Fishing – Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons was a title of an article by Garrett Hardin in 1968 although the phrase is more commonly used to name the effect which it describes. It explains what can happen when a number of individuals share a common resource and each individual is presumed to act rationally and in his own interest.

For instance if there 10 different farmers grazing a piece of land then there is an incentive to add one more cow to your herd as you gain all of the benefit of this extra cow and you only have to suffer 1/10 of the cost resulting from the increased degradation of the land. Thus although it is in each individual’s self interest to increase the size of your herd, in the long run the land use will be depleted. This concept can also be transferred to CO2 emissions where countries emit emissions in order to grow their economy but don’t consider the long-term impact of global warming on drought and disease.

Recently a lot of attention has focussed on the fishing industry which is worth $16 billion annually. International law states that 64% of the surface of the oceans are defined as ‘the common heritage of mankind’ although with the advent of technology and bigger and faster fishing trawlers the last 50 years has seen a significant depletion of stock. Approximately 90% of fishing areas are fished to sustainable limits or beyond.

Stopping overfishing

The Economist – 22nd October 2020

Property rights has been the traditional policy to try and overcome the tragedy of the commons. This gives exclusive rights to coastal states to police and maintain territorial waters but the looting still continues – since 2010 the proportion of tuna and tuna-like species being overexploited has increased from 28% to 36%.

Reducing subsidies is seen as the most pressing policy as they come to $35 billion a year of 70% are given to more developed countries. It is estimated that $22bn of the subsidy helps destroy fish stocks. In giving subsidies you reduce the running costs of operators but it also brings certain fishing fields within reach for trawlers from developed economies. Only 10 countries received the money from high-seas catches between 2000 and 2010 and that is with Africa having more fishermen than Europe and America combined.

Closing off more areas fishing is another alternative and it has been suggested that 30% of oceans should be designated as ‘marine protected areas’. Countries could also take responsibility by creating marine reserves within their territorial waters. However technology has provided an opportunity to limit the over fishing. Compulsory cameras on board fishing vessels which can identify suspicious behaviour and illicit species should be compulsory especially in exclusive economic zones that define a country’s control over resources such as fish. Australia, America and New Zealand have invested heavily in this this area of surveillance. For example, reports of interactions with seabirds and mammals increased 7 times when electronic monitoring was introduced to Australia’s longline fisheries in 2015. Overall reported catch remained the same. In New Zealand regulations for on-board cameras on commercial fishing vessels came into effect in 2018 – they applied to vessels from 1 November 2019 in a defined fishing area on the west coast of the North Island. To mitigate the overfishing governments could agree on some policies:

  • National regulators to set basic standards for crew – no forced labour
  • Countries failing to follow rules – banned from fishing
  • Countries should only import fish from law abiding nations
  • WTO to scrap subsidies that encourage over fishing – see above
  • Outlaw bottom-trawling
  • Subsidies to fish farming – it now accounts for approximately 50 percent of the fish consumed globally

Source: The Economist July 16th 2016 & October 22nd 2020

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