Give a Man a Fish

by Iain Murray

Those with an interest in conserving our oceans’ fish stocks and those with an interest in promoting private property should both be interested in my latest short study at CEI, Give a Man a Fish. Here’s the introduction:

Some policy makers and environmental advocacy groups are beginning to realize that the solution lies not in further government regulation, but in investing fishermen with property rights. However, government bureaucrats are also attempting to utilize this insight to gain even more power over fisheries, threatening to derail the momentum toward a more rational allocation of ocean resources. That would be bad news for both fish populations and the people who depend on them for their livelihood.

The oceans are an important source of food and income for people around the world. In 2007, proteins from fish accounted for 15.7 percent of the total global animal protein supply. In 2008, an estimated 44.9 million people were directly engaged in the fishing industry (both marine capture and aquaculture). However, the world’s fish stocks are not limitless, and are being depleted rapidly.

Two principal factors are at work. First, the billions of dollars in subsidies bestowed on the fishing industry by many governments makes overfishing profitable, even as per capita fishing yields decline. Second, the absence of property rights over fish in most countries means that there is no incentive for any party to husband this resource. In fact, the absence of property rights, combined with subsidies, creates a perverse incentive to deplete this scarce resource.

Attempts to prevent overfishing by promulgating regulations (which are often at odds with subsidies) have proved both ineffective and impossible to enforce. As long as the incentives are skewed by bad government policy, many fishermen will continue to work around regulations or simply neglect to report some of their catches—a practice known as “black” fishing that is all too prevalent. Ending subsidies and extending genuine property rights to fisheries will help solve these problems.

Thanks are due to my co-author, Roger Abbott, who provided much of the initial research effort, and to Michael DeAlessi, who wrote the definitive free-market work on privatizing fish stocks, Fishing For Solutions, in 2003.