Are economic incentives for conservation the answer?

By Capt. John McMurray

arrett Hardin coined the phrase “tragedy of the commons” in a 1968 essay in the journal Science. By using the example of common grazing lands in medieval England, Hardin depicted the destruction that humans impose on publicly owned resources.

Hardin argued that common pastures would inevitably become barren as everyone tried to graze their cattle, and he wrote that the “logic of the commons” results in not only the ruin of the pasture, but all those who depended upon it for survival. If a thoughtful villager decided not to graze cattle on the commons, other villagers would take advantage and let their cattle consume the grass. Thus, since the pasture was bound to be ruined, the logical course for a villager to take was to graze as many cattle on the commons as possible and take maximum advantage of the grass while it lasted.

Fisheries parallel

The parallel to modern fisheries in the U.S. and elsewhere is clear. Fishermen don’t want to decimate stocks, but under today’s system, those who land the most fish reap the greatest benefits. Conversely, those who take a more conservative approach see the fish they leave behind caught by someone else. Through subsidies and incentives, the government has allowed too many boats to enter fisheries, resulting in too many boats chasing too few fish, leaving many fishermen barely able to make ends meet. Through it all, even more emphasis is placed on short-term benefits.

The 1996 amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act attempted to tackle the tragedy of the commons by amending management requirements in a few key areas. It limited the allowable catch to maximum sustainable yield (the most fish that can be harvested over the long term without harming the population’s ability to grow back); disallowed economic or social justifications for overfishing; required management plans to define overfishing, using objective and measurable criteria; and established deadlines for ending overfishing and rebuilding depleted populations.

Unfortunately, some fishermen who were sitting on regional fishery-management councils, coupled with a lack of political will, led managers to sidestep such provisions in many cases. Unless it was sued, NOAA Fisheries often did not fulfill its legal responsibility to develop measures to end overfishing if a council failed to do so. A decade after the 1996 amendments, overfishing still plagued many fisheries.

The Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act (MSRA), which was passed in late 2006 despite aggressive attempts to weaken it, contains a number of provisions designed to remedy shortcomings of the 1996 legislation. However, in the law’s first real test, it failed in its purpose, as NOAA Fisheries allowed a 2008 summer flounder harvest considerably higher than its own scientists recommended, thanks to political pressure from the fishing industry. It was not a good harbinger for the new law.

taking ownership

So what’s the answer? In his “Tragedy of the Commons” piece, Hardin notes that private pastures located next to overgrazed commons were in good condition. The owner, who had established a property right over those pastures, had a direct interest in controlling the amount of grazing and in imposing controls that would keep the grass healthy and plentiful in the long term. Does it make sense to establish such an ownership system with fisheries resources?

Providing secure access to fisheries is not a new concept. Catch shares (referred to as individual fishing quotas, limited-access privilege programs or dedicated-access programs) assign a certain portion of the available fish to specific individuals or groups of fishermen. If a fisherman holds quota share for 1 percent of a fishery with 1,000 fish, he or she would get 10 fish to catch and sell.

There are no days-at-sea limitations or trip limits with such a system. The fisherman decides when to fish and determines what proportion of the individual quota should be landed on each voyage. Such a system gives fishermen control over when and how often they go to sea. There is no need to race out during inclement conditions to catch as many fish as possible during a limited season. Fishermen may choose to fish when the market is good, thus maximizing their revenue, reducing seafood market fluctuations and providing more price stability than under the current system. Fishermen can then concentrate on delivering a high-quality product instead of trying to catch as many fish as possible in as short a time as possible.

More importantly, because they have a vested interest in the fishery, quota shareholders want the population to grow. If there are 2,000 fish five years from now, that fisherman would get 20 fish to catch and sell. So as the fishery grows, shares become more valuable. Hence, it produces a conservation ethic.

Because quota shares could be sold, they also serve to reduce effort. For some, selling quota might serve as a buyout program. Others might rent their quotas to other vessels, reducing the number of boats and limiting both discarded fish and gear damage to habitat. Depending on how the program is set up, environmental groups might purchase some quotas and leave them dormant in order to reduce fishing, or angling interests might buy them to provide a larger recreational share.

Breaking down Barriers

While quota programs have been enthusiastically adopted in some fisheries, they are often met with strong resistance. Restricting access to what some see as the last frontier is a foreign concept to many who view it as inherently un-American. Some argue that catch-share programs privatize what has historically been a public resource, even though the law is clear that holding quota is a privilege that can be revoked, much like a driver’s license. Others claim that such a system can marginalize small fishing operations and reward corporate fishing enterprises. But catch-share programs can be designed specifically to address these concerns. For example, cooperatives are emerging as a model in New England for the groundfish fishery. It is also likely to result in some loss of jobs as the industry transitions to a slower, year-round business.

While not perfect, quota-share systems do work. New Zealand, Australia, Iceland and British Columbia run catch-share programs that create higher profits for fishermen, less environmental damage and more sustainable fisheries. Today, there are eight catch-share programs operating in U.S. waters, all of which seem to get rave reviews from fishermen and environmentalists.

Last March, Environmental Defense released the first data-driven assessment of U.S. catch-share programs. In the surveyed fisheries, such programs were implemented after failures with traditional management approaches. Overall, the fisheries experienced major economic improvements, clear gains in environmental conditions and a mixed impact on social conditions. Compliance with total allowable catch increased, and bycatch and habitat destruction decreased. There were fewer job-related injuries and a higher percentage of employed fishermen. Negative effects included some job losses; private economic gains at public expense; and, in some cases, increased consolidation. Generally, however, the newer programs addressed these concerns through improved program design.

MSRA establishes comprehensive standards to be followed when regional fishery management councils establish catch share programs. NMFS has yet to produce guidelines on who is eligible for quota and in some cases (e.g., Gulf of Mexico and New England) who can vote in industry referenda for approval of the programs.

The Road Ahead

Another key question is how are the shares of a fishery to be allocated: By traditional individual rights, historical landings or sold to the highest bidder? These are all issues that need to be worked out fair and equitably before any catch-share program can be implemented.

Catch share systems are coming. The New England Fishery Management Council is pushing forward with a program that would allocate shares of the groundfish harvest to the different industry sectors. The South Atlantic council is well on its way to Limited Access Privilege Programs in snapper-grouper fisheries. And the Mid-Atlantic council is developing a IFQ program for tilefish.

Without a doubt, some fishermen are going to be closed out. Thatís not good, but the alternative, as three decades of traditional fisheries management has shown, is a Tragedy of the Commons.

30 MARCH / APRIL 2008