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October 31, 2005

Max Hastings on Fishing.

Sir Max has a piece on the ecological destruction being wrought by commercial fishing. He’s quite right and yet he manages to miss the larger point. We actually know how to solve this problem. Seriously, we do, we know how to solve the biggest of the short term environmental problems on the planet (the only larger one is climate change which is much longer term).

Ocean fisheries are a prime example, a poster child if you wish, of the Tragedy of the Commons. All such tragedies have two possible solutions, social (or as Garrett  Hardin pointed out, socialist)  or private. Looking around the world we can see three places which have managed to deal with this particular problem. Norway, Iceland and the Faroes. All of them have applied a solution which is more to the private side than what we here in the EU do. Fishermen own transerable rights to fish certain waters and certain species. These are long term rights which encourage sustainable practices.

There’s a few other things as well. Bycatch is not discarded as it is in the EU and the establishment of no fishing zones to protect breeding stocks also makes sense.

There are other problems with the species in the open seas (tuna, shark, marlin etc) in that no one actually has property rights over them but of all of the fisheries on continental shelves only one, in the Sea of Okhotsk, is not already within the 200 mile exclusive economic zone of a country. So each country can already bring in (except here in our EU wonderland of course) sustainable fishing practices.

We know how to do this, the legal structure is already in place and yet we don’t actually do it. That’s the real tragedy.

October 31, 2005 in Economics | Permalink


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This post reveals a certain schizophrenia.

I agree with you, of course, that the establishment and enforcement of property rights are the right way to manage fishing resources (see my post in September about the Bush-Cheney Administration's proposals.)

So we are agreed that government intervention is needed to establish and enforce those property rights. (So, unfortunately from your perspective, we need a little bit of socialism and trampling on individual liberties to establish an efficient market.)

But if it makes sense for the citizens of a country to make a collective decision to create and enforce property rights, why doesn't it also make sense for nations to coordinate decisions between them? If there is a national tragedy of the commons which we can avoid through by collective decision making, isn't there also an international tragedy of the commons that similarly needs a collective decision?

(If you will pardon the pun, I am a bit out of my depth about which fish move from one national waters to another.)

Even people who believe in markets like you and me should accept that we need collective institutions to create property rights, enforce contracts, etc. The tragedy of the commons is not, sadly, confined to the nation state in many decisions we take - whether on fishing, climate change, or infectious disease.

The nation state is needed to create a framework within a country in which markets can reach efficient outcomes. It may sometimes have to overrule the wishes of some of its citizens in order to do so, in the interests of the collective good. In the same way we need international bodies to reach collective decisions to protect the international commons, and we may need to overrule the wishes of a individual member country in the interest of the community as a whole.


Posted by: Owen Barder | Oct 31, 2005 11:02:56 PM