Sunday, September 21, 2008

A tragedy, yes, but one we can avoid

One of the largest environmental challenges we face is declining fish stocks. According to an article published in the journal Science, if trends don't change there will be virtually no fish left to catch in 50 years.

There are many reasons for this. A growing global middle class means more people demanding seafood. And advances in sonar and other fish-catching technology mean that humans can catch fish much faster than they can reproduce.

But one factor that gets less attention is the absence of property rights in our fisheries. New research suggests that Individual Transferable Quotas--a form of property rights for competing fishermen--can help the Earth avert a global aquatic meltdown:
Whichever way they analysed the data, they found that ITQs halted the collapse of fisheries (and according to one analysis even reversed the trend). The overall finding was that fisheries that were managed with ITQs were half as likely to collapse as those that were not.
The problem with global fisheries can be described as a "Tragedy of the Commons". The argument, first made Garrett Hardin in 1968, rests on a metaphor of herders sharing a common field where they are each allowed to let their cattle graze:
In Hardin's view it is in each herder’s interest to put as many cows as possible onto the land even if the commons is damaged as a result. The herder receives all the benefits from the additional cows but the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational decision, however, the commons is destroyed and all herders suffer.
So while no fisherman wants to see the fish stocks depleted, no individual has the incentive to cut back on the amount they personally catch. Giving fishermen a quota share in the fishery, however, provides an incentive to maintain long-term sustainability. The benefits are clear:

After a decade of using ITQs in the halibut fishery, the average fishing season now lasts for eight months. The number of search-and-rescue missions that are launched is down by more than 70% and deaths by 15%. And fish can be sold at the most lucrative time of year—and fresh, so that they fetch a better price.

In a report on this fishery, Dan Flavey, a fisherman himself, says some of his colleagues have even pushed for the quota to be reduced by 40%. “Most fishermen will now support cuts in quota because they feel guaranteed that in the future, when the stocks recover, they would be the ones to benefit,” he says.

While there are numerous practical hurdles to overcome, much of the resistance to ITQs is psychological. The notion of privatizing the oceans (or any other commonly held environmental resource) is viscerally jarring. And yet the logic behind the tragedy of the commons and ITQ's is so intuitive and the benefits so clear. Given the dire state of our oceans, I think this is something we need to try. If for no other reason, I'd like my grandchildren to know what sushi tastes like.

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