Freakonomics has this story about the unexpected consequences of government subsidies on overfishing.
The island of Kiribati began to subsidize coconut harvesting in the hopes of encouraging fishermen to switch to the coconut trade and thereby help preserve Kiribati’s reefs from the ravages of over fishing. But as NPR reports, the plan backfired: with more money coming in, coconut harvesters worked fewer hours, which left more time for their favorite leisure activities — including fishing, which increased 33 percent since the start of the program. Says one researcher who studied the unintended consequences of the subsidies: “It hit us like a bumper sticker saying — a bad day fishing is better than a good day working.”
I heard this story on NPR a few weeks ago (yep, I am an NPR listener). But what fascinated me about this story was what followed the realization that subsidies led to overfishing in the island. NPR interviewed experts who talked about the fact that fishing is more than a lucrative job, it is leisure and pleasure.
It turns out she had stumbled into a universal truth about fishing. Fishermen aren’t just in it for the money. Anthropologist Richard Pollnac of the University of Rhode Island says, just think of those snazzy sport-fishing excursions. “People pay big money to go sports-fishing,” he notes. There aren’t very many occupations that people will actually pay money to do in their leisure time, he says. So fishing as an occupation provides psychic benefits, as well as money.
They interviewed experts to talk about what types of government interventions could deal with this tricky case. And yet, at no point, did anyone think outside of the government box. The fact that the lack of ownership of the seas — what economists call the tragedy of the commons — might have had something to do with over-fishing was totally ignored. It was all about government intervention. It was not that these experts and government officials didn’t care about the problem, in fact, they deeply cared about finding a solution. But they just couldn’t think outside of the box.