Property Rights and Fishery Conservation

Guest post by Jonathan H. Adler, a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and regular contributor to the Volokh Conspiracy.

Fisheries continue to be among the best examples of the tragedy of the commons in action. As Garrett Hardin himself noted in his 1968 essay, "the oceans of the world continue to suffer" from the dynamic of the commons. Alas, little has changed. Ocean fisheries remain in trouble, as study after study reveals. Most fisheries around the globe are fully or over-exploited, and a substantial number have already faced collapse. The problem with fisheries management runs deep.

It would be nice to think this is a problem confined to poor or developing countries, but it's not. Dozens of fish stocks in the United States remain overfished, despite herculean efforts to impose meaningful fishery regulations, from total catch limits to restrictions on fishing gear other inputs. Such measures try to limit access, but they do not alter the fundamental incentives of the commons. Each participant in the fishery retains every incentive to get what he or she can, even at the expense of the whole. In many fisheries, we see this manifested in a destructive and wasteful "race to catch," as each boat tries to get what it can before the fishery reaches its catch limit and closes. The resulting practices may make for good reality television, but they don't foster sound ecological stewardship. Traditional regulatory strategies do little to encourage concern among resource users for the long-term health of the resource and pit resource users against conservation interests.

It does not have to be this way. Even before Hardin wrote his essay fishery economists had diagnosed the problem and explained how property rights in fisheries could solve the problem. Specifically by recognizing property rights in a percentage of the catch for a given species (or, in some cases, by recognizing rights in fishing territories), the "race to catch" could be eliminated and fishing crews could be given an incentive to husband the resource. The creation of property rights in the underlying resource aligns the incentives of those who work in the fishery with the health of the fishery. As owners of a share in the catch year-after-year, the fishers have a stake in ensuring there are more fish tomorrow than there are today.

The benefits of such a system are not merely theoretical. They have now been confirmed through extensive empirical research. A recent study in Science that looked at over 11,000 fisheries over a fifty year period found clear evidence that the adoption of property-based management regimes, often called "catch shares" or ITQs, prevents fishery collapse. (More here.) This is only the latest piece of evidence supporting the use of property institutions for fishery conservation. As Hardin predicted, the institution of property rights averts the tragedy of the commons.

There are many reasons for this. The creation of property rights in an ecological resource not only creates incentives for greater resource stewardship, to conserve the underlying value of the resource today and into the future. It also gives those who rely upon the resource a stake in the broader set of institutions that govern the resource.

Under traditional fishery management, those who fish and those who regulate are typically at odds. Fishermen lobby for less restrictive catch limits so they may catch more today, out of fear the fishery may be more constrained tomorrow. Interestingly enough, the creation of property rights in the fishery catch encourages fishermen to take the opposite tack. More precautionary catch limits actually enhance the value of their catch shares, so they seek more protective policies. In some cases, as has been observed in New Zealand, fishery share owners themselves effectively take over the management of the stock, enforcing catch shares and limits, policing restrictions on by-catch, and funding the research necessary to ensure the fishery maintains its maximum sustainable yield over time.

The move toward property rights appears to have had positive social benefits as well. Consider the experience of the popular reality show "The Deadliest Catch," which chronicles the efforts of several boats in the Alaskan King Crab fishery in the Bering Sea. The title for the show derives from the fact that Alaskan king crab fishing is one of the deadliest jobs around - or at least it used to be.

After the first season, catch shares were adopted in the Alaskan king crab fishery, eliminating the race-to-fish that had made for such dramatic television, but a poorly run fishery. Among other things, this caused a significant increase in the safety of the fishery. As vessels no longer had to race to fish, there was now less of an incentive to cut corners and risk life and limb. They've also encouraged the boats to pay more attention to the ecological conditions of the waters in which they operate. As one of the captains explained in WSJ op-ed:

Now we have a stake in protecting crab populations for the future. Because we aren't in such a race against the clock, we're able to get more young and female crabs we don't keep back into the ocean unharmed. When we find an area has too many juvenile crabs, there's time to go somewhere else instead. 

What made for better ecological management may not have made for good TV. After the second season the producers looked for new ways to up the excitement level in the absence of a race to catch. But it was good for those who work in the fishery, and certainly good for sustainability.

The recognition of property rights in marine resources can also make it easier to adopt additional conservation measures. For instance, the adoption of catch-shares can reduce the incremental burden from the imposition of by-catch limits or the creation of marine reserves (though there are property-based ways to pursue these goals as well). A shift to catch-shares would have fiscal benefits as well.

The most prominent objections to property-based fishery management are not ecological, but social and economic. Some fear the distributional consequences of recognizing transferable rights in a fishery or worry about the possible effect on local communities, particularly if fishery shares are bought out by larger companies. Such concerns are legitimate, but are best addressed directly. They should not be an excuse for leaving unsustainable fishery management regimes in place.

The theoretical and empirical case for property-based fishery management has been made. If we care about the health of marine resources, there is no reason not to move in this direction. Whether or not property rights in ecological resources are the solution to every environmental problem, they are in the case of fisheries.