Catch Shares and Sustainable Fishing

Lynne Kiesling

Yesterday was Earth Day, and here’s a good way to observe it: Andrew Langer and Iain Murray argue for catch shares as a sustainable free-market fisheries policy.

The idea is simple: give fishermen an ownership stake in a particular fishery through the assignment of quotas, which can be traded. The quotas give individual fishermen — not bureaucrats — responsibility for managing each fishery. They, in turn, will work to maximize the longevity of that fishery, as it is in their long-term interest to do so. …

For an example of how successful this approach can be, look to New Zealand. There, the value of fishing exports has increased from $469 million in 1986, when the program began, to $923 million today. Fish landings have significantly increased. Almost all the fish stocks originally included are now above sustainable levels.

Given how abysmally some other fisheries are faring, the successes of catch shares are striking and worth trying. Particularly in Atlantic bluefin tuna, where the species is on the verge of extinction and the fishery trade association hasn’t mustered the gumption to stand up to Japan to reduce quotas. The position of the Japanese fishers is mystifying — would they really rather have the short-term tuna harvests in return for making the species extinct, forever? How high a discount rate must they have to hold that narrow a perspective? How sure are they that they’ll find other jobs in a couple of years once they’ve destroyed their livelihood?