Learning How to Fish

Overfishing is one of the world’s more serious environmental problems, but it does not have to be that way. In 1974, less than ten percent of the world’s fisheries were depleted or overexploited, according to the FAO. By 1998, over 30 percent of fisheries were overexploited and depleted. At the same time, the percentage of fisheries under or moderately exploited dropped from 40 percent to 15 percent. There is an urgent need for better fishery management.

As fisheries have declined, our knowledge of how to protect fisheries has improved dramatically. There is now a wealth of theoretical and empirical research documenting how to protect marine fisheries. As documented in the economic and scientific literature, rights-based systems, often referred to as “catch shares” or “IFQs” (for “individual fishing quota”), have been shown, encourage more sustainable fishery management. As an extensive study in Science documented, implementation of such systems halts, and can even reverse, the trend toward fishery collapse.

If property-based fishery systems are the key to avoiding fishery collapse, why aren’t they more common? It’s an interesting question, and one I pondered while attending a workshop on “Lessons Learned in Rights-Based Fisheries Management” at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, where I have been on a research fellowship for much of the summer. It was a fascinating and provocative session featuring cutting-edge work by important researchers in the field.

Existing fishery management systems, which largely rely upon command-and-control regulations of various sorts, have been failing, but some stakeholders remain resistant to change. The “race to fish” may be wasteful and inefficient (not to mention dangerous), but some fishermen like it that way. Overcoming their opposition often requires compromise in designing rights-based reforms, but if such compromises are not appropriately designed, they can undermine the value of the changes.

Political opposition to rights-based fishery management is a timely concern. Although rights-based management systems have been successfully adopted in several U.S. fisheries, as they have in other parts of the world, they are under threat. Earlier this year, Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) pushed successfully for an appropriations rider prohibiting the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from spending money implementing additional rights-based reforms in U.S. fisheries. Rep. Jones, in particular, is on the warpath against rights-based management – which is a shame as rights-based fishery management is about as market-oriented environmental policy as there is. (Indeed, even the folks at CAP recognize the value of rights-based fishery reforms.)

Opposition to catch shares is environmentally indefensible and economically foolish. Any program than can simultaneously increase the environmental sustainability and economic efficiency of a natural resource should be a no-brainer. It would also be good for the federal budget. A recent study in the Journal of Sustainable Development estimated the widespread adoption of rights-based fishery management could reduce the deficit by as much as $1.2 billion.

Economic and environmental goals may often be in conflict, but fisheries management is one area where they don’t have to be.