Home > Enviro Derangement Syndrome, fisheries, property rights, tragedy of commons, whales > For crashing fisheries, a coalition of mainline US enviro groups calls for …. property rights!

For crashing fisheries, a coalition of mainline US enviro groups calls for …. property rights!

In a recent post, Andy Revkin, a New York Times reporter who blogs on energy and environmental issues at his “Dot Earth” blog, asks “When whale species, like the minke, are no longer rare, can they be both admired and eaten — as North Americans do with bison — or is it simply wrong to kill whales at all?”

In a comment in response, I noted that as whales are unowned, the problem of how to manage whale stocks shares much in common with the problem of ocean fisheries – viz., open access tragedies of the commons, and politicized management – further noted that the main US environmental groups have very clearly recognized, somewhat surprisingly, that implementing property rights systems is vital to ensuring the long-term protection of fisheries.

Mainline enviros pushing for property rights?  Has the world gone crazy?

I copy below my comment, which quotes the key fisheries statement by the enviro coalition (emphasis added):

Andy, of course the real problem with whales, bluefin tuna and most other ocean resources is that no one owns them, so catching them for one dinner plate or another is frequently a classic tragedy of the commons or, if governments regulate catch, a race to catch within season all while trying to make sure limits are not set too low.

This is the reason why whaling stocks crashed and whalers agreed to a moratorium. The fact that whales remain unowned but further takings are decided by a committee of nations is what ties the dispute to a political process – a process that frankly serves no one’s long-term interest and is a distraction from the more important problems of protecting crashing ocean fisheries in general.

The clear way forward is in establishing rights to the particular stock of whales or fish, so that those who value the resource can invest in protecting it. This holds true just as much for whales as for fish.

This is what the organization Defying Ocean’s End (cofounded by Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Ocean Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, The World Conservation Union, and World Wildlife Fund) has to say about protecting fish:


“Overfishing, high bycatch rates, the use of gear types that damage habitat (like trawls and dredges), and the large subsidies supporting fisheries (totally over $15 billion per year) are all symptoms of an underlying problem. In most fisheries that are exhibiting declines in landings and revenues, overfishing, bycatch, and habitat damage, actions that result in the symptoms are actually rational given the way the fisheries are managed. In these fisheries, secure privileges to catch certain amounts of fish are not specified, so naturally individual fishermen compete to maximize their individual shares of the catch. No incentives for conservation exist in this situation, because every fish conserved can be caught by another fisherman. The competition to maximize catch often results in a fishery “arms race”, resulting in the purchase of multiple vessels, the use of powerful engines and large vessels, and the use of highly efficient gear like trawls. Capital costs for vessels and gear increase as a result. At the same time, the competition to maximize catch often results in supply gluts, as most fishermen land large catches at the same time during seasons that become shorter and shorter due to the excessive number of vessels participating in the fishery. Prices paid to fishermen are reduced by the glut, and the quality of fish supplied to consumers declines as well (from fresh to frozen). The non-market costs associated with this kind of behavior — such as habitat damage, overfishing, and bycatch — are passed on to the fishery and onto society as a whole.

“Most of the solutions that have been implemented or proposed to fix the world’s fisheries center on command-and-control measures: regulators or courts telling fishermen how to fish through the imposition of controls on effort (e.g., fishing vessel length, engine horsepower, gear restrictions, etc.). Prescriptions like these work against strong economic incentives for maximizing catch, which are not addressed by such measures, and are of course usually resisted by fishermen. Often, prescriptions create incentives for “work-arounds” and set up a cat-and-mouse game between fishermen and regulators – for example, if regulators impose a restriction on vessel size, fishermen may purchase two vessels to maintain high catch levels.

As in most natural resource problems, more effective solutions will address the fundamental drivers of unsustainable fisheries. In this case, the key necessary reform will be to designate secure catch privileges. It is important to understand that such privileges can be allocated to different kinds of entities in different ways, and indeed, they should be tailored to specific fisheries and communities to fit with local customs, traditions, values, and social structure.”

FWIW, I’ve blogged on whales and fishing any number of times:

The problem of crashing fisheries is a far greater one than what to do about whales, so it is a real shame that the environmental community, Japan (which consumes much of the world’s fish) and other nations cannot see fit to bury the hatchet – at least on whale populations that are growing (perhaps by applying a property rights regime that would allocate ownership rights not only to whaling fleets but to conservation groups) – and work together on setting up sustainable, property-rights based harvesting regimes on imperilled ocean fisheries.

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