Shark Bait Blog

Environment.. and Scuba Diving.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Data File 4 - Unsustainable Commercial Fisheries in International Waters.

(illustration courtesy of Liftarn)

The 'tragedy of the commons' is a metaphor describing the destruction of public resources (the commons) by private interests when the best strategy for those interests conflicts with the common good.
The idea first came to prominence in a book on population by William Forster Lloyd, published in 1833. Garrett Hardin then developed the concept in his 1968 essay "the Tragedy of the Commons" published in Science.

Each individual interest seeks to maximise the benefit to itself because it does not bear the entire cost of those actions and so ignores the costs borne by others which are classed as 'externalities'.

The most successful commercial strategy for an individual private interest is to exploit more than its share of public resources for as long as the benefits exceed the penalties.
Since every rational private interest will follow this strategy, to avoid being disadvantaged by the other private interests, the public resource always gets overexploited.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than the free for all that is currently going on in international waters for global fish stocks; although the actions of globalised corporations (corporations have a legal requirement to put maximising profits for share-holders above all other considerations) provide another excellent example.

There are a two solutions which can prevent this 'tragedy', if efficiently enforced.

1. The creation and enforcement of conservation measures by an authority, which may be an outside agency or created by the private interests themselves, with agreement to cooperate to conserve the resource.
This is the political solution and as a result is often not as effective as it should be or worse, a self interest talking shop disguising the continued unsustainable exploitation of the commons with weasel words and toothless agreements.

2. To convert each 'common' or part thereof, into private property which can be traded nationally / internationally, giving the owner of each an incentive to enforce its sustainability. Failue to do so has a direct and unambiguous financial penalty .
The risk here is of an inequitable hidden transfer of wealth; if compensation for this privatisation is inadequate or non-existant.
This is the commercial solution, which although by no means perfect does have some record of success.

Internationally tradable quotas (ITQs) backed by international enforcement, where any ship caught fishing illegally would have its owning company issued with a crippling fine (which should counter the cynical 'flag of convenience' practise), its captain imprisoned and the ship scrapped, would go a long way to dealing with the current unsustainable exploitation of fish stocks in international waters.
Iceland already operate a system very similar to this, combined with an annual scientific survey of all commercial fish stocks within the Icelandic EEZ.

It is also important to realise that ruinous over-exploitation of one 'commons' can have a drastic 'domino' effect on other 'commons'

Over fishing of coastal Africa is now having an effect on land -

'By comparing fish harvesting data to changes in the estimated biomass (weight of living creatures) of large mammals in Ghana, researchers were able to track the relationship between the two resources over a 30-year period. They found that years with poor fish harvests for locals coincided with large drops in mammal biomass and vice versa. This correlation was further substantiated by annual counts of hunters found in nature reserves.'


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