Report: Private Ownership Needed to Ensure Long-term Fishery Health

Published July 1, 1999

After a report that the cod population off the coast of New England is at its lowest in 30 years, local and federal officials responded in typical fashion: further fishing restrictions and suggestions that federal money will restore the fishery.

But what is really needed, argues one critic of such remedies, is private ownership of fishing rights–a mechanism that has functioned successfully for more than 10 years in Iceland and New Zealand. In other words, if a person can own something, he will conserve it.

“The collapse of the once-rich fisheries off the coast of New England is testimony to the failure of fishery management in the United States,” writes Michael De Alessi, director of the Center for Private Conservation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). “This tragedy is the result of traditional fishing limits on seasons and gear, which fail to address the motivations of fisherman to vacuum the seas.”

De Alessi is the author of a February CEI policy brief, “Saving Fisheries without Property Rights: Surgery with a Baseball Bat.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service issued its dire cod report in December; a month later, the New England Fishery Management Council, a regional board, voted to extend the geographic reach of regulations banning gear capable of catching fish. The council also halved the daily allowable cod catch to 200 pounds per boat. One dissident council member called the new restrictions “trying to do brain surgery with a baseball bat.”

Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) predicted that as many as 2,500 fishermen could lose their livelihoods, and 700 boats could be idled, by the new restrictions. He called for federal funding to revitalize the industry.

“In fact, nothing will change until there is substantive reform,” writes De Alessi. “Further restrictions and bailouts give the illusion of reform, but in fact only exacerbate the problem since they completely ignore, and leave in place, the very root cause of fisheries depletion.”

De Alessi argues that fishermen currently have no incentive to conserve or enhance marine resources, because any benefits of doing so would be diluted throughout their industry.

“What’s the point of leaving fish in the water if they are simply going to be caught by someone else?” he asked, adding that self-destructive incentives must be eliminated before fishermen can effectively address fishery problems that affect their livelihoods.

Private ownership of a resource is always more successful than regulatory measures, De Alessi writes, recommending that limited access to fishing areas and private ownership of fisheries are the best mechanisms for ensuring the long-term health of a fishery.

Since 1996, Congress has prohibited fisheries managers from granting such rights, but a new study by the National Research Council (NRC) urges that the ban be lifted. “Sharing the Fish: Toward a National Policy on Individual Fishing Quotas” calls for the use of transferable individual quotas (IFQs) to protect not only fisheries, but the jobs of commercial fishermen as well.

Where IFQs are used, the report notes, fish stocks have improved dramatically. In some cases, such as New Zealand, the fishing industry itself has requested quotas lower than those sought by government officials.

Jan Stevens, chairman of the NRC committee that issued the report, noted, “Allocating individual quotas has led to more efficient fishing while other methods–such as limiting fishing seasons or restricting the type of gear used–only intensified the race for catching the most fish.”