Using Markets to Make Fisheries Sustainable

Around the world, over-fishing is leading to severe depletion of valuable fisheries.  This is as true in U.S. coastal waters as it is in many other parts of the world.  In New England waters, for example, after two decades of ever more intensive fishing, the groundfish fishery has essentially collapsed.  But, we are not alone.  According to the United Nations Environment Program, fully 25 percent of fisheries worldwide are in jeopardy of collapse due to over-fishing.  Clearly, something needs to be done.  Yet, what has long been considered the obvious answer – restrictions on fishing – has been shown time and time again to be the wrong answer.  The right answer is enlightened use of markets.

The fundamental cause of the depletion of fish stocks is well known to economists:  virtually all ocean fisheries are “open-access,” that is, fishermen – small operations or large corporations – can fish all they want.  These individuals and companies are no more greedy than the rest of us, but because no one holds title to fish stocks in the open ocean, everyone races to catch as much as possible.  Each fisherman receives the full benefit of aggressive fishing (that is, a larger catch), but none pay the full cost (an imperiled fishery for everyone).  One fisherman’s choices have an effect on other fishermen (of this generation and the next), but in an open-access fishery – unlike a privately-held copper mine, for example – these impacts are not taken into account.  What is individually rational adds up to collective foolishness, as the shared resource is over-exploited.  This is the “tragedy of the commons.”  What to do?

Government intervention is, alas, required.  Fishermen don’t welcome such regulation in their economic sphere any more than anyone else does.  And they have a point.  Conventional regulatory approaches have driven up costs, but not solved the problem.  And we know why.  If the government limits the season, fishermen put out more boats.  If the government limits net size, fishermen use more labor or buy more costly sonar.  Economists call this over-capitalization.  Costs go up for fishermen (as resources are squandered), but pressure on fish stocks is not relieved.

The answer is to adopt in fisheries management the same type of innovative policy that has been used for decades in the realm of pollution  control – tradeable permits, called “Individual Transferable Quotas” ( ITQs) in the fisheries realm.  Sixteen countries – some with economies much more dependent than ours on fishing – have adopted such systems with great success.  New Zealand regulates virtually its entire commercial fishery this way.  It’s had the system in place since 1986, and it’s been a great success, putting a brake on over-fishing and restoring stocks to sustainable levels ­- while increasing fishermen’s profitability!

There are several ITQ systems already in operation in the United States, including for Alaska’s pacific halibut and Virginia’s striped-bass fisheries.  More important, the time is ripe for broader adoption of this innovative approach, because a short-sighted ban imposed by the U.S. Congress on the establishment of new ITQ systems has expired.

The first step in establishing an ITQ system is to establish the “total allowable catch.”  The next step – and a crucial one – is to allocate shares of that total limit to fishermen in individual quotas that are theirs and theirs alone (read:  well-defined property rights).  Setting the individual quotas will not be easy.  The guiding principle should be simple pragmatism – using the allocations to build political support for the system.  Making the quotas transferable eliminates the problem of overcapitalization and increases efficiency, because the least efficient fishing operations find it more profitable to sell their quotas than to exploit them through continued fishing.  If you can’t catch your whole share, you can sell part of your quota to someone else, instead of buying a bigger boat.

In addition, these systems improve safety by reducing incentives for fishermen to go out (or stay out) when weather conditions are dangerous.  And it was just such perverse incentives of conventional fisheries regulation that were blamed for the tragic loss of life when a fishing boat was lost in a storm off the New England coast just a few winters ago.

Further, because ITQ systems eliminate the motivation for government to limit the duration of the fishing season, supplies available to consumers improve in quality.  Prior to the establishment of an ITQ system for Alaskan halibut, for example, the government had reduced the fishing season to just two days, but subsequent to the introduction of the system, the season length grew to more than 200 days.

A decade ago, environmental advocates – led by the Environmental Defense Fund – played a central role in the adoption of the sulfur dioxide allowance trading program that’s cut acid rain by half and saved electricity generators and rate-payers nearly $1 billion annually, compared with conventional approaches.  The time has come for environmentalists to join forces with progressive voices in the fishing industry and in government to set up ITQ systems that can keep fishermen in business while moving fisheries onto sustainable paths.


The Myth of the Universal Market

Communication among economists, other social scientists, natural scientists, and lawyers is far from perfect. When the topic is the environment, discourse across disciplines is both important and difficult. Economists themselves have likely contributed to some misunderstandings about how they think about the environment, perhaps through enthusiasm for market solutions, perhaps by neglecting to make explicit all of the necessary qualifications, and perhaps simply by the use of technical jargon.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are several prevalent and very striking myths about how economists think about the environment. Because of this, my colleague Don Fullerton, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, and I posed the following question in an article in Nature:  how do economists really think about the environment? In this and several succeeding postings, I’m going to answer this question, by examining — in turn — several of the most prevalent myths.

One myth is that economists believe that the market solves all problems. Indeed, the “first theorem of welfare economics” states that private markets are perfectly efficient on their own, with no interference from government, so long as certain conditions are met. This theorem, easily proven, is exceptionally powerful, because it means that no one needs to tell producers of goods and services what to sell to which consumers. Instead, self-interested producers and self-interested consumers meet in the market place, engage in trade, and thereby achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, as if “guided by an invisible hand,” as Adam Smith wrote in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations. This notion of maximum general welfare is what economists mean by the “efficiency” of competitive markets.

Economists in business schools may be particularly fond of identifying markets where the necessary conditions are met, where many buyers and many sellers operate with very good information and very low transactions costs to trade well-defined commodities with enforced rights of ownership. These economists regularly produce studies demonstrating the efficiency of such markets (although even in this sphere, problems can obviously arise).

For other economists, especially those in public policy schools, the whole point of the first welfare theorem is very different. By clarifying the conditions under which markets are efficient, the theorem also identifies the conditions under which they are not. Private markets are perfectly efficient only if there are no public goods, no externalities, no monopoly buyers or sellers, no increasing returns to scale, no information problems, no transactions costs, no taxes, no common property, and no other distortions that come between the costs paid by buyers and the benefits received by sellers.

Those conditions are obviously very restrictive, and they are usually not all satisfied simultaneously. When a market thus “fails,” this same theorem offers us guidance on how to “round up the usual suspects.” For any particular market, the interesting questions are whether the number of sellers is sufficiently small to warrant antitrust action, whether the returns to scale are great enough to justify tolerating a single producer in a regulated market, or whether the benefits from the good are “public” in a way that might justify outright government provision of it. A public good, like the light from a light house, is one that can benefit additional users at no cost to society, or that benefits those who “free ride” without paying for it.

Environmental economists, of course, are interested in pollution and other externalities, where some consequences of producing or consuming a good or service are external to the market, that is, not considered by producers or consumers. With a negative externality, such as environmental pollution, the total social cost of production may thus exceed the value to consumers. If the market is left to itself, too many pollution-generating products get produced. There’s too much pollution, and not enough clean air, for example, to provide maximum general welfare. In this case, laissez-faire markets — because of the market failure, the externalities — are not efficient.

Similarly, natural resource economists are particularly interested in common property, or open-access resources, where anyone can extract or harvest the resource freely. In this case, no one recognizes the full cost of using the resource; extractors consider only their own direct and immediate costs, not the costs to others of increased scarcity (called “user cost” or “scarcity rent” by economists). The result, of course, is that the resource is depleted too quickly. These markets are also inefficient.

So, the market by itself demonstrably does not solve all problems. Indeed, in the environmental domain, perfectly functioning markets are the exception, rather than the rule. Governments can try to correct these market failures, for example by restricting pollutant emissions or limiting access to open-access resources. Such government interventions will not necessarily make the world better off; that is, not all public policies will pass an efficiency test. But if undertaken wisely, government interventions can improve welfare, that is, lead to greater efficiency. I will turn to such interventions in a subsequent posting.