The Case for Fishery Property Rights

In the last few days, some commentators have praised the role of federal regulation in enhancing the health of fishing stocks. Brad Plumer at Vox.com, Paul Krugman at the New York Times, and Kevin Grier at Cherokee Gothic, have all weighed in.

The current issue of Regulation features a cover story that offers insight into what government interventions work and what doesn’t in the management of fisheries.

Authors Jonathan Adler and Nathaniel Stewart argue that fisheries are a classic example of what economists call the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Open access resources such as fishing stocks are overharvested because no one owns the rights to the harvest. Instead, everyone has an incentive to grab what fish they can before another boat does.

The traditional policy response to the commons problem has been regulating the length of the fishing season or limiting the total amount of fish that can be caught. The problem is these policies don’t change the incentives that lead fishermen to race after and grab as many fish as they can. For example, codfish quotas in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank were cut 77% and 61%, respectively in 2013. Such regulations do not fix the problem because the incentives for boats to get faster or bigger remain.

A better solution would be a system of Individual Transferable Quotas. These quotas assign to individuals a right to a small portion of the total allowed catch in a fishery. This “catch share” ends the incentive to race and grab because a fisher owns the rights to a defined amount of fish, and no one can take that right from him. A 2012 study of 15 catch-share programs in the United States and Canada found that, because the programs worked so well, fishinging seasons were lengthened from 63 to 245 days. And the introduction of the catch-share systems allowed fish populations to recover from previous overharvesting. After five years of catch share implementation, catch limits increased 13 percent on average.

Fishery property rights a vast improvement over traditional fisheries regulation.