High-tech fishing boats in the UK have to work seventeen times harder for their catches than their sail-powered counterparts from 118 years ago, a new study has revealed.
The startling inefficiency is due to a drop of 94 per cent in stocks of seabed-dwelling species over the period, according to information that is routinely collected at ports but has long been overlooked.
It’s an interesting piece of research. Almost Freakonomics in the way they’ve uncovered a data set to provide answers.
But it also gives us a clue as to how to solve this problem.
Over fishing is a classic Commons problem. These can be solved either through private (capitalist) methods or social (socialist) ones. When there is Marxian access (ie, open to all) to a resource as long as desired access is below regeneration capacity there’s no problem. When desired access is greater than regeneration then there needs to be some limit put on such access.
We can have bureaucratic rules (as we currently do), we could have no fish zones, breeding grounds, all sorts of things. We can look at Elinor Olstrom’s work and see that often there will be communal solutions which don’t depend upon an outside imposition of such limits. However, one of the lessons of her work is that such systems very rarely survive there being more than a couple of thousand vying for access. The social enforcement mechanisms don’t seem to scale up: there’s too much opportunity for free riding on the resource when we get beyond the sort of sized group where all can know and or observe what’s going on.
We can also use those private methods: make the resource private property, as we have done with fields for example. And as we sorta do with cap and trade systems and pollution of various sorts. Now, it’ll be no surprise to anyone at all that I’m in favour of such private solutions: largely driven by my insistence that the politicians necessary to drive the social solutions on a large scale are going to be both incompetent and driven by the wrong incentives.
But what this research does provide is another little clue to why that private solution might work so well. We would of course expect those owning private property, even if it were the right to fish certain stocks, to attempt to maximise long term profits. And it turns out (via some research from Oz) that maximum profit comes from fish stocks which are well above sustainable levels.
They say their findings, published in the journal Science Dec. 7, will help overcome a key cause of over-fishing – industry opposition to lower catches – by demonstrating that when stocks are allowed to recover, profits take a sharp turn upward.
“It has always been assumed that maximizing fishing profits will lead to stock depletion and possibly even extinction of some commercial species,” says co-author Quentin Grafton, research director at the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the Australian National University (ANU) and one of the co-authors of the paper “Economics of Over-exploitation Revisited.”
“But our results prove that the highest profits are made when fish numbers are allowed to rise beyond levels traditionally considered optimal. In other words, bigger stocks mean bigger bucks.”
The simple reason is “the stock effect”: when fish are more plentiful and thus easier to catch, fishers don’t have to spend as much on fuel and other costs to fill their nets – profits are higher.
A finding which this new research, studying historical catches, nicely supports.
So shall we get on with it then? Solve one of our more pressing environmental problems? Privatise the fisheries and thus save them? After all, there are some things much too important not to have markets in.