F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines
Week of:
September 24, 2000
Making Reservations for Seafood?

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

The best way to prevent overfishing is to give fishermen ownership of the fish.

"Nearly 25 years have elapsed since the United States government extended federal control over ocean fishing from 12 miles to 200 miles from its shores, primarily to eliminate foreign fishing pressure on declining fish stocks," reports Donald Leal of the Political Economy Research Center (PERC). "Unfortunately, federal control has not eliminated overfishing." According to Leal, "Ocean fisheries provide the classic case of the 'tragedy of the commons,' in which lack of ownership of jointly exploited fish stocks often leads to depletion of the stocks. . . . Fishers cannot save fish for the future; if they restrain their harvest to leave enough to reproduce for the following season, the fish may be taken by someone else," Leal explains. "Each fisher can capture all the benefits of catching more fish while facing only a fraction of the costs," he continues, "because the cost of stock depletion is split among all the fishers."

Leal concedes that "entering the fishing grounds first and capturing the fish fastest is a compelling strategy" when the fish belong to everyone and to no one. "This is the time when search and capture costs are the lowest," he points out. "Thus, each fisher is motivated to invest in equipment . . . that improves the chances of winning the race for the fish -- equipment that would not be necessary if the fishery were not under the strain of such competition. Not only do the stocks decline," Leal notes, "but fishing becomes wastefully expensive as too many fishers invest in too much capital to catch too few fish."

Leal concludes that "lack of ownership of fish frequently results in lower than optimal levels of fish stocks and overinvestment in fishing effort. It may eventually lead to severe depletion. However," he emphasizes, "years of government control of fishing resources have not prevented this from happening in many fisheries." Leal's solution is "full-fledged property rights. Aquaculture and other approaches that have been used for nearshore fisheries already demonstrate the efficacy of property rights for species whose territories are limited," he affirms. "Even for migratory species on the high seas, new technologies are making it possible to define and enforce property rights. The more secure the property rights," Leal affirms, "the healthier fish populations and fishing communities will be."

Seafood lovers are few and far between here in the midwest where I live now, but back home in New Orleans they constitute the majority of the population, frozen fish is considered anathema, and heated arguments break out over which restaurant serves the thickest crawfish bisque (next to my mother's, that is), which bar boasts the plumpest and juiciest oysters, and which brand of seasoning is best for boiling shrimp or crabs. The blackened redfish craze that chef Paul Prudhomme set off back in the 1980s became a cause for alarm among locals when efforts to meet the nationwide demand threatened to deplete the Gulf stock. Now there's a stock I'd consider investing in. Whether the price went up or down, I'd still have something good to eat on Fridays.

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