Teach a man to fish

A post last week touched on assigning property rights to overcome the tragedy of the commons issue that threatens to destroy world fisheries. Today’s New York Times reports on a new study explaining how this can work. John Tierney comments:

A global survey of more than 11,000 fisheries points to a profitable system to protect fisheries from collapsing. The bad news is that this system, called catch shares, is used in only 1 percent of the world’s fisheries and is still controversial, but the researchers hope the new evidence of its success will win over some opponents — a group has included both local fishermen and some environmentalists.

Under this system, a fisherman owns the right to a certain percentage of the annual allowable catch in a fishery. These shares, sometimes called Individual Transferable Quotas, can be bought and sold on the market, and their price goes down if the fish population declines. So fishermen have a direct incentive to protect the fishery along with their investment: that way their share will be worth more when they retire and sell it to someone else.

Neither of the articles mentions how valuable these shares can be or how big an effect they have on fishermen’s willingness to enforce rules against each other. They do have other positive side effects though:

One of the authors, Steven Gaines, a marine biologist at U.C. Santa Barbara, noted that after the system went into effect for sablefish in Alaska, the fishermen used many fewer hooks and therefore reduced the “bycatch” — the incidental killing of fish of other species. The traditional system, in which the catch was limited only by the legal length of the season, had encouraged a “race to fish” as fishermen flung down as many hooks to catch as many fish as fast as they could. But the catch-share system enabled them to work at a slower, more efficient pace until they reached their guaranteed quota.

Tierney has reported previously on research suggesting that the profit-maximizing fish population under private ownership is greater than that needed for sustainability for many species of fish, giving fishermen an incentive to restrict catches.