A Free-Market Solution for Fisheries

When humans first shifted from hunting and gathering to agriculture thousands of years ago, the establishment of private property rights yielded enormous benefits to natural resource conservation. People could finally address the problem ecologist Garrett Hardin came to call “the tragedy of the commons.” The owner of a resource takes responsibility for its long-term conservation. If the owner fails to act, the resource ceases to be of any value to anyone. Likewise, if no one owns a given resource, everyone has an incentive to abuse and deplete it.

Today, that insight is the cornerstone of “free market environmentalism” — a way of looking at society’s concern for protecting natural resources that is consistent with private property rights and capitalist prosperity. Comprehensive studies of private conservation show the benefits of a property rights-based approach relying on private stewardship.

Today, the world’s ocean fisheries are an extremely valuable commonly held resource that is a source of great environmental concern. That is because it’s not just domestic producers who are putting pressure on a depleted resource as they seek to extract its riches. America’s fishermen are up against the world’s. Can the principles of private conservation be applied here as well?

Research suggests it can. A decade ago, scholar Michael De Alessi offered some initial ideas to the United States on this approach in his groundbreaking work “Fishing for Solutions.” Over the past decade, De Alessi’s ideas have begun to be applied in a policy known as individual fishing quotas, also called “catch-shares.” The idea is simple: give fishermen an ownership stake in a particular fishery through the assignment of quotas, which can be traded. The quotas give individual fishermen — not bureaucrats — responsibility for managing each fishery. They, in turn, will work to maximize the longevity of that fishery, as it is in their long-term interest to do so.

Government steps out of the way and owners are allowed to be the stewards of the resources on which their livelihoods depend. The principles of property rights, free markets and environmental conservation all come together. And it seems to be working.

For an example of how successful this approach can be, look to New Zealand. There, the value of fishing exports has increased from $469 million in 1986, when the program began, to $923 million today. Fish landings have significantly increased. Almost all the fish stocks originally included are now above sustainable levels.

It is also important to note that the property right involved is constitutionally protected — it cannot be taken away by an arbitrary decision of government, as happened in Iceland in 2010. Fishermen will not be persuaded that catch-shares are a benefit to them and their families unless they can also be persuaded that bureaucrats will not revoke their rights to manage the fisheries they own. Indeed, one of the advantages of true catch-share programs is that they get bureaucrats out of the way. The bureaucratic approach has failed for the Endangered Species Act — under which only a handful of species have recovered — and it would undoubtedly fail here.

Catch-shares allow fishermen to own fish stocks and manage them themselves, rather than depend on government bureaucracy. They are an innovative — perhaps revolutionary — solution, and they don’t require us to reinvent the wheel. If we want to save fish, genuine catch-shares are the answer. The principles of private conservation underpinning them work and will protect sea life for decades to come. More government bureaucracy is the last thing America’s — and the world’s — fisheries need.