The problem of the depletion of fishing stocks is a quintessential tragedy of the commons problem. The fish in the ocean are owned by no one, and available for use by all. The collective interest would be to manage the fish stocks so that the fish removed from the ocean are replaced by those remaining reproducing. However, each individual fisherman has a personal incentive to fish as much as possible, and no one can be sure that anyone else will agree to limit their own fishing, much less comply with any such agreement. Thus, international agreements to limit commercial fishing in efforts to preserve fish stocks are exceedingly difficult to reach and even harder to enforce.
The solution to the general problem is either the creation of property rights (whereby each actor now owns a share of the common, and can do whatever he wants to with it, which connects the individual incentive to the collective) or government regulation (forcing the actors to limit their usage). Regulation is difficult, if not impossible, under international anarchy. But what about property rights?
As this article makes clear, property rights are now being seen as a potential solution to the problem of overfishing. In this case:
In a catch share system, individual fishermen, or fishing cooperatives, are allocated a share of the catch based on what they have caught over a prior period, say five or 10 years, explained Christopher Costello of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
For example, if someone averaged 1.5 percent of the catch in a fishery in the past, they would be guaranteed 1.5 percent of the total in the future — regardless of what the total take is.
Thus, a healthy fish stock allowing for a larger total catch means each share is larger, Costello said, so fishermen tend to protect the stock by using less damaging methods.
Using catch shares to manage fisheries is common in some parts of the world and is currently under consideration for some U.S. fisheries also.
Brilliant! Each fisherman now has an incentive to restrain his behavior so as to increase the size of the fishing stock, thereby increasing his future haul and guaranteeing it as well.
Sadly, environmental groups are often opposed to the introduction of market conditions and incentives into environmental issues. One only need consider the oppositon to the creation of pollution markets to see this. However, at least one important environmental NGO is behind this idea:
The finding was welcomed by the Environmental Defense Fund.
"The trend around the world has been to fish the oceans until the fish are gone," said David Festa, vice president and oceans director at EDF. "The scientific data presented today shows we can turn this pattern on its head. Anyone who cares about saving fisheries and fishing jobs will find this study highly motivating."
With any luck, this catch-share system will be broadly implemented, both by national governments regulating their own fishermen and between countries sharing common stocks.