Fisheries are a standard example for economists of the \”tragedy of the commons.\” For any individual fisherman, it makes sense to catch as many fish as possible. However, if all fishermen act in this way and if the number of fishermen grows substantially over time, the underlying common resource can become depleted and unable to renew itself. In fact, this scenario has actually taken place with the world\’s natural fisheries, where production peaked a couple of decades ago and has been stagnant or declining since then. The just-published OECD Review of Fisheries: Policy and Summary Statistics 2017 notes: \”Production of wild-caught fish in OECD countries is considerably below its peak in the late 1980s and continues to decline.\”
There are two ways out of this box. One way is to figure out a method of limiting what fishermen catch, which would over time allow natural fishing stocks to rebuild so that the total catch could be greater in the medium- and long-run. I\’ve written about proposals and analysis along these lines in
\”Saving Global Fisheries with Property Rights\” (April 12, 2016) and\”More Fish Through Less Fishing\” (May 10, 2017). The obvious difficulty is while would be in the broad interest of a fishing industry to have limits on what can be caught, so that the resource is preserved, the practical issues of determining who should be allowed to catch how much and enforcing such decisions can be difficult.
The other approach is to have the fish-production migrate away from wild catch, and move toward \”aquaculture,\” in which a certain body of water is no longer a common resource, but instead is owned by a fish producer. Aquaculture appears to be on is way to surpassing natural catch. As the OECD report notes:
\”Global aquaculture production already exceeds the volume of catch from wild fisheries, if aquatic plants are included. Annual average aquaculture growth in OECD countries has accelerated and now averages 2.1% per year. Globally, it is even more rapid, at 6% per year. Moreover, average prices of aquaculture products are increasing …\”
Most of the OECD report is a point-by-point overview of what is happening in individual countries. There is lots of \”reviewing and revising,\” and \”advancing reforms\” and \”latest major policy developments.\” But at least to me, it\’s revealing that \”Countries are also working actively to promote the sustainable development of aquaculture, which is seen as the primary source of future growth in fish production.\” This emphasis suggests that the process of rebuilding natural stocks of fish has a long way to go.
There is also a chapter on government support for the fishing industry. In most countries, other than China, fishermen are not supported directly, but instead the industry received indirect support equal to about one-sixth of its annual production. The OECD report notes:
\”The Fisheries Support Estimate (FSE) Database now inventories budgetary support to fisheries that totals USD 13 billion (EUR 11.7 billion) in 33 countries and economies in 2015. For the first time, data for the People\’s Republic of China (hereafter, \”China\”) is included in the database, revealing the scale of policies in this important fishing nation. Nearly 88% of all support transferred to individual fishers recorded in the database originates in China. In a positive development, China has announced plans to progressively reduce this subsidy. For most other countries and economies in the database, support to general services to the sector, rather than transfers to individual fishers, dominate. Governments invest a significant amount of resources to this kind of support, which includes management, enforcement, research, infrastructure and marketing. On average, these expenditures by government equal 16% of the value of landings: that is, USD 1 in every 6 earned by the sector. While some governments recoup these costs from fishers, this approach is not commonly applied and accounts for only a small percentage of the total outlay on general services to the sector.\”
The geography and policy issues fisheries is in many ways more national and regional than truly international. But the broader management of ocean resources and ecology is a global issue, with fisheries as one measure of the health of this ecosystem.