In the beginning, there were no controls at all on fishing. This worked alright when there were not many of us around, but soon people started noticing that fish were disappearing in coral reefs, bays, and nearshore waters – in some places. This apparently started happening thousands of years ago.
As with any other resource that is not owned by anybody in particular and is used by people who are not well organized, fish tend to get overexploited. This is because individual fishermen know that any fish they leave in the water for noble purposes like conservation or future generations could just get caught by another fisherman.
Ancient peoples solved this problem by establishing exclusive fishing grounds. However, such traditions were generally replaced (with a few notable exceptions in Hawaii, the Gulf of Maine, some South Pacific islands, parts of Africa, and other places) with policies and laws that encouraged access for all (“open access” or “fisheries modernization”) and the extraction of maximum sustainable yield. Over the years, this led to an “arms race” in some fisheries as technology entered the picture. This “arms race” occurred not because of rampant greed or a desire to wreck the environment – it was an entirely reasonable response to the incentives created by open access.
Fishermen tried to win the competition to maximize catch by catching as much fish as quickly as possible, leading to giant trawlers with enormous, powerful engines and sophisticated fish-finding equipment. Again, these technological innovations were rational responses to the incentives created by open access.
Managers tried to control fisheries first by limiting the efficiency of fishermen. This, however, sets up a cat and mouse game between managers and fishermen who are still trying to win the competition, and guess who usually wins? Innovation and ingenuity in industry almost always out-runs regulation (witness the fancy financial instruments that helped destroy the global economy recently; regulators could not even understand these innovations in the financial sector, let alone get ahead of them).
Managers next introduced catch limits, which successfully limited catches in many fisheries but in many cases wrought economic havoc, as suddenly there were way too many fishermen and way too much gear chasing fish around (“overcapitalization”). Costs were high and revenues low due to low prices resulting from supply gluts, leading to strong political pressure to ease up on catch limits (e.g. the West Coast groundfish disaster) and attacks on the underlying science. There was also pressure to forgo catch limits altogether and stick with effort controls (e.g. the New England groundfish collapse).
The crazy economics of open access fisheries is one of the main reasons some countries (including the U.S.) subsidize fisheries – some analysts think that globally, subsidies might be as high as $30-34 billion a year – in support of an industry that generates only $80-90 billion annually . While effort controls and catch limits are working well in some fisheries, generally speaking, such measures — divorced from measures to address incentives to compete for maximum catches — have not worked out too well for lots of fisheries. Sometimes conservation goals are met, but the fishery fails economically – people lose their jobs, their vessels, and sometimes even communities because fishing costs are too high and revenues are too low due to restrictive regulations. In other cases, the economics are good (for a while) but these gains are often achieved at the expense of conservation, resulting in population decline and collapse.
The answer is to tackle the incentives straight on by strengthening the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of fishermen. This can be done in many ways. One way is to allocate or auction secure shares of a scientifically determined sustainable catch level for individual fishermen and communities, and then designing and enforcing rules to ensure that the program achieves its social and economic goals. This kind of management is known as catch shares.
Another way is to designate fishing territories (another form of catch share) that give fishermen a sense of ownership and stewardship over their local resources. Yet another way is to create cooperatives that allow fishermen and other partners to pool assets, share skills, and cooperate rather than compete.
These solutions – catch shares and cooperatives – have been shown to stop the competition to maximize catch and reduce the risk of fishery collapse substantially. In fact, if the historical performance of catch share systems is a good guide, then many of the fishery collapses we’ve seen since the 1950s could have been avoided if all fisheries had been under catch share management. Similarly, extensive research has shown that people can stop destructive races to extract natural resources – from forests to water to fish – by organizing themselves into cooperatives with certain rights, rules, and responsibilities.
There are solutions to overfishing, bycatch, and habitat degradation due to fishing. Designing them well and getting them implemented pose great challenges – but the potential to save fish, habitats, fishermen, and fishing communities makes it all worthwhile.
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