The Environmental Spectator

How’s the Fishing?

Earth Day 2009 brings some good news from the world's fisheries.

By 4.22.09

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"Crematorium to help heat homes in Swedish Town" was the headline in a December 20, 2008 story in the Telegraph (UK). The town of Halmstead decided that just dying wasn't enough to reduce one's environmental footprint.

"Of course, it's possible that there will be some discussion about the ethics of this, but from our side, this is a purely environmental idea," said Lennart Andersson, director of the local cemetery. "There will be no difference in the ashes."

Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and founder of the "deep ecology" movement, passed away on January 12. According to Patricia Sullivan, who wrote Naess's obituary for the Washington Post, "a deep ecologist would clean up a pond because plants and animals deserve a pristine habitat and the woods should be allowed to evolve at their own rate. A shallow ecologist would preserve the pond so his children have a nice place to swim and the watershed quality improves."

Setting aside, for a moment, the view that being concerned for one's children and water quality might be viewed as "shallow," can't one be concerned with both nature and human beings?

It is another Earth Day, and, as in previous such columns on this site, yours truly continues his quest for good news for both man and animal in the hopes of raising your spirits amidst various and sundry claims of global collapse emanating from certain circles. If a cemetery director in Sweden can find the environmental light at the end of his tunnel, well, so can I.

Of course, there are real problems out there. A very big one is the collapse of the oceans' fisheries. It is truly a classic example of the Tragedy of the Commons. Yet, this is a policy area in which some creative market- or incentive-based programs are beginning to gain purchase throughout the world. There seems to be greater acceptance of something like a property rights regime, subject to overall regulation of the total catch, as a means to relieve pressure on the fisheries while enhancing the economic position of the fishermen.

Researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Hawaii published a study in the September 19th issue of Science that showed that a strategy called "catch shares" can reverse fisheries collapse. Catch shares are common in New Zealand, Australia, Iceland and are starting to come on line in the U.S. and Canada, too. They guarantee each shareholder a fixed portion of a fishery's total catch that is set each year by scientists. These shares can be bought and sold and become more valuable as the fish population, and the total allowable catch, increases. In other words, the owner of the catch shares now has an interest in a thriving fishery over the long term.

Traditional fisheries are "open access," which results, basically, in a race to catch the last fish.

The researchers surveyed 11,000 fisheries. They found that, while nearly a third of open-access fisheries have collapsed, the number is only half that for fisheries managed under catch share systems. Moreover, they were able to demonstrate that catch shares reverse the overall decline in the fisheries, strengthening them over time.

In 1995 the Alaskan halibut fishery was converted to Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQ), a variety of catch shares. At that time the total season had dwindled from roughly four months down to just two or three days. Given the compression on the season, fishing crews rushed, took risks, overloaded boats, and processing facilities and lost money.

Today, the halibut season lasts almost eight months. Boats now haul in fresh, undamaged fish in manageable quantities with the price per pound significantly larger.

"Halibut fisherman were barely squeaking by-but now the fishery is insanely profitable," says Steve Gaines, Director of the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of the authors of the study.

No one ever washed a rented car, right? Since the fishing operations now have a defensible, excludable, transferable claim or right to a share of the catch, they can manage the fishery in a responsible and profitable manner, which is good for them and for the fish. Not for them any false dichotomies between deep and shallow ecology.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.