This is excellent news. The Magnuson-Stevens fisheries act which passed not long ago has a lot of measures to cut overfishing in the oceans. Many important fish species have been fished to the breaking point, and need serious efforts to allow them to recover. This isn’t just a matter of protecting seafood restaurants, it’s also a matter of watching out for the ecosystems that sustain life in our oceans.
Among the measures approved are cuts in fishing quotas for several species, but more importantly:
While much of the bill focuses on tightening the 30-year-old fisheries law, it also endorses for the first time creation of “limited access privilege programs” allowing groups or individuals to trade shares of a fishery’s overall catch.
These sorts of tradeable fishing quotas are generally seen as excellent policy because it gives the owner of the fishing right a long-term interest in the well-being of the fishery.
By allowing a quota-holder to sell the quota, the fishers have to consider not just the current value of the quota, but its future value for themselves, their children, and whoever they might choose to sell that quota to in the future.
This is a way of creating long-term property rights, a standard solution to “the tragedy of the commons,” in a situation where the property being owned is not easily bounded.
The advantages for fishing are manifold. The other common solution is to either impose hard limits on each fisherman’s catch, or to strictly limit the length of the fishing season for each species. Each is essentially an untradeable quota and each produces the same negative side effects.
When there is a hard limit on how much a boat can capture, it creates an incentive to kill and throw back smaller fish from the target species, and to kill and throw back all members of the non-target species. This effect is bad ecologically and economically since it reduces fish populations without bringing anything to market.
Tradeable quotas allow longer fishing seasons, leaving less incentive to throw back non-target species. Some studies in areas that have tried tradeable quotas have found substantial reductions in this sort of overfishing, and other surveys have found that overfishing of non-target species is a substantial problem in many fisheries. Fisheries ecologists estimate that a quarter of the catch is generally bycatch – non-target species and undersized individuals killed and thrown overboard.
A 2004 review by Pikitch, et al. in Science cites the case of white marlin, a game fish that experiences 90% of its annual mortality from incidental catch in areas being fished for tuna and swordfish. That review makes a policy suggestion that fisheries regulators ought to consider in the context of tradeable quotas:
We need to derive and develop community and system-level standards, reference points, and control rules analogous to single-species decision criteria. We may want to ensure that total biomass removed by all fisheries in an ecosystem does not exceed a total amount of system productivity,
If we could accurately account for bycatch and other removals from the system, imposing a tradeable cap on those removals in addition to caps on individual species would provide important ecological benefits within an effective economic process.
Similar systems were used to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution during the ’90s, and tradeable quotas were a controversial part of the Kyoto protocol. That treaty was spiked for other reasons, but there’s a good chance such a system would be an important part of any solution to climate change whether implemented globally, nationally, or statewide – as with California’s carbon regulations.