Humankind Needs Fish, ctd.

Conor is right about the importance of the depletion of global fisheries, and doubly so about this being an issue where thoughtful conservatives can show that they really do care about, well, conserving things. In fact I wrote a Culture11 column on the subject back in October, discussing research on how a privatizing strategy centered on granting tradable “catch shares” to fishermen could play a key role in stemming the tide of fishery decline; I’m not sure that I’d stand by everything I wrote (or the way I wrote it) in the original piece, but given the emphasis that Johann Hari puts on fishery quotas in the piece Conor linked, it seems relevant. Unfortunately, the published version seems to have vanished into the ether, but that’s what hard drives are for – I’ll paste whole thing below the fold:

Can property rights promote environmental responsibility? Something of the sort appears to be the case in the fishing industry, where a group led by the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Christopher Costello found that allotting fishermen owners’ shares of fish populations helps to combat overfishing and reverse the widespread trend toward fishery collapse. The study, published in a recent issue of the journal Science, finds that programs that grant fishermen tradable rights to a portion of the allowable catch for a given fishery have halted those fish populations’ slides toward depletion. Aside from suggesting a helpfully market-driven way to curb a worldwide decline in fish populations that some have predicted could lead all the world’s major commercial fishing stocks to collapse within 40 years, the study also gives strong empirical support to the deeply intuitive idea that people tend to care best for the things they regard as their own.

The basic principle is simple enough, as the biologist John Beddington and his colleagues explain in a recent paper. According to the conditions that prevail at the overwhelming majority of the world’s fisheries, many different fishermen compete with one another to draw as many fish as they can from the water. Even in the presence of regulations to limit the allowable catch, illegal fishing is widespread and often undetected, and fish populations plummet until they reach a level where fishing is barely profitable. As Costello and his colleagues write: “Because individuals lack secure rights to part of the quota, they have a perverse motivation to ‘race to fish’ to outcompete others. This race can lead to poor stewardship and lobbying for ever-larger harvest quotas, creating a spiral of reduced stocks, excessive harvests, and eventual collapse.” The communal nature of the fishery, in other words, feeds right into a tendency for abuse.

By contrast, granting fishermen “catch shares” – renewable, and usually tradable, rights to portions of the fisheries’ annual yields – gives them a long-term stake in the health of the stock. As a result, fishermen with catch shares have intrinsic incentives to keep the fish populations robust and their supporting ecosystems intact: as Costello says in an interview with Science Daily, “when you allocate shares of the catch, then there is an incentive to protect the stock—which reduces collapse. We saw this across the globe. It’s human nature.” Ecological responsibility can’t just be imposed from above by a set of abstract rules and regulations; it is achieved most easily when people have a genuine stake in that which they’re being asked to be responsible for.

Based on the way the findings have been reported, you might well have missed the obviousness of the lesson. “The idea goes against the grain,” writes The New York Times, “among people who believe that anyone with grit and skill should be able to get in a boat, put to sea and make a living fishing.” But this overlooks at least one other misunderstanding that this research seems to show up for what it is: namely, the idea that only rigid regulatory control of publicly-owned resources will be sufficient to prevent their depletion. And as NYT science blogger John Tierney notes, the Costello study hasn’t been enough to get Greenpeace U.S.A. to back down from exactly this sort of view: a decade ago, the organization complained that fishery privatization “has only hampered fish conservation;” in response to Tierney’s queries about Costello’s research, a Greenpeace spokesman let loose a puzzling string of hedges and caveats that pretty much managed never to address the underlying issues. As ever, ideology is an even more useful a tool in political maneuvering than attention to the facts.

All this is not to say that the apparent successes of catch shares should be used as an example of an unfettered market at work: for one thing, the total catch is still tightly regulated in such programs; for another, the entire rationale behind them is that an equitable distribution of the quotas will work to discourage a certain sort of destructive competition, rather than making for more of it. But there’s no denying that this finding pretty clearly is, as Reason‘s Jacob Sullum points out, a perfect example of the ways that privatization can help us to resist what the ecologist Garrett Hardin called “the tragedy of the commons”: private ownership increases awareness of the negative utility that comes from negligent or destructive behavior, and so mitigates the tendency to recognize no bounds in the drive to get ahead. Private ownership of catch shares provides, as Costello and his colleagues put it, a “stewardship incentive” that simply isn’t there when the stock is everyone’s and the race is on.

Thinking about this study put me in mind of the Ark of Taste, a project which is – notably, I think, given the group’s anti-“capitalist” bent – sponsored by Slow Food International, and which aims to restore forgotten foods to prominence by putting them along a path to market-driven recovery. The approach, as Gary Paul Nabhan puts it in Renewing America’s Food Traditions, is that of “eater-based conservation”: as the Times explains in a typically breathless review of Nabhan’s book, he “has set out to save” the foods, “which often involves urging people to eat them.” And the best way to do this, of course, is to reintroduce them to the market at a fair and sustainable price. “If you’re keeping them for a museum piece,” says a Mississippi cattle farmer quoted in the NYT review, “you’ve just signed their death warrant.” It’s hard to imagine a more charming affront to the notion that real environmental preservation means keeping humans out, and that markets are always a force for destruction.

Obviously these are complicated issues, and it would be foolish to insist that simply letting people do whatever they want with their own plots of land or sea is the best way to encourage responsible behavior. (It would be interesting, though, to see what happened in a catch-sharing program if the quotas were loosened or eliminated and the fishermen themselves had to take into account the long-term value of their ownership stakes.) But what does emerge quite clearly is the importance of care, creativity, and – perhaps above all – variety and flexibility in the ways that regulations are designed and put into place. Sadly, though, it’s often much easier just to blame the markets whenever things go wrong.