Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Where have all the fish gone?

Posted by Tim Kidman on April 21, 2009

The BBC ran an early piece on an EU report set to be released tomorrow on the state of European fisheries.  Not surprisingly, among the report’s conclusions are the facts that “30% of EU fish stocks are beyond safe limits,” and “eighty-eight percent of EU stocks are fished beyond their maximum sustainable yield.” Sadly, this status is not unique, but shared by many of the world’s fisheries.

In my last post I might have suggested an undue skepticism of market-based environmental solutions.  On the contrary, and fisheries are a prime example of where economic and environmental goals can be extremely well aligned.  But for the fact that we’ve replaced mammals with fish, and a grassy clearing with oceans, fisheries are an almost exact analogue to  Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons: non-rival and non-excludable.

According to the BBC, in the face of these damaged fisheries, “one option raised is expanding the use of transferable quotas, where fishermen “own” the right to fish for many years, so gain from managing the stock sustainably.” This type of management regime grants a discrete property right to a portion of the overall quota.  Unlike traditional management where everyone in the fishery races to catch as much of the overall quota as possible, individual quota programs allow quota holders to catch their allocation at their leisure, and allowing quotas to be traded to the most efficient players.

Individual tradable quotas have become more popular in world fisheries, but are not yet standard practice.  New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, and even the U.S. have pioneered their use over the last several decades with real success, documented in several studies (EDF and one by my old advisor here to name a couple).  Hopefully studies like this will help encourage fishery managers throughout the EU (and the rest of the world) to explore tradable quotas and other assignment of property rights to the world’s fisheries.  Not only do tradable quota systems result in healthier fish populations, but also help resolve some of the other issues that come along with mis-managed fisheries – too many vessels, over-investment in hardware, short seasons.  Of course, the impacts on local communities are not always as clear-cut.  Consolidation of the fishing fleet pushes out the little guy who has relatively high costs and low margins, but that’s an issue for another day.

One Response to “Where have all the fish gone?”

  1. Carlos Ferreira said

    I agree tradable quotas are a large part of the solution – for fisheries inside each country’s area of jurisdiction. It should work, at least where we haven’t already crossed the thresholds of of minimum stock for safe renew of the population.
    It does not, unfortunately, solve the problem of over-exploitation on the high seas, where no country rules and it really is a Commons area. Out there, I can only imagine the best way is to stop incentives for excessively large fishing fleets, like the kind of subsidies the EU (and, I expect, other countries as well) give. It’s a political economy problem. Fishermen, as a small(ish) interest group, are usually very efficient in extracting concessions from governments.
    It’s a very tough call.

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