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The history of fisheries management in the United States largely is one of mismanagement, depletion, and what scientist Garrett Hardin once described as the “Tragedy of the Commons.” In recent years, however, some progress has been made. A growing appreciation for what underlies most fisheries declines has resulted in some efforts to create positive incentives for marine conservation, most notably in Iceland and New Zealand. In the United States, however, such programs are rare and have even been prohibited in recent years under the 1996 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (the nation’s overarching fisheries management legislation). On December 9, 2006, Congress again reauthorized the act to include compromises, including the authorization of such schemes.
Fish stocks and other marine resources have suffered immeasurably from management regimes that pit fishers against regulators; the most common response to fishery depletion has been the use of regulations, such as limiting fishing seasons. Such regulations create incentives for harvesters to catch as many fish as they can, often as quickly as they can, even to the detriment of the resource—because if they don’t catch the fish, someone else will.
In contrast, when fishers own a fishery or have some sort of property right to a certain harvest, they have incentives to maintain the long-term health of the fishery and will strive for sustainable harvests, making investments both to protect the resource and often even to enhance it. In New Zealand, for example, where harvesting rights are well defined, fishers have reduced harvests voluntarily, have invested heavily in scientific research, and in the case of the scallop fishery, also have invested in an ambitious reseeding and enhancement program.
The collapse of the once-rich fisheries along the Georges Bank off the coast of New England serves as a dramatic testimony to both the failure of fishery management in the United States and the fatal flaws of regulatory attempts to prevent overfishing. Traditional limits on seasons and fishing gear simply encourage harvesters to figure out ways around the restrictions. Limit the number of fishing days, for example, and fishing efforts will simply intensify during the permitted period. The quota- and subsidydriven Common Fisheries Policy of the European Union (EU) is another example of failed management systems that purportedly protect resources but in fact deliver perverse incentives. Without any sense of ownership, individuals are not likely to attempt to conserve or enhance marine resources, because the benefits of doing so are diluted throughout the fishery. Fishers have no desire to destroy their own source of livelihood, but as long as the rules of the game reward overharvesting, fish stocks will continue to decline.