Tragedy of the Commons and Economies of "Scales"
In the halibut fishery the change in incentives that came from ownership led to a dramatic shift in behaviour. Today the halibut season lasts eight months and fishermen can make more by landing fish when the price is high. Where mariners’ only thought was once to catch fish before the next man, they now want to catch fewer fish than they are allowed to—because conservation increases the value of the fishery and their share in it. The combined value of their quota has increased by 67%, to $492m.
By giving fishermen a long-term interest in the health of the fishery, individual transferable quotas (ITQs) have transformed fishermen from rapacious predators into stewards and policemen of the resource. The tragedy of the commons is resolved when individuals own a defined and guaranteed share of a resource, a share that they can trade. This means that they can increase the amount of fish they catch not by using brute strength and fishing effort, but by buying additional shares or improving the fishery’s health and hence increasing its overall size.
Sadly, most of the rest of the world’s fisheries are still embroiled in a damaging race for fish that is robbing the seas of their wealth. Overfished populations are small, and so they yield a small catch or even go extinct.
For example, consider the situation of collapsing blue crab industry in Maryland, which was so bad this year that the "federal government is bailing out hard-pressed watermen with a disaster declaration."
Maryland lawmakers had sought the declaration by the Commerce Department since May, after Virginia posted a record-low harvest for the delectable crustaceans and Maryland had its lowest catch since 1945. Crabs remained the last thriving fishing industry in the Chesapeake until the 1990s, when pollution and overfishing finally took their toll. The stock is down by about 65% since 1990, according to Virginia and Maryland officials.
MP: Instead of another federal bailout for the blue crab industry ("too tasty to fail"?), maybe lawmakers should consider ITQs instead?
HTs: NCPA (halibut) and Peter Grose (blue crab)
See related Economist story on privatizing fisheries.