Trawlers, nets, sonar, GPS – improvements in technology allow us to access more ocean and fish it more intensively. But because the rules of the ocean have failed to keep pace with technological change, the world’s fisheries are now in serious danger of collapse (defined as a harvest level that is less than 10% of peak).
At Wonkblog, Brad Plumer points to a study that suggests commercial fisheries could collapse globally by 2048. The problem is not the lack of a solution. Where they’ve been tried, individual tradable quotas (ITQs), or catch shares, have worked remarkably well. The problem is an inability or unwillingness to implement better policies. Better technologies quickly spread from one fleet to the next, but better rules get taken up slowly if at all.
A catch share gives its owner rights to a fraction of the total allowable catch in a fishery. Because the shares can be bought and sold, their value is based on the productivity of the underlying fishery. As a result, the fishermen who own the shares have a strong incentive to cooperate with government efforts to preserve the fisheries in which they own shares.
One study suggests that the use of catch shares in all fisheries since 1970 would have reduced the share of collapsed fisheries from 23 percent in 2003 to 9 percent. Despite the general efficacy of catch shares, the fraction of the world’s fisheries that employ them remains very small—economist Donald Leal puts the number at less than 2 percent worldwide.
Part of the problem may be that the social norms in fishing communities are still tied to the notion of open access that prevailed for most of human history. A system in which fishermen pay for the right to harvest may come across as a threat to their way of life rather than a strategy for preserving it.
Fisheries are a specific case of the general notion that human progress comes not from new technology alone, but from the coevolution of technologies and rules. For example, new technologies make it possible for humans to gather together in dense urban settlements. But the rules needed to govern human interactions in dense cities are different from those that worked well in the context of sparsely settled village life.
Changes in technology and scale necessitate changes in rules—when the rules lag too far behind, as in the case of fisheries, the consequences can be severe. In some cases, the challenge is not so much coming up with more efficient rules as finding a way to adopt them when the underlying social norms seem to stand in the way.