New Book Shows Governments Cause Ocean Fisheries Decline, Proposes Solutions

Published July 5, 2017

Review of Sea Change: How Markets and Property Rights Could Transform the Fishing Industry, by Richard Wellings, ed., (London Publishing Partnership, 2017), 166 pages, ISBN- 978-0-255-36742-4; $12.96 on

I have studied fishing rights—or the lack thereof—for three decades, and I’m amazed virtually no national government’s restrictions have worked to maintain healthy stocks of fish in the world’s oceans and bays.

This book confirms what I have long believed: Controlling the catch of one of the world’s most important food sources has scrambled the brains of most of the great fishing nations.

As Sea Change shows, governments around the world have managed fisheries primarily to benefit local fishing industries with various types of welfare and subsidies, which are used to prop up inefficient operators, keeping too many boats chasing a declining number of fish.

The fishing policies of China, the European Union, Japan, United States, and others with ocean coasts and fishing fleets have too often been prone to political influence, and that influence has had disastrous repercussions for fish stocks, those who rely on fishing as a source of income or food, and government budgets. Perhaps the most shocking thing you will learn from this book is the global fishing industry operates at a collective loss of $50 billion annually.

Overfishing United States

In a chapter describing how governments have contributed to the decline of ocean fisheries, H. Sterling Burnett, managing editor of Environment & Climate News, notes although in 2012 U.S. coastal waters contained 956 fish stocks, with the domestic fishing industry generating more than $199 billion in sales and supporting 1.7 million jobs, fish populations and the fishing industry have been in an extended period of rapid decline.

“Although most fish species can sustain occasional overfishing, prolonged periods of population loss can be critical and lead to collapse,” Burnett wrote. The U.S. government has contributed to these problems with below-market loans to fishermen, tax breaks for new equipment, grants for harbor improvement, and tax credits for marine fuel.

In 2009 alone, Burnett tells us, the U.S. government provided between $343 million and $1.45 billion in subsidies and support to the fishing industry. Largely as a result of government policies encouraging overfishing, 85 percent of the world’s commercial fish stocks are “either overexploited, fully exploited, depleted, in decline, or recovering from overexploitation,” Burnett wrote.

Bending the Rules

The U.S. government has dozens of agencies administering 140 different regulations over open sea fishing, Burnett says, and commercial fishers have figured out ways around the regulations. They use government loans to overinvest in equipment, and they use subsidized fuel to fish when it would not otherwise make sense to do so.

When government restricts the number of days and seasons in which they can fish, commercial operators fish more intensively on legal days. Limit boat or net size, and fishers use more boats and nets. Limit the allowed number of fish that can be kept, and fishers throw back the smaller fish, many of which die anyway.

E.U. Subsidizes Fish Destruction

The European Union has even greater problems; its subsidies equal half the value of the total catch. In Finland, the subsidy is triple the value of the fishing fleet’s entire haul.

The contribution by economist Rachel Tingle describes the failed E.U. Common Fisheries Policy while expressing a bit of optimism the United Kingdom may find itself in a better position to solve its problems as it exits the European Union. Britain may now be able to limit foreign vessel access to the United Kingdom’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone through bilateral agreements, Tingle says.

Property Rights to the Rescue

One mechanism that has shown some success in helping fish stocks recover and fisheries improve their profitability is instituting various kinds of property rights in fisheries. Property rights assign responsibility, lead to conservation, and eliminate the “tragedy of the commons,” in which an asset used by all without limitations is degraded or destroyed by people acting logically in their self-interest.

Although no country has completely privatized its fisheries, many have experimented with property-rights-based management. Burnett describes four programs that have had success in different places: allowing ownership of coast land below high tide, to control mussel and oyster fishing; granting ownership rights over defined ocean areas; fencing off some areas; and allowing tradable rights to a percentage of the overall catch.

Seventeen countries have implemented one or more forms of property rights successfully, improving profits and/or increasing the fish stock.

University of Iceland economist Birgir Runolfsson’s chapter describes how property rights in fisheries have developed in Iceland, which he says has advanced the furthest in privatizing its fisheries. Iceland adopted an “individual transferable quota system” in the 1970s. The system gives fishermen a tradable right to harvest a defined volume of fish. Since adoption, the size of Iceland’s fishing fleet has fallen by half, while profitability has soared and fish stocks recovered.

Thinking Locally

Whereas the conventional approach of governments imposing top-down management on fisheries has failed to improve profitability or increase fish stocks, as described by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, local communities have successfully designed specialized programs to meet local needs while improving fish populations and fisheries, Paul Dragos Aligica and Ion Sterpan of George Mason University write in their chapter.

As this book shows, it appears there is no one-size-fits-all solution to preserve commercially valuable sea life and ensure fishery success. Different models, including various types of institutionalized property rights, will be appropriate for different species, waters, communities, and governments.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director at The Heartland Institute.