Markets Are Environment’s Best Protection … Just Ask the Fishes

Conn Carroll /

For years environmentalists have been prescribing mountains of new regulations on the fishing industry in an effort to protect fish populations. But their drive to micromanage the industry has not helped revive fish populations. Now, a study in Science finds that a market based approach the defines property rights, called Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), is succeeding where command and control regulation failed. The Economist reports:

Most fisheries have an annual quota of what can be caught and other restrictions, such as the length of the season or the type of nets. But this can result in a “race to fish” the quota. Fishermen have an incentive to work harder and travel farther, which can lead to overfishing: a classic tragedy of the commons.

The use of ITQs changes this by dividing the quota up and giving shares to fishermen as a long-term right. Fishermen therefore have an interest in good management and conservation because both increase the value of their fishery and of their share in it. And because shares can be traded, fishermen who want to catch more can buy additional rights rather than resorting to brutal fishing tactics.

The Alaskan halibut and king crab fisheries illustrate how ITQs can change behaviour. Fishing in these waters had turned into a race so intense that the season had shrunk to just two to three frantic days. Overfishing was common. And when the catch was landed, prices plummeted because the market was flooded. Serious injury and death became so frequent in the king crab fishery that it turned into one of America’s most dangerous professions (and spawned its own television series, “The Deadliest Catch”).

After a decade of using ITQs in the halibut fishery, the average fishing season now lasts for eight months. The number of search-and-rescue missions that are launched is down by more than 70% and deaths by 15%. And fish can be sold at the most lucrative time of year—and fresh, so that they fetch a better price.