Fish Enough for All

Fish Enough for All

September 30, 2010
Originally published in The Washington Examiner Opinion Zone

Ron Arnold alleged yesterday that Jane Lubchenco and the bureaucrats at NOAA are killing the New England fishing industry.  Averse as I am to ever giving bureaucrats the benefit of the doubt, I think the accusation goes too far.  The reforms to the fishing system in New England are a step in the right direction for the future of the fisheries and the fishermen who are losing out are victims of past mismanagement of the fisheries, not the new system.

The trouble is that fish stocks are indeed collapsing all over the world, for the most part because governments have encouraged, by subsidy and other misjudged policies, overfishing to a level that private ownership of fisheries would never have tolerated.  Fisheries are a textbook example of the tragedy of the commons – fishermen are inclined to take as many fish as they can because if they don’t, someone else will.  The textbook answer to a tragedy of the commons is to assign ownership rights, but governments all over the world have refused to do that, or have interfered in traditional arrangements for protecting fisheries.  Moreover, governments have subsidized fishing fleets in order to “protect traditional industries” and for other reasons, which has exacerbated the problem by making fishing fleets far too large.

As John Tierney put it in the New York Times, “The Canadian and American governments devastated one of the world's most productive fisheries, the Georges Banks off the coast of New England, by helping to pay for bigger boats. Now, even as scientists urge limits on lobstering, state and federal governments continue to offer tax breaks and other incentives to the lobstermen at Point Judith.”

Tradeable catch share, or ITQs, the system that is being imposed in New England, seeks to remedy this government-caused problem by introducing genuine ownership stakes in the fisheries.  Wherever it has been tried, it has worked to restore collapsed fisheries by making the fishermen responsible stewards of the fish rather than, as Tierney says, hunter-gatherers.  A recent study in Science magazine found that if such property rights in fisheries had been instituted globally from 1970, then the incidence of fishery collapse would have been reduced by two-thirds.  Fish stocks, furthermore, would be rising rather than falling.

Of course, because fishing fleets have been bloated by years of government interference, there will be economic casualties in the course of a move to a more responsible property rights-based system, and the process by which that works out will be seen as anything but fair by the victims.  When the Alaskan fishermen of “The Deadliest Catch” fame worked under the old, damaging, dangerous “derby” system where boats raced each other to get as much catch as possible until the fishing window closed, there were 250 boats in the fleet.  This shrank to 89 in the season that catch share was introduced, but evidence suggests that the bloated fleet size was itself ruining the industry.

Catch shares not only promote responsible fisheries management, they impose much-needed humility on bureaucrats and government scientists.  Again, Tierney underlines this when he talks about the introduction of catch shares to Australia: “In South Australia, the lobstermen act quickly to prevent overfishing, sometimes imposing stricter limits than the ones suggested by scientists. ''We don't have to fight with the lobstermen,'' McGarvey said. ''The old philosophy of fishery scientists was, 'We're philosopher kings and the fishermen are children who don't know what's good for themselves or the fish, so we have to impose regulations.' Now we just tell them what our research shows about the fishery, and they do a great job of regulating themselves.''”

There is no doubt that Lubchenco is a doctrinaire environmentalist, and there is much about her and NOAA to condemn, but the accusations about catch share made in Arnold’s column are an attack upon a proven, workable free-market solution to a problem government has foisted on us.  That’s exactly the sort of solution we want environmentalists and this administration to see working.