Give a Man a Fishery and Soon You'll Have More Fish


Congress' preferred fisheries policy

Apparently Congress would prefer to destroy fisheries instead. Earlier this month, Republicans in House of Representatives (ably assisted by outgoing Democratic crank Barny Frank) passed legislation disallowing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to expand its fisheries catch share programs [PDF]. One of the chief sponsors of the legislation was Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla) who declared:

One of the greatest threats facing Gulf and Atlantic fisheries today is catch shares.  By capping the amount of fish to be caught annually and gifting a select few with shares of the annual catch, NOAA is privatizing access to a once open fishery.     

Gone are the days when enterprising young people can buy a boat and set out to make a living for their families.  Now they must lease access to the fish they want to catch, paying one of the gifted few for the privilege.  As catch shares are systematically implemented, in one fishery after another, more fishermen go out of business because they are not gifted enough shares to make a living.  This management tool is nothing short of cap-and-trade for our coastal economy. 

Say what? There won't be all that many fish left for "enterprising young people" if the tragedy of commons is allowed to play out to its depleted conclusion. Using Southerland's logic, "gone are the days when enterprising young people could just put herds of cows on the prairie and set out to make a living for their families." Damned privatized farms and ranches!

Although far from perfect, catch share programs create a quasi-property right to fish the encourages fishers to stop depleting stocks by overfishing. Disallowing this is just plain stupid public policy.

The Congresscritters need to read a new report by the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute that argues for (1) allocating property rights to fisheries and (2) cutting subsidies as ways to prevent their collapse from overfishing. As the report notes: 

The oceans are an important source of food and income for people around the world. In 2007, proteins from fish accounted for 15.7 percent of the total global animal protein supply. In 2008, an estimated 44.9 million people were directly engaged in the fishing industry (both marine capture and aquaculture). However, the world's fish stocks are not limitless, and are being depleted rapidly.

Two principal factors are at work. First, the billions of dollars in subsidies bestowed on the fishing industry by many governments makes overfishing profitable, even as per capita fishing yields decline. Second, the absence of property rights over fish in most countries means that there is no incentive for any party to husband this resource. In fact, the absence of property rights, combined with subsidies, creates a perverse incentive to deplete this scarce resource.

And there is plenty of evidence that at least one-third of capture fisheries globally are being depleted by overfishing. CEI cites a report that suggests that global fisheries subsidies amount to just under $14 billion annually. Basically fishers are being paid to kill far more fish than is economically justifiable. In addition, research shows that creating property rights in fisheries, most frequently individual tradeable quotas (ITQs) encourages fishers to manage stocks so as to increase their size. The CEI report notes:  

In 2008, researchers Christopher Costello, Steven Gaines and John Lynham investigated the effects of all 121 fisheries where IFQs and other catch share schemes exist around the world for a study published in Science magazine, comparing them to the 11,000 fisheries without property rights and controlling for confounding factors such as fish species and ecosystem characteristics. They found that the existence of catch share rights not only precluded fishery collapse but, as in New Zealand, often helped reverse pre-existing collapse.

Moreover, the authors found that if catch shares 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. The evidence is clear: ITQs and similar catch-share schemes should be implemented now on a global basis. Failure to do so represents a gross disregard for the future of our oceanic ecology and resources.

Catch shares, imperfect though they may be, are part of the reason that NOAA's Fish Stock Sustainability Index has risen from 375 to 598 since 2000—67 percent increase.

If it's not the Democrats screwing up policy, it's the Republicans—that's bipartisanship for you! 

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  1. Thanks to property ownership Gone are the days when enterprising young people can buy a chainsaw and set out to make a living for their families by cutting down virgin forests.

    I thought the tragedy of the commons was like day 1 of even the most basic economics class. How can these people be this stupid?

    1. Dagnabbit, if the world today can’t be like the world in 1954 (when most congressmen and senators became aware of the world around them), its just not worth living in.

  2. Uh, yeah, because collapsed fisheries offer SO much opportunity for young enterprising fishermen…

    Without catch shares (an empirically effective way to manage fisheries), every boat has an incentive to destroy the fishery before the next guy does.

  3. Gone are the days when enterprising young people can buy a boat and set out to make a living for their families.

    No kidding. And once catch share is eliminated, they still won’t be able to.

    Why not? Well, because either (a) the fish will be fished out or (b) they will need one of a limited number of commercial licenses, which they won’t be able to get after the grandfathering and cronyism is done with.

  4. I think this dude is going to be my congresscritter after redistricting. I live about 100 yards outside of his district right now. Sigh. The guy he replaced was just as bad in different ways. Ooh. Maybe I’ll get to vote against him in November.

    1. Heh, heh – send him a letter saying you’re a young man with a chainsaw (or want to buy a herd of cows) and see if he’ll allow you on federal land to practice your entreprenuership.

      1. I like this. I’m’na do it.

  5. Give a man a fish, and he’ll stink for a day.
    Teach a man to fish, and he’ll stink for a lifetime.

  6. Ok, so now we have a ‘natural’ experiment: we start with a commons, no individual property (in the fishing waters). And now we want to create property where there had been none before.

    Question: who gets the property?

    This is where all “Libertarian” theory turns to sh!t. They want to make something “invioble” and “inalienable” out of something that is purely expedient and contingent.

    Libertarians refuse to understand that there is such a thing as “politics.” They think “property” comes from some magical fairy that makes everything ‘just so’ on some perfect ‘Day One.’

    If you want to make ‘property’ out of these fisheries — or anything else — you have to ‘take away’ from some one every bit as much as you ‘give’ to some one else. “Property” begins with as much arbitrary violence as any other political arrangement. If a free and open democratic process is not the legitimate vehicle for negotiating these arrangements, then nothing is, and the giving of the property is no less a theft than the taking away of it.

      1. A tautology at best that is able to resolve exactly nothing apolitically.

      2. I remember talking about him in college, and the term “efficiency” being tossed around a lot.

        So the question becomes, who determines the efficiency quotient? What if one person disputes the subjective value placed on the variables used to determine the efficiency? And can rights really be boiled down to what’s efficient, even if such a term could be defined in a way acceptable to all parties?

        1. Exactly.

        2. Uh. As I recall it, its a contractual negotiation between interested parties. As such, each party defines efficiency in such a way as to attempt to maximize their benefit. Like every other contractual discussion. The outcome is in aggregate efficient just like any other market. As I understand it.

          1. It isn’t a negotiation when the arbitar of the property right (almost always the sovereign) is the one who decides the efficiency.

            I just took a look at the wiki page to make sure I’m understanding this right. They use the example of farmer (wants his land off-limits to grazing) and rancher (wants more grazing land). They can’t both define efficiency how they want if they both want the same land (they’ll just define efficiency to suit their own ends, i.e., getting the land). So ultimately the granting institution has to take a side.

            It’s at that point that my questions get raised.

            1. What if the farmer and the rancher came to an agreement in which they’d split the cost of building and maintaining a fence. In addition, both would walk the fenceline every so often, and the farmer would refrain from shooting stock that did get across the fence. The rancher protects his stock, the farmer protects his crop and it balances their obligation. This sounds to me like a Coasean agreement. The land is the farmers, but the rancher agrees to pay for the fence because the alternative is having the farmer shoot any stock in the crop.

              1. obligation is a bad word, strike and replace with interests.

          2. And none of this is to say that I’m against privatization or property rights. I just don’t find the Coase method of arriving at such to be the most convincing.

    1. You are not free to gambol about the country.

      1. “White Indian,” to whom you allude, falls into the same trap. He thinks there is something ‘invioble’ in the ‘right’ to ‘gambol,’ failing to understand that even maintaining a vast undivided commons is also a political choice, ultimately backed up by violence as much as any other arrangement.

        1. You sound an awful lot like Tony on his coherent days. You’re Tony, aren’t you?

          1. Not Tony; not Mary, either (but you’ll never convince John of that).

        2. In the end, determining first rights creates winners and losers unless you simply distribute out equal shares to every single human being on the planet (not a practical solution yet). I, not being a fisherman, would sell my 1/3 billionth of a share of the worlds fishing resources for a sandwich, but the distribution of my share out and back to the sandwich provider is a negative GDP generator. Unfortunately then initial share generation is a political process and involves unfairly cutting out certain parties. However, the distribution itself is still necessary to prevent a tragedy of the commons. No political process is fair and equitable, but its usually better than the alternative (just mob violence).

          1. Exactly.

            Thus, politics.

            Thus, everything the Liberteabaggers call “socialism.”

            1. huh? establishing a property rights system via government is not “socialism”. “Socialism” would be the opposite, saying that fish belong to everyone and therefore the fisherman must price according to a government price or be penalized. It would collapse the fishery even faster than just allowing a free for all because the incentive would be only to catch as many as possible, not look to the future since scarcity couldn’t be priced in.

              Complete anarchy would decimate the wild population of the fish, but private hatcheries could grow most types of fish. However, I don’t think we want to shock nature that much, so reasonable government limits to keep wild populations intact is important. The problem is how to reign in the out of control bureaucrats then.

            2. Single Land Tax.

              Henry George solved this fucking problem in the 19th century.

              1. robc,

                Are you suggesting we segment off the sea and tax the blocks?

          2. would sell my 1/3 billionth of a share of the worlds fishing resources for a sandwich

            Filet’O’Fish, right?

            1. At least get a grouper sammich out of it. Mmm. Grouper sammich.

    2. Question: who gets the property?

      Let’s stick with the traditional approach here: It starts off as a possession of the sovereign, which sells it, in toto, to whoever offers the most.

      That’s how just about every square inch of privately owned real estate on the planet got its start as “property”, so we know it works.

      1. It “works” if you already have property so you can pay for more property.

        If you don’t, it doesn’t.

        1. “It “works” if you already have property so you can pay for more property.

          If you don’t, it doesn’t.”

          So never, in all of human history, has anyone other than a property owner been successful in obtaining and trading property?

          1. “All of human history” can speak for itself.

            This much we can say with confidence: it started with bloody murder.

            1. Meh. I haven’t killed anyone, yet. Don’t know anyone who has.

              1. You aren’t different from anyone else. You sit in a boat that floats on a sea of blood.

                1. Nope. I get seasick too easily. I fish from the shore, except for 1 or 2 times a year when I take some dramamine and go deep sea fishing. Even when I go out there I don’t see any blood unless I foul hook a tuna.

                  Are you from a different planet and just patching into this comment thread to mess with us puny humans? If so, I bow to your awesome superiority, and beg of you to use your real name so that our government can demand that the SETI researchers aim the antenna your way to allow you to give us more of your awesome wisdom.

                  1. You can be coy and snarky, but you know the truth of the matter. You choose to look the other way.

                    1. Yep. White Indian, or one of Mary’s other personalities.

                    2. Brandon, ask Gojira if you are right or wrong. Gojira will tell you yes or no.

                    3. TROOF!~!11

                    4. @Registration – I believe you mean Cod and Sharks (darn that spell check of yours). I don’t fish for either, you can ask my girlfriend. I do like going after steelhead and salmon, though. And you are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! You have to look both ways when you’re fishing on a crowded riverbank near a good spot. Those darned steelheads will jump one eddy right to the other, and you’ll be casting in a blank hole for a long time if you don’t watch out for them.

                      That’s the truth of the matter, and I’m glad you pointed it out, since many people here might not have a solid grasp on fishing, which I think is the gist of this article. It was fun chatting about all of that other stuff though.

                      Thanks again.

                    5. You try to hard, Bill Turner.
                      It makes you look weak.
                      Which is what you are.

        2. Or offer labor/improvement in lieu.

          1. Is that a complaint, Brett, or an addendum?

            1. I’m just saying that there is always away to acquire property besides “having property”. Property is just stored value. Offering the value of your labor or the value of improving an unused property are both traditional ways of acquiring property. See: earning a paycheck for a slightly less direct route.

              1. Cool, an addendum. Ideas and plans are also valid property that can be shared with investors to generate currency as well.

                1. Well, ideas and plans have value that can be shared with investors. Whether or not they are, or should be property in and of themselves is a subject of debate around here. I think the patent system, for physical inventions, was an excellent compromise. Copyright was an okay idea that has been destroyed by The Mouse. Software patents are crap. Chunks of code are, at best, trade secrets.

                  1. Chunks of code are, at best, trade secrets.

                    GASP! You dare claim that a particularly arranged collection of ASCII characters don’t invoke magic spirits worthy of…ok, sorry, I couldn’t finish without laughing myself to death.

                  2. To be clear, just like similar properties on separate sides of town, ideas can be held by two different people and have similar value. How one sells the idea may influence appreciation or depreciation in the market.

        3. It “works” if you already have property so you can pay for more property.

          IOW, just like everything else in a functioning economy, right?

          The alternative, of course, is to distribute the property according to politics. Much better, I’m sure.

          1. Or “bloody murder,” so I’ve been told.

    3. I don’t agree with Coase’s utilitarian theory. On the contrary, a theory of original appropriation of unused land/property (including waters) by homesteading produces well defined property rights that are ethical.

      It has been tested before and in fact was used in the pioneering days as well as the early radio days even for something nebulous like air waves, before the FCC (which ruined the whole thing)

    4. Question: who gets the property?

      You make a valid point, all rights are at some level backed by force. The right to a fair trial, freedom of speech, the right to vote. On some level tehse are all backed by force and the threat of force.

      The question really is ho do you create a fair system? Basically by granting everyone the same rights and making sure they are equally enforced. making sure that the force backing those rights is not biased in favor of any one group or individual.

      So, in the case of fisheries, you need ot set up a system where everyone has an equal chance of obtaining a “catch share”.

      In other words, the problem with this system is that the catch shares are granted by the government on an unequal basis. Not that they exist in the first place.

      What should happen is the state should set up some sort of lottery system to distribute “shares”, and people can then trade amoungst themselves to accumulate the amount they can afford or need. As shares get more scarce, the price goes up, just as it should, and the market will then set a price for catch shares that will ultimately be based on the scarcity of fish and the cost inputs of fishing, and the benefits will then be devided amoung all those who participated in the lottery.

      1. Barely — just barely — plausible as a matter of pure theory, provided you pay absolutely no heed to scalability and transaction costs and accidents of chronology.

        In practice, not until hell freezes over.

        1. I don’t really see what the problem is. Are there scalability and transaction cost problems with trading options on cattle futures?

  7. ITQ’s are a great solution, provided that they are issued in 1 of 2 ways: Either on an annual open auction basis (to prevent hereditary rights to fishing from squeezing out legitimate competition), or (if one wants to have a terribly transient fishing industry) by open lottery each year.

    I can’t think of many people outside of congress (and am especially unable to think of any among sporting anglers – among whom I am unrepentantly counted) who don’t recognize the need to effectively manage fisheries. My only concern is to prevent the cornering of the market by the same type of cronyism that has wrecked so much else in this market.

    So, I would say that I agree with you, as long as we maintain checks in the quota system to prevent cronyism. My concern with the good congressman’s initial vitriol is that he is using “young entrepreneurs” as code language for “old long-line fish trawlers who want THEIR fisheries back.” Wouldn’t be the first time a politician used a group of words that didn’t mean what he was conveying.

    1. Agreed. The real issue should be “how are the shares distributed?”

      Make sure that there is a fair system that anyone has an equal chance to participate in and get a fishing share.

      My concern is also that Democrats will start handing out catch shares to “communities”, which is code for giving them to local city councils to engage in political patronage with. Or to engage in patronage directly by giving (say) the local indian tribe a bigger catch share in exchange for more votes. Politics needs to be completely removed from the process of allocating shares.

  8. 1. The science here, as in other areas, has become very politicized. It is not clear (at least to me) to what extent overfishing is actually a problem and for what areas/species.
    2. NOAA has been very heavy-handed in its application of the program, which is why you have Democrats like Kerry and Frank making common cause with Republicans against NOAA.
    3. The quota system is pushing consolidation in the industry, i.e. smaller outfits are being put out of business (the NOAA Administrator said that they were “marginal”) because only the larger companies have a big enough quota to be economically viable.
    4. The NZ system is different, and better. A fisherman has (I think) a property interest in his quota, which he can trade and use, unlike here.

    1. Like in most things, New Zealand kicks our ass, *sadface*

    2. Oregon has a system wherein trading of shares is allowed and encouraged. It works as well.

    3. Wait, is the NZ system cap and trade?

    4. Does our system no allow catch shares to be traded? I would think that would be an essential feature. What good are property rights if you can’t sell your property?

  9. Wait, fisheries can collapse? That’s nonsense. Fish will become more expensive, at which point innovators will develop new, better fishing methods to get the fish that were missed before. Are you trying to tell me you can’t have infinite growth?

    1. We really need a sarcasm font.

    2. @JerseyPat – Eh, perpetual maintenance of resources in a responsible way leads to practical infinite growth.

      1. Give or take one well placed asteroid.

  10. Using Southerland’s logic, “gone are the days when enterprising young people could just put herds of cows on the prairie and set out to make a living for their families.” Damned privatized farms and ranches!

    A fairly lousy analogy, given the vast acreage that has been unilaterally declared off-limits to homesteading, or any other sort of human access, by government fiat.

  11. Note though that this is one situation where the government stepping in to create these shares was a good thing.

    oh well…

  12. Then set him on fire, and he’ll smell like fish cooking.

  13. Bailey and Southerland both have legitimate points. Bailey’s one word answer, “Coase”, does not settle the matter, because while tradable property rights may lead to the most efficient *allocation* of resources, they do not settle the question of the justice of *distribution* of resources.

    Southerland’s point was valid: If we give away fishing rights (to whom, on what basis?) young entrepreneurs in times to come will not be able to fish, unless they buy or lease rights from the existing owners.

  14. Here’s Part Two (I went over 1500 characters):

    And what moral basis do we have to create such fishing rights? At most, we might decree that Captain Smith may go catch five tons of fish this week, while Mr. Jones may not, but how can we create a right for Captain Smith or his heirs to catch fish twenty or a hundred years from now, while denying that right to the Joneses? We did not create those future fish, and Captain Smith surely did not.

    There are additional alternatives to the tragedy of the commons (overfishing) and creating property rights to property which no mortal created. I recommend Georgism as the alternative, paying resource rents to the government, and abolishing other taxes. If one thousand tons of fish may be taken from a fishery sustainably, we could auction those rights off in convenient units (one ton at a time, perhaps, where a fisher can bid for as many tons as he wants).

    A new entrepreneur would be free to come along and bid, and those who paid for fishing rights this year would have no special claims on the future.

    With permanent “rights” to fish, the descendants of Captain Smith may live lives of wealth and leisure ashore, based on their ownership of the rights, while the descendants of Mr. Jones do the actual fishing, and pay the Smiths for the right to catch fish by hard labor. Is this justice?

    1. If one thousand tons of fish may be taken from a fishery sustainably, we could auction those rights off in convenient units (one ton at a time, perhaps, where a fisher can bid for as many tons as he wants).

      How would this be different from a catch share program? You just auction off shares and your catch share is determined by the number of shares you can afford to buy.

      My problem with this is what right does the government have to collect the revenue in the first place? This means that young entrepreneurs in the future will still have to pay increasing fees to the government as the auction price of a fishing share increases.

      How about having a lottery system? Everyone who enters the lottery gets an equal share, which they can then own and trade with others. Some people will sell their shares to actual fishermen who will then buy up the amount they need. That way the money is distributed throughout society. Everyone who participates in the lottery can sell their share and thus get a small benefit from the fishing season, even if they don’t accumate enough shares to make it worth taking a boat out and fishing.

    2. Are you also for taking away people’s land and having its utilization auctioned off each year?

      The life of leisure thing is a misnomer. Captain Smith still has to reach an agreement with Mr. Jones on what share would be reached in a rental agreement while MR. Jones could go negotiate with Captain Ron for a better share agreement or buy Captain Smith out altogether if current catch prices are low because no one wants herring anymore.

    3. Agreed an annual auction would be the better course. The amount auctioned could also be adjusted each year as fishing conditions persist.

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