March 30, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Enough Fish to Go Around

Rights-based fishery policies can guarantee a rapid rebound of fish stocks, biomass and profits for fishermen.

A surprising study in PNAS scores a win for private property, appropriately managed. Though many environmentalists have been worried about the collapse of seafood markets due to overfishing, a dozen scientists from the University of Washington, University of California at Santa Barbara and the Environmental Defense Fund have found a path to recovery: stop “business as usual” policies, and veer toward “rights based” fishery policies. PhysOrg explains how it works:

The analysis suggests that implementing reforms such as those based on secure fishing rights are critical to providing the combined benefits of increased fish populations, food production and profits. “Fishing rights” is a fishery management approach that ends the desperate race to fish by asking fishers to adhere to strict, science-based catch limits in exchange for a right to a share of the catch or to a traditional fishing area.

“We now have a clear roadmap for how to recover fisheries: Give fishermen secure fishing rights so they can control and protect their future,” said co-author Amanda Leland, senior vice president for oceans at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Countries from the U.S. to Belize to Namibia are leading a turnaround by implementing secure fishing rights and realizing benefits for people and the oceans.

Although they don’t mention the old economic problem of “tragedy of the commons” that drove early pilgrims to near starvation until they were given control over private plots of land, the principle appears the same. Rights to fish certain areas without competition, except for agreement to sustainable catch limits agreed in advance, give fishermen the incentive to protect their areas and make them as productive as possible. Since they know that overfishing would drive them out of business, they would have the incentive to protect and control their future by conserving their fishing rights.

This is a win-win situation all around, the scientists calculate after looking at the most heavily-fished areas around the world. Even with the expected rise in world population and seafood consumption, there should be plenty to go around under rights-based fishery policies, if implemented now.

Applying sound management reforms to global fisheries in our dataset could generate annual increases exceeding 16 million metric tons (MMT) in catch, $53 billion in profit, and 619 MMT in biomass relative to business as usual. We also find that, with appropriate reforms, recovery can happen quickly, with the median fishery taking under 10 y to reach recovery targets. Our results show that commonsense reforms to fishery management would dramatically improve overall fish abundance while increasing food security and profits.

The methods could include cooperatives, territorial rights or individual transferable quotas to achieve the conservation and ecological objectives. Costs to consumers, they figure, are only a fraction of the potential benefits. Some of these benefits have already been seen in the experience of Iceland, New Zealand and Australia. Moreover, it would not be necessary to put some areas off-limits to fishing, because the rebound will more than offset the time to recovery:

Our results suggest that some of the greatest economic improvements in fisheries may come more from improving institutions than from improving the status of fished stocks. Furthermore, these gains in profit can occur quickly following institutional reforms, because they do not exclusively rely on stock recovery. Such rapid economic gains can help offset many of the necessary short-term costs associated with stock recovery when catches must temporarily decline to enable recovery.

In fact, the tradeoffs are few. It’s good policy all around. Fish will like it, fishermen will like it, and consumers will like it. It seafood prices rise temporarily, they will likely fall when supply increases.

Our results suggest that a suite of approaches providing individual or communal access rights to fishery resources can align incentives across profit, food, and conservation so that few tradeoffs will have to be made across these objectives in selecting effective policy interventions.

As for seafood prices, they say, “Although we have not explicitly modeled effects of fishery reform on consumers, they are likely to benefit from the catch increases (and price decreases) that arise from fishery recovery.”

Rights-based conservation differs drastically from the intuitive tendency of governments and bureaucrats to regulate things. “No fishing” signs could be replaced with licenses for individuals and groups to take ownership of areas, giving them both control of their destiny and incentive to protect it. Such “commonsense” reforms can’t come too soon. Christopher Costello of UCSB says, “Our research reveals a stark choice: Either manage fisheries sustainably and realize the tremendous potential of the world’s oceans, or allow the status quo to continue to draw down the natural capital of our oceans.”

Why does it take some people so long to re-learn the benefits of free market economics? Have they never learned about Adam Smith? If these principles seem unfamiliar, take a primer at Prager University (here’s another). Academics and government regulators usually resort to tried-and-true capitalism when some crisis beats them over the head. Their natural tendency is more government, more regulation, and less liberty.

God gave us a planet loaded with resources to sustain a large population which He anticipated when He commanded both Adam and Noah to “be fruitful and multiply.” He also gave us Ten Commandments that teach us to respect property rights (Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet what is thy neighbor’s). Notice that these commandments were given to sinners, not saints. God knows that the recipe for peace and prosperity in a fallen world requires thinking of our neighbor (the customer) as much as we think of our own desires. That’s the foundation of market economics.

Exercise: What about endangered species? If tuna fishermen only care about catching tuna, what happens to sea turtles and dolphins caught in their nets? Would rights-based fishery policies help or hurt other species in the area? To what extent should government intrude on rights-based policies? Explain your answer. (Hint: what would the rebound of target species imply for the entire food web?)


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