There’s been a lot of discussion and analysis lately of fisheries and fishery policy. In many ways fisheries represent the quintessential “tragedy of the commons” (or what I prefer to call “tragedy of open access”) because treating fish populations as an open access resource has led to overfishing of many species as human populations have grown. Restricted fishing days/seasons have only made an already dangerous profession even more perilous, and quotas have not worked. How, then, to align the long-run incentives of fish, fishers and customers?
Last week, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy issued a preliminary report with recommendations to address shortfalls in existing ocean policy:
The message was clear: major changes are urgently needed. Ocean management responsibilities are dispersed among a confusing array of agencies at the federal, state, and local levels. While new scientific understanding has taught us that natural systems are complex and interconnected, our decision-making and management systems have not been updated to address that complexity and interconnectedness. Better approaches and tools are also needed to gather data to understand the complex marine environment. Perhaps most important, people must understand the role the oceans have on their lives and livelihoods and the impacts they themselves have on the oceans.
My read of the recommendations (if you don’t want to wade through the whole report, start at the report’s welcome page) is that it’s more of the same-old, same-old, control-and-manage mindset and culture, with little attention to tradeoffs and magnitudes of benefits relative to the costs of the control programs recommended. But Michael DeAlessi knows tons more about ocean policy than I do, and he’s reviewed the report.
The title of Michael’s op-ed on the report sums it up nicely:
Oceans need innovation, not bureaucracy
I encourage you to read the whole thing; he illustrates the tragedy of the commons aspect of the problem, how bureaucratic approaches have not changed that, and why a systematic property rights approach to the entirety of ocean policy would be superior to layers of control-and-manage bureaucracy:
In the eyes of the commission, property rights are valuable tools for solving specific problems, but not as an overall framework for oceans policy. This is a mistake. Of course there is more to managing ocean resources than fishing, but the fishery dynamic applies to every facet of oceans management. After all, most Americans are far more concerned with the price and quality of the fish at their local supermarket or the health of their favorite fishing holes than they are about deep-sea topography or federal agency hierarchies.
Michael also has a very nice Reason policy brief that focuses on the relationship between ownership and stewardship, and how explicitly and systematically incorporating that relationship into ocean policy would lead to better ocean outcomes. In discussing the Commission’s sporadic application of the idea of property rights and markets, he says
This is a mistake. As the following examples show, from preventing overﬁshing, marine pollution, coastal habitat degradation, and conﬂicts between recreational and commercial fishing, to ﬁnancing research and port facilities, to protecting marine biodiversity and ecological health, the property rights framework applies. And not just to speciﬁc cases, but to the coordinated, integrated, ecosystem-wide approach which the Commission parses out into separate affairs.
He describes example after example of how such an approach has delivered real economic value, conservation, and stewardship.
This research is part of the IFQs For Fisheries Project, a joint effort of Reason, PERC, and Environmental Defense, to build a coalition to promote and support the use of property rights approaches to fishing and ocean policy.