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Thursday, September 28, 2023


Property rights can solve seafood crisis

Depending on how one looks at the data, world fish stocks are either declining, in a poor condition or on the brink of collapse. Despite its laudable intentions, the current mode of governance of fish stocks, with its myriad rules and regulations, is not working.

Take for example the trend to make fishing season shorter so that fishermen will not be able to pull a large number of a given type of fish. In some areas, fishing seasons have been reduced to 48 hours, but total fish catch has remained the same. Fishermen are forced to move faster and grab as many fish as they can before time is up.

The Reason Foundation in a 2004 report pointed to a specific area of concern – the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. The fishery is opened for only nine days out of the month, creating a rush to grab as many fish as possible. During the closed season, snapper must be thrown back. Seventy percent of those thrown back will die.

These actions stem from a belief that best way to reduce over fishing the is to impose limits on the size and number of fish that can be caught. Limits on catch sizes lead to fishermen staying closer to shore so they can make more trips back and forth, radically demolishing local fish stocks. Limiting total fisheries’ output leads to speed fishing and an extraordinary large amount of by-catch.

The core problem is a universal one: central command and control. "Communism isn’t dead," says University of Rhode Island professor Jon Sutinen. "Central planning is still thriving in our fisheries management." Harvard professor Robert Stavins echoes this view. "Everyone is trying to maximize their catch. There’s no private property right."

There is a system of management that can help reduce the negative implications of this tragedy – individual transferable quotas. Under this system, the total number of pounds of fish is determined and handed out to fishermen in the form of quotas. These give the fisherman the right to bring in a given amount of fish. The fisherman can fish a larger time of the year, sell them to others or even elect to leave the quoted amount of fish swimming. Under this system, fishermen have an economic incentive to protect and conserve fish they are fishing.

This puts an economic incentive on the fishermen to protect their fisheries. Stavins said, "We could have more sustainable fisheries with less risk… ultimately, consumers would see a decrease in price and greater variety."

The long-term right to fish ensures that fishermen have a reason to protect the fisheries year after year and not to over fish.

A 2006 Business Week article pointed to New Zealand as a model. The situation in New Zealand was worse than the conditions America now faces. After implementation of an ITQ system fish stocks bounced back by 80 percent. These results have been mirrored in Iceland, parts of Canada and Australia.

There are fears that this system will unravel the traditional public ownership of fish stocks, but present conditions are moving toward total fish extinction, and private ownership is the historically tested means to prevent environmental destruction.

There is a claim that ITQs will destroy local fishing communities. This fear is misplaced as ITQs allow communities to buy their own quotas, and they can give them to local fisherman as they like. Even without ITQs, local fishing communities are threatened by the risk of fish stock collapse.

We need to start thinking about the problems with fisheries and stop coming up with the same solutions that got us into this problem in the first place. ITQs provide a hopeful solution to a paramount problem.

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