Overfishing is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons, a situation where resource users have little incentive to conserve because they don't enjoy the benefits of conservation. For decades various jurisdictions, including Alaska, Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia, have tried to get around this problem by distributing tradable fishing rights, which are worth more when they are exercised with restraint. The results, according to a wide-ranging study reported in the September 19 issue of Science, are highly encouraging.
Reviewing the track records of 11,135 fisheries over half a century, the researchers conclude that privatization promotes sustainable fishing practices. "Implementation of catch shares halts, and even reverses, the global trend toward widespread [fishery] collapse," they write. "Institutional change has the potential for greatly altering the future of global fisheries."
The lead author of the study, Christopher Costello, an economist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, called the results "very positive, very striking." Ray Hilborn, a fisheries expert at the University of Washington, told The New York Times the findings are consistent with earlier research. "There is nothing surprising in it," he said.