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One step forward, two steps back on World Oceans Day

  • Laura Huggins
  • By Laura Huggins

    In case you didn’t know, today is World Oceans Day as declared by the United Nations in 2009.

    It is puzzling, then, that just in time for today’s event, a majority of House Republicans (with the help of Democrat Barney Frank) passed legislation that opposes property rights, market-based reforms, and ocean fisheries protection all in one fell swoop. The bill, which bars the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from expanding its fisheries catch share programs, is an assault on an effective and principled conservative alternative to centralized regulation. What gives?

    One of the chief sponsors of the legislation, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), said: “One of the greatest threats facing Gulf and Atlantic fisheries today is catch shares. By capping the amount of fish to be caught annually and gifting a select few with shares of the annual catch, NOAA is privatizing access to a once-open fishery.”

    Interestingly, study after study reveals that open access to fish is the root cause of fisheries collapse. Most fisheries around the globe are fully or over-exploited, and a substantial number have already collapsed according to the World Bank.

    Open access problems can be eliminated by establishing rights over the fish stock, which reduces the incentives for over-capitalization of the resource and consequently contributes to economic efficiency. Catch share programs have demonstrated successes in the management of fisheries resources in many countries including New Zealand and Iceland.

    Even the developing world, which often lacks the legal, managerial, and fiscal framework once thought to be crucial for such systems to operate, is taking steps toward closing its fisheries. Namibia, for example, is demonstrating that a catch share structure can be built from the ground up and can work beyond the developed world.

    When Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990, several fish stocks including hake and sardine were on the verge of collapse. Prior to independence, “management” of Namibia’s fisheries consisted of constant jockeying for control. The fishery was an open access resource over which neither South Africa nor the United Nations were able to exercise jurisdiction. With no rule of law and no enforcement, the fishing grounds became an international free-for-all.

    Today, Namibians are proving that solutions to resource management are universal. Any nation, and its resources, can benefit from pursuing market-based economic principles and establishing secure property rights. Namibia did this by instituting the principle that a right to benefit from the natural capital of a country has real value and a payment should be made for it. This right and payment came in the form of fishing quotas under a catch share system. Namibia’s fisheries are now recovering and other developing nations are trying to emulate Namibia’s fisheries management approach.

    There is growing evidence that insecure property rights limit economic development and resource conservation. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the development of American agriculture was similarly limited when farmers were unable to protect frontier lands from encroachment by livestock. To solve this problem, fencing such as barbed wire was created. This invention enabled individuals to secure their resources. Such fences are obviously not possible in the deep sea but property rights can still be erected for marine fisheries.

    Fences for fish vary from dividing up lobster pots, number of fish, amount of boats, bits of the ocean, or even parts of a reef, but overall securing rights to marine resources are saving fisheries around the world.

    Rather than taking steps backward, Congress should be looking at other nations — even developing nations — that are making large strides in fisheries preservation.

    Laura E. Huggins is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, MT. Huggins is the author of “Fencing Fisheries in Namibia and Beyond.”


    Written By
    • Laura Huggins
      • Research Fellow

      Laura Huggins is CEO of Montana Prairie Holdings, manager of economic initiatives at American Prairie Reserve, and a PERC research fellow.

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