Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Solutions to seemingly intractable situations often require a paradigm shift of some sort. Something has to change that fundamentally alters the dynamic of the conflict. What does this have to do with fishing? Everything.

In the last twenty years fish in our waters became scarce, some environmental groups lobbied, filed lawsuits and campaigned against the pillaging of the ocean. In some cases directly other cases by insinuation fishermen were billed as "greedy", "rapacious" people who would only stop fishing when there were no more fish.

Meanwhile, fishermen's distrust of environmental groups grew into hatred. In this mix of antipathy NOAA probably received the most scorn. Enviro groups loathed the agency for not living up to the law, cowering to industry pressure and general incompetence. Fishermen and the fishing industry rightly felt persecution and heavy handed strategies to keep them from fishing such as the absurd idea of "days at sea" management regime, and regulations based on "science" that time and again proved to be lacking in rigor.

Looking back into this stew of acrimony and conflict, one thing seems exceedingly clear: management of fisheries is and has been bad for as long as people have tried to manage fisheries. Why is this? And, is there a better solution to this seemingly intractable mess?

I've been pondering this question for some time and every solution fails in some aspect to address the fundamental economic problem of the tragedy of the commons. I'm no economist, but the tragedy of the commons argues that individuals will deplete a common resource because it is in their own rational self-interest to get as much of the common before someone else does.

The solutions for problems of the commons, it is often argued, are to privatize the resource. In fishing this means "catch shares". For us in New England it is called "sectors". However privatization alone will not stop overfishing because it does not remove the incentive to catch as much as you can, rather it creates an incentive to make the worth of your "share" more valuable - be it by fishing or leasing your share or selling it. The only incentive to not deplete the resource is that it devalues the overall value of "shares", much like the value of the New York Stock exchange is higher than the the value of the Iraq Stock Exchange because the value of the individual shares that make up the market are worth more in one than the other.

However, realistically for fishermen, the value of their shares are completely out of their own control (unless you have enough shares to monopolize the market). The primary incentive not to over fish is actually a disincentive - a hard cap on the amount of fish you can catch. In the bizarre world of fish politics acronyms, it is called TAC for Total Allowable Catch.

Furthermore, "owning" shares of a TAC does not convey normal ownership rights such that you would invest in the value of your shares as you would make improvements to your house to increase its value. Instead fishermen only own the right to extract an amount from anywhere they can get it by the most efficient means (not always the most sustainable or environmentally friendly - in fact and in practice it is often the least environmentally friendly means that drives the value of the "share" higher).

Which brings again to the question/problem of how to regulate fishing in an effective, logical way. If you were given a "share" of fish and were told you can only catch those fish is this section of the ocean. No one else can catch fish in that section. All of a sudden the fisherman has a vested financial interest in the health and viability of the ocean under his or her control. In this scenario, catching up all the fish would be illogical and irrational.

This idea is called "Area Management". In area management, fish are allocated according to the scale of the ecosystem and its ability to sustain fishing - with fishermen considered as part of the ecosystem.

The problem for Area Management has always been the idea that fish populations are homogeneous, especially in New England and that fish naturally migrate between areas. In fact emerging science is showing that fish are much more sedentary than previously thought. Additionally they do not disperse as readily as had been assumed. A good example of this is that cod populations in the Eastern Gulf of Maine have crashed and are not rebounding even though cod populations in the Western Gulf of Maine are robust. In reality, cod are much more like salmon than we ever thought, they go back to the same spawning grounds, feeding grounds and breeding grounds and do not mix with other sub-populations on a large scale.

There is much much more to share on this topic, but a great place to start is this paper which gives a scientific background to the idea of Area Management. Thanks for reading!

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