Owning the fish might save them. Conventional wisdom has maintained that overfishing can only be solved by public intervention. Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” has been read as a fable in favor of government regulation of resources. The story consists of a pasture that is open to all animals to graze. Individuals, however, are self-interested, so they contribute more livestock to the pasture than it can sustain. Each rancher, pursuing her self-interest, contributes to the destruction of the pasture. Many ecologists have concluded from this fable is that the government should regulate how many livestock each owner may allow to graze[i].
There is, however, another way of thinking about the tragedy of the commons. Suppose each rancher owned a section of the pasture upon which her animals could graze. The incentives change. She is more likely not to deplete her own grass because she is interested in long-term profit. If she puts too many sheep on her section and depletes all of the grass, there will be none left for her future sheep. Therefore, she is more likely to use her resource judiciously.
This line of thinking extends to fisheries. Water is currently available to all, and overfishing occurs primarily because fishermen have incentives to catch as many fish as they can, knowing that, if they do not, others will take the catch. Ultimately, fish stocks become depleted as each entity catches as much as they can in a survival-of-the-fittest contest. Ownership of fisheries may prevent depletion by providing fishermen with an incentive to conserve their own stock for future profit. The current system of public fishing, on the other hand, turns fishing into a free-for-all.
Market-based fishery policies have proven largely successful in other countries. Japan, for example, has utilized Territorial Use Fishing Rights (TURFs) for hundreds of years. Japan’s TURF policy is an almost purely private system. The government awards rights to particular fisheries and these rights determine the geographic scope of where its owner may fish. Fishing on another owner’s property constitutes a legal infraction and is punishable in courts. The rights usually belong to spontaneously formed Fishery Cooperative Associations (FCAs) that have centuries-long historical lineages.
New Zealand also uses a market-oriented mechanism of awarding fishing rights. Its policy, however, is more of a public-private hybrid scheme than Japan’s. The country utilizes an Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) system, in which the government sets a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and awards rights to a certain percentage of the catch to fishermen. Fishermen are then free to trade these rights among each other. The government thus creates a market for allowable fishing. This scheme is somewhat akin to cap-and-trade policies for dealing with greenhouse gas emissions.
We cannot afford to continue the current system of free-for-all fishing. While regulation may provide incentives for fishermen to skirt the rules, property rights may provide more sustainable incentives to conserve fish. The implications of overfishing are enormous. Should open-access fishing continue, both ocean health and human health will suffer; entire cultures and industries could disappear. To move beyond the tragedy of the commons leaves us at a fork in the road – to privatize or to regulate? Public fishing schemes have largely contributed to the crisis – why not take a leaf out of Japan’s or New Zealand’s books?