Property Rights and Fishery Conservation

This is the second post of a guest-series for Megan McArdle by Jonathan Adler on property rights and the tragedy of the commons. I have been very impressed with prof. Adler’s work. This essay touches on one of our focus areas – solutions to fisheries management that actually work. Property rights is the only solution that we know of – in particular, ITQ or Individual Transferable Quotas, as discussed here:

Guest post by Jonathan H. Adler, a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and regular contributor to the Volokh Conspiracy.

Fisheries continue to be among the best examples of the tragedy of the commons in action. As Garrett Hardin himself noted in his 1968 essay, “the oceans of the world continue to suffer” from the dynamic of the commons. Alas, little has changed. Ocean fisheries remain in trouble, as study after study reveals. Most fisheries around the globe are fully or over-exploited, and a substantial number have already faced collapse. The problem with fisheries management runs deep.

(…) It does not have to be this way. Even before Hardin wrote his essay fishery economists had diagnosed the problem and explained how property rights in fisheries could solve the problem. Specifically by recognizing property rights in a percentage of the catch for a given species (or, in some cases, by recognizing rights in fishing territories), the “race to catch” could be eliminated and fishing crews could be given an incentive to husband the resource. The creation of property rights in the underlying resource aligns the incentives of those who work in the fishery with the health of the fishery. As owners of a share in the catch year-after-year, the fishers have a stake in ensuring there are more fish tomorrow than there are today.

The benefits of such a system are not merely theoretical. They have now been confirmed through extensive empirical research. A recent study in Science that looked at over 11,000 fisheries over a fifty year period found clear evidence that the adoption of property-based management regimes, often called “catch shares” or ITQs, prevents fishery collapse. (More here.) This is only the latest piece of evidence supporting the use of property institutions for fishery conservation. As Hardin predicted, the institution of property rights averts the tragedy of the commons.

There are many reasons for this. The creation of property rights in an ecological resource not only creates incentives for greater resource stewardship, to conserve the underlying value of the resource today and into the future. It also gives those who rely upon the resource a stake in the broader set of institutions that govern the resource.

Please do read the whole thing, and follow up on prof. Adler’s links.