Until recently, the prevailing notion among regulators was that fisheries should be open and available to everyone. This assured that fisheries were subjected to the tragedy of the commons, and led to their worldwide decline.
Maintaining open access to marine resources encouraged fishermen to develop technologies that “vacuumed” the seas. In most other industries, innovations develop to protect and increase the value and/or supply of resources, but at sea they have only hastened the depletion of fisheries.
Slowly, scholars and regulators are beginning to understand that if fisheries are to survive, access to them must be limited. People will only work to conserve resources when they have a vested interest in them. This can be accomplished either partially or wholly by:
- creating government enforced rights to fisheries (ITQs),
- creating or allowing common property rights to develop, or
- creating or allowing private property rights to develop.
Government intervention has not allowed common and private property rights to develop, and so government control has been the norm. Even though governments are beginning to create rights to fisheries, these rights do not encourage conservation as well as private rights. Common property promotes conservation, but as resources increase in value and/or scarcity, private property rights offer the greatest rewards for protecting resources.
Private property rights encouraged entrepreneurs in the frontier American West to develop and adapt technologies to protect their property, and as fishermen secure rights to resources, they will do the same. Technologies exist today that could be used to enforce ownership in the marine environment, just as innovations like branding and fencing did in the American West. These include:
- sonar systems like the IUSS,
- tagging systems such as the PIT tag,
- sonar and satellites that monitor areas,
- submersibles to patrol areas,
- artificial reefs that create and enhance habitat, and
- aquaculture systems that farm fish inland, at sea, and on shore.
These technologies all offer a promising avenue for fishermen to exert control over marine resources. Allowing private ownership in the oceans would encourage their development and increase the private stewardship of marine resources.