Use Property Rights to Save Fisheries Around the Globe, Says New Study

Anything you think of as an environmental problem is occurring in an open-access commons.


Dreamstime: Igor Gorshev

If nothing is done to reform open-access fisheries around the world, fishing stocks could drop by as much as 77 percent below current levels by 2050, reports a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If, however, property rights were assigned to individual fishers or communities, the yield trajectory of most of the world's fisheries would shift sharply upward and most would recover biologically in only 10 years. These conclusions were reached by a team of researchers led by University of California, Santa Barbara environmental scientist Christopher Costello in their study, "Global fishing prospects under contrasting management regimes."

The team evaluated data from 4,713 fisheries world which represent 78 percent of the world's reported fish catch and found that only a third of them are in good biological shape. Most of these are more or less open-access commons in which fishers race one another to catch as many fish as possible. Leaving a fish behind means leaving it for other competitive fishers to catch, thus open-access leads to a race to the biological bottom that eventually destroys a fishery. A good close to home example is the collapse and closure of the cod fishery off Newfoundland in 1992. Although the cod fishing moratorium essentially continues, that fishery has yet to recover to anywhere close to its historic productivity.

The new study argues that establishing "rights based fishery management" reforms would boost annual global catch by 16 million metric tons over current levels, yield an additional $53 billion in profits to fishers, and increase overall biomass by 619 million tons. Rights based fishery management means giving property rights to fishers. If a fisher owns 1 percent of fishery, he or she realizes that 1 percent of a growing fishery means more fish and more profits.

Even the Washington Post's editorial board endorsed the fisheries property rights reforms outlined in the study:

To bring about this happy ending, governments must give fishermen a stake in the overall health of their fisheries. One way to accomplish this is to require fishermen to hold rights to catch a certain amount of seafood in a certain fishery, which allows governments to manage the total haul and reduces the frenzied competition to scoop up as much as possible as quickly as possible. Ideally, these "catch shares" could be bought and sold so that rights would end up with those who could fish most efficiently.

If you remember nothing else, please remember: Anything you think of as an environmental problem is occurring in an open-access commons.

Note: I will be speaking about free market environmentalism and my new book The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the 21st Century on Saturday, April 2 at Florida Gulf Coast University at the Students for Liberty Conference on that topic. Go here for more details.