Sunday, September 21, 2008

Fishermen discover the tragedy of the commons

Researchers publishing in the journal Science did a study on the sustainability of fisheries, and found that privatization of fisheries goes a long way towards declining fish stocks. Of the 11,000 fisheries worldwide that they studied, 121 of them used a system of "ownership shares," whereby groups are given the right to fish a certain fish in a certain region. Those that used ownership share systems had "much lower" collapse rights – so low that they saw in the system "the potential for greatly altering the future of global fisheries." This is important, as there have been dire predictions about the collapse of entire species – one scientist concluded that if current fishing practices continue, "all the world’s major commercial stocks" will be at 10% of less of their historical maximums.

Though this study is the first comparing privatized fisheries with their more prevalent non-privatized counterparts, this phenomenon is so prevalent that economists have a name for it: the tragedy of the commons. If everyone has access to a piece of property but no ability to exclude others from using it, everybody is going to exploit the land for all its worth, with no thought to the future vitality of the land (or, in this case, the fishing stock). Even though each individual fisherman might desire that the fish be in the ocean forever, if he doesn't have the power to stop people from fishing, he's just going to assume that if he doesn't get to it, someone will get to it before him, and he's going to continue fishing as if there's no tomorrow (because in essence, there isn't). Privatizing a piece of property gives the owners an incentive to ensure that the land (or sea) is productive into the future. I personally don't like seafood, so I don't give a shit whether or not our seafood stock survives into the 22nd century, but I have a feeling that a lot of other people do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Seafood is a primary source of animal protein for much of Asia. The papers that arose out of the release of pictures from the DMSP provided a world of knowledge, including the new lights on the S China Sea, where fishermen use lights to attract squid, the only remaining catch available at a competive price as the other fisheries were fished down.

At any rate, the catch in such scenarios is still regulated even though there is some sort of 'free market' veneer. Fisheries are very common adaptive management programs when doing scenario analysis, and in the ecological community such results are well known. Good to see they are leaking out to a wider audience.

I recommend reading adaptive ecological management programs before pronouncing private property rights as the be-all and end-all as there are caveats in these things. It's not free market and private property Nirvana.