens of federally managed fish stocks are overfished. Worse, it cannot account for the status of two thirds of the fish species under its “protection.” Although the number of healthy fish species has increased in recent years, such gains have come at tremendous costs to local fishing communities faced with fishery closings and other stringent conservation measures. Green activists may exaggerate many environmental fears, but, if anything, they have been too quiet on the fate of ocean fisheries.

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Conservation of marine fisheries presents the archetypal “commons” problem, most famously detailed by ecologist Garrett Hardin in his 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin described the fate of a common pasture, unowned and available to all. In such a situation, it is in each herder’s self interest to maximize his use of the pasture at the expense of the community at large. Each herder captures all of the benefits from adding one more animal to his herd. The costs of overgrazing the pasture, however, are distributed among every user of the pasture. Thus, each herder has a strong incentive to increase his herd. At the same time, no individual herder has any incentive to exercise restraint, since there is no assurance in an open-access commons that other users will follow suit. When each herder responds to these incentives, the pasture is quickly overgrazed, and tragedy ensues.

Hardin used the metaphor of a common pasture, but he could just as well have described a fishery, where open access leads to overfishing. In place of herders grazing animals on a common pasture, fishing interests all seek to exploit a common fishery. The incentive faced by each fisherman is quite the same as that faced by the hypothetical herder: The benefits of increasing fishing effort — e.g., by hiring a larger crew, adding additional nets, or even buying an extra boat — accrue to the individual. The costs to the fishery, however, are borne by all of the users. The result is overfishing, and the eventual depletion of the fishery. Limiting the fish catch can sustain the resource, but no individual fisherman has sufficient incentive to exercise such restraint.

The traditional response to the marine-commons problem — as with most environmental problems to generate political attention — has been the imposition of various government regulations. Yet such regulations have done little to avert the tragedy of the marine commons. To the contrary, after decades of government regulations, marine fisheries continue to decline.

Most regulatory controls have sought to control inputs by limiting boat size, fishing areas, equipment, or even the length of the fishing season. However well-intentioned, such rules often have perverse results. License controls and other entry restrictions may limit the number of fishers, but they do not control the amount or intensity of fishing efforts. Mandates on the type of equipment that can be used encourage fishermen to increase their investment in additional vessels or gear to compensate for the efficiency losses. Limits on the number of days fished encourages fishermen to increase their effort on those days allowed.

And so the tragedy of the marine commons persists. In Alaska’s halibut fishery, for example, as the government shortened the fishing season to prevent overfishing, fishers responded by purchasing larger, more powerful boats and accelerating their catch. Eventually, the halibut season was compressed from several months to only a few days. Fishery regulations produced overcapitalization — fishermen bought more and more boats so as to catch as many fish as possible in the vastly shortened season — while reducing the value of the fish caught. The resulting “race to fish” also increased the occupational hazards faced by halibut fishermen. Regrettably, this pattern has been repeated in many fisheries. Even where regulators impose a total catch limit for a given fishery, overcapitalization and the “race to fish” persist.

Government regulations are not the only means of addressing environmental problems, however. As Hardin noted in 1968 (and economists noted earlier), commons problems arise when resources are left outside of the institutional framework of private-property rights. Thus, one solution to commons problems is to extend property rights to previously unowned resources. In Hardin’s words: “The tragedy of the commons . . . is averted by private property, or something formally like it.”

As a general rule, where resources are owned, there is less concern about their overuse. Property owners have both the ability to protect the owned resource and a substantial incentive to ensure that the value of their property, both to themselves and to others, is maintained. Privately owned resources — whether owned by individuals, clubs, corporations, or nonprofit entities — tend to be managed more sustainably than government-managed resources. Comparative analyses of oyster-bed management in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico illustrate the point, as privately managed oyster beds are healthier and more productive than those under state “protection.” The effect of private ownership can also be seen in the explosion in aquaculture production, which more than tripled between 1985 and 1995. Aquaculture now accounts for approximately one quarter of global fish harvests, and one third of fish harvested for human consumption.

Private oyster beds or aquaculture facilities make perfect sense. Ownership in marine fisheries cannot be parceled out in quite the same fashion, however. Boundary lines are hard to define — let alone enforce — on the open seas, and fish populations move about. But this does not mean that property rights cannot be used to conserve fish stocks. In fact, there are numerous examples of successful property-based fishery-management systems that utilize individual transferable quotas (ITQs). Indeed, there is a virtual consensus among environmental analysts that ITQs are the key to sustainable management of commercial fish stocks.

Under an ITQ system, the government sets the total allowable catch for a given season, and then allocates shares of the catch — quotas — to individuals, boats, or firms as a form of transferable right. By allocating portions of the fish catch, ITQ systems eliminate the “race to fish” and encourage less wasteful fishing techniques. In several countries, ITQ programs have met with substantial success in increasing fishing efficiency, reducing over-capitalization, and lessening the ecological impact of fishing operations. What’s more, ITQs have encouraged fishers to exercise greater stewardship. “It’s the first group of fishers I’ve ever encountered who turned down the chance to take more fish,” noted Philip Major of New Zealand’s ministry of agriculture after the implementation of ITQs there. There have also been private initiatives to allocate annual harvests among firms in catch-limited fisheries so as to create quasi-property rights and capture the economic and ecological benefits that result

While ITQs are an obvious way to conserve commercial fish stocks, thereby meeting both economic and environmental needs, federal law prohibits their implementation in the United States. In 1996, Congress adopted a moratorium on the adoption of ITQ plans in U.S. waters. Despite this restriction, there have been a handful of private initiatives to allocate annual harvests among firms in catch-limited fisheries so as to create informal ITQs. These initiatives produce similar economic and ecological results, but they remain the exception.

Fortunately, the ITQ moratorium is due to end. Unfortunately, Congress is expected to impose new requirements on the adoption and operation of future ITQ systems that could limit their effectiveness. The Bush administration, for its part, has been fairly quiet on the issue, though ITQ supporters hope and expect some support from the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. But the fact that doubt exists illustrates the administration’s failure to adopt a coherent environmental program. The fishery problem is very real, and the property-based solution is the best solution. Indeed, fishery management is a clear case of property rights outperforming government regulation. For an administration that claims fealty to market principles and private stewardship, support of ITQs should be a no-brainer.

If conservatives wish to be taken seriously on environmental issues, they need to explain how conservative principles — in this case, support of property rights and market institutions — can advance environmental goals. Sitting on the sidelines or carping about environmental fear-mongering is not enough. Sometimes the scare stories are true. In the case of fisheries, conservatives should help do something about the problem.

Jonathan H. Adler, an NRO contributing editor, is an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.



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