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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/12509/the-checkered-flag-of-communal-ownership-the-race-to-exhaust-the-fisheries/

The Checkered Flag of Communal Ownership: The Race to Exhaust the Fisheries

April 19, 2010 by

Technology is not to blame for over-fishing; competition is not to blame for over-fishing; lovers of fish are not to blame for over-fishing; the culprit is the conditions created by communal ownership—the burden is the fishing chase!    

It is hard to find a more textbook case of the Tragedy of Commons then the problem of over-fishing the lakes and oceans. Each fisherman, operating from the vantage point of his or her own self-interest, works, in harmony, to unemploy the other. Eventually, the fishermen are unemployed, the fish are lost and the fish consumers must substitute for another protein.       

This is commerce within the public domain

The above account should be considered common knowledge within political and conservationist circles, as well as its remedy: ownership. Yet, such information is usually delegated to the preliminary remarks of the article or paper addressing the topic. While ownership (the remedy), if mentioned at all is usually only referenced somewhere in a caption bordering the picture depicting the ills of industry. Instead, the papers usually concentrate their efforts on the proposed solutions of banning or altering technology as well as banning or altering competition

Limiting Technology

Like everything, the fishing industry has evolved over the past centuries. No longer are fishermen limited to the wind of their sails, the distances from their home, night and day, weather, storage capacity, etc. These costs have declined to near nothing. Many of today’s fishing boats are like floating factories which can remain at sea for months at a time, traveling all around the world in synchronization.   

“The sailing ships were gradually replaced by steamers, followed quickly thereafter by larger and more efficient craft such as side trawlers, stern trawlers and, later, factory freezer trawlers. As the fishing vessels changed and became more effective, so did the gear. Soon fishers were able to fish in any type of weather, and, in fact, some of the vessels rarely left the fishing grounds as crews rotated and freighters transported the finished product to market.”  See Changes in Fishing Technology

In addition to changes in vessels, fishermen became better equipped with netting and reeling. Once caught, flash-freezing technology allowed fish to be preserved for long stays at sea, whereas before they were limited to the preservation permitted by ice or salt. Radar eventually allowed ships to sail at night and through fog. GPS eventually allowed for better tracking and the stories go on.

At each stage of this progression, fishermen faced an onslaught of protest and regulation. Fishing nets, be it trawl, seine, trammel, gill, drift, etc were eventually restricted in some regards or altered in others. Thus, in addition to the obstacles of catching fish there are obstacles to catching them as humanely as possible, with regard to the other ocean dwellers. With each new obstacle, came demand for circumvention; with each new regulatory hurdle came a demand for a technological sidestep. Today, fishing technology has developed into an entire industry of research and development designated to give one fisherman the edge over another.                


Why do our good humanitarians and their policymaker counterparts believe they can wage a war against the demand for fish? More importantly, why can’t they see that their meddling in supply and demand is merely a function of shifting costs? Increasing the costs of netting will lead to the demand for better netting, eliminating a form of netting will increase the demand for alternatives. Therefore, your victories are not victories, they are reallocations!

Let us parallel these exponential increases in fishing technology to other protein substitutes. Cattle farmers need not invest in high-tech killing apparatuses to capture their herd; ditto for chicken and pig farmers. They may invest in more efficient methods of transportation or storage, but a cow must be breed and fed before it can be slaughtered and there is no competition toward killing it. If cattle fields were communal like the seas you would again see the rush to slaughter without regard to future proceeds. As Ludwig von Mises understood:        

If land is not owned by anybody, although legal formalism may call it public property, it is used without any regard to the disadvantages resulting. Those who are in a position to appropriate to themselves the returns — lumber and game of the forests, fish of the water areas, and mineral deposits of the subsoil — do not bother about the later effects of their mode of exploitation. For them, erosion of the soil, depletion of the exhaustible resources and other impairments of the future utilization are external costs not entering into their calculation of input and output. They cut down trees without any regard for fresh shoots or reforestation. In hunting and fishing, they do not shrink from methods preventing the repopulation of the hunting and fishing grounds.
Chapter 23, Human Action

Limiting Competition

The regulation of the entrance and exit of the fishing competition has done little for the fisheries because, while limiting competition, it does little to address the race between the competitors. We must acknowledge that at our stage in technological evolution, with proper motivations, we could potentially slay any and every living thing on this planet. We can now do in days what took previous fishing vessels years. Therefore, why are we waving a checkered flag in front of our fisherman?

By creating a system of public ownership, be it within 200 nautical miles of our coast[1], or beyond, we are, in essence, creating a system of senseless competition. Fishermen need not pay attention to repopulation growth rates, effects on specie degradation or even the by-standards caught unintentionally by the nets or lines. None of this matters because the costs are borne by everyone.          

Thus, with years of communal struggle behind us, the fisheries, as they stand today, are as follows (see here)

  • 52% of fish stocks are fully exploited
  • 20% are moderately exploited
  • 17% are overexploited
  • 7% are depleted
  • 1% is recovering from depletion

So, shall we continue this game[2]?

[1] Like that employed by the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 or the Law of The Sea Treaty

[2] For those interested in ocean research and development please join us at the Ocean Stewardship Institute


Cork April 19, 2010 at 3:06 pm

I agree; I just wish more libertarians would recognize the same “tragedy of the commons” problem when it comes to global warming, ozone holes and other environmental issues.

(Red-baiting to commence in 3..2..1.. ;)

Jay April 19, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Libertarianism is complex compared to other “ideologies”. It’s not hard to understand why some of the axioms aren’t recognized or easily understood.

Ohhh Henry April 19, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Global warming is a fraud. Ozone holes also don’t pass the smell test.

In 1978 the United States banned the use of CFCs such as Freon in aerosol cans, the beginning of a long series of regulatory actions against their use. The critical DuPont manufacturing patent for Freon (“Process for Fluorinating Halohydrocarbons”, U.S. Patent #3258500) was set to expire in 1979. In conjunction with other industrial peers DuPont sponsored efforts such as the “Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy” to question anti-CFC science, but in a turnabout in 1986 DuPont, with new patents in hand, publicly condemned CFCs. DuPont representatives appeared before the Montreal Protocol urging that CFCs be banned worldwide and stated that their new HCFCs would meet the worldwide demand for refrigerants.

[Wikipedia, reference to "Ethics of Du Pont's CFC Strategy 1975–1995", Smith B. Journal of Business Ethics, Volume 17, Number 5, April 1998, pp. 557-568(12)]

Ditto acid rain. Remember that one? Nobody has really mentioned it since 60 minutes highlighted a US federal study that concluded it was basically a hoax.

Dave Albin April 19, 2010 at 9:23 pm

To solve all environmental “problems”, see free-market environmentalism here, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-market_environmentalism, which has a pretty good, general description.

axiomata April 19, 2010 at 3:40 pm

While your analysis is doubt correct for the black and white private ownership vs public ownership, I feel that if you are going to take on this topic you have address the gray areas of ITQs and Ostrom’s research.

Ken April 19, 2010 at 4:45 pm

In the short run (and where available/applicable — helps to own at least a scrap of land to park the tank/pond and the greenhouse), aquaponics is your friend. I am planning my installation.

Ohhh Henry April 19, 2010 at 8:00 pm

The cod fishery on the Grand Banks of Canada, formerly one of the world’s most productive fisheries, was ruined through government “stewardship”. Looking back on this disgraceful incident after almost 20 years it appears that it was not just a commons tragedy, but with a twist.

Most of the people whose jobs were ruined by the destruction of the fish stocks became effectively wards of the state, in that they were the long-term recipients of all kinds new and expanded government welfare programs. A couple of tens of thousands of workers were treated to something like $3 Billion or more in “compensation” and “retraining” money, most of which amounted to free cheques. For all I know the fountain of welfare is still gushing in that direction. Certainly the political climate is just as corrupt and just as stuck in a “welfare for votes” mentality.

What is apparent is that besides paying a relative handful of people billions of dollars not to fish, the federal and provincial politicians and bureaucrats benefited enormously both in the amount of money they received in their budgets and the power they were given over their constituents, to “help” them. The people who caused the destruction (through the awarding of disastrously large fishing quotas) probably benefited the most from it.

So the act of destroying the cod fishery doesn’t look like a simple case of a resource having no single owner and being destroyed by each individual part-owner taking a bigger and bigger share of the resource until it is exhausted. Applying the maxim “cui bono” this incident looks suspiciously like a cold-blooded economic crime.

Many of the policies of the current governments in places like Washington DC, UK and my own province of Ontario also look like economic crimes. Wrecking the banking system, the real estate market, manufacturing and many other industries is not merely an accidental side effect of individual human action taking place in a commons, but it may be a calculated act of banditry.

Gil April 19, 2010 at 11:03 pm

In “Star Trek 4: Save The Whales” Spock reckons hunting a species into extinction is “illogical” however it is in fact logical – in the commons there are no property rights therefore no one should be forbidden from hunting there and even if some hunters want to abstain from whale-hunting to allow the population rebuild, others who don’t see the point will continue and those who abstain will lose out to those who won’t abstain thusly abstaining from hunting makes no financial sense. Therefore hunting whales into extinction is logical. The only alternative is for the whales to have nothing worth hunting them for.

EZ April 27, 2011 at 11:00 pm

In my opinion, that kind of self-centered, profiteering mentality without regard for the long-term viability and continuance of an industry (in this instance, whale-hunting) is most illogical. It is short-sighted, idiotic reasoning. Just because there are no property rights/laws to prevent hunting a species into extinction doesn’t mean to do it is inherently logical. Your reasoning is horribly flawed. The fact that those who abstain from hunting a species to extinction will “lose out” financially doesn’t make going ahead and doing it any more logical or “right” to do. The alternative could definitely be a cooperative communal and permacultural mentality instead of a selfishly destructive, short-sighted one.

Hank Meyer April 20, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Recently, the powers to be, have stopped all Grouper and Snapper fishing indefinately saying
they are overfished; HOGWASH!! . The problem is the commercial fisherman who drag their
nets, killing fish and ruining coral, not the nine year old who goes on a headboat for a day
with his father. Think for a minute how many people this will effect, and they are not
even going to the heart of the problem.

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