Friday, September 19, 2008

Collective Action Problems and Fish

One of the things I find most interesting about the analytic study of international politics is how the problems of collective decision making interfere with achieving desirable outcomes. All too often, even when actors have a common interest, the enforcement problems inherent in the anarchic nature of the international system prevent them from reaching that common interest (what we would call the "optimal" outcome). Rather, fears of defection and mistrust forces each actor to pursue its own interest, at the expense of the collective, thereby ensuring that each actor is ultimately worse off than if they had cooperated (what we call the "suboptimal" outcome). The most common models of such behaviors are the "prisoners' dilemma" and the "tragedy of the commons." The latter is most relevant in questions of environmental regulation, which almost by definition, involves the attempted regulation of public goods (goods which are available to all and which cannot be denied to someone who refuses to pay for its use, like oxygen).

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.


Anonymous said...

And what about new entrants? Will the fishermen be allowed to sell their "shares," or will those be allocated by government fiat, which is to say, by corrupt influences?

Anonymous said...

I think that the catch share system is a great solution. I've always wondered if there was a solution to the "tragedy," and up until now I haven't heard one. Serious environmental issues like this are never going to be solved unless everyone wants to solve them - and most people just don't care. I agree. Giving them an incentive to is exactly what the world needs.