15 Jan 2009

Fishes... and Seas

I attended the annual conference of economists in San Francisco a week or so ago. (They had TWO papers on water -- out of over five hundred! Missing the point here folks...)

One of the best papers [PDF] I heard described an interesting "institutional" scenario. It was the story of how fishermen in Alaska, when allowed to join a voluntary cooperative, were able to lower their effort (as a group) and raise their profits (as individuals). The main reason? About 60% of the boats were left on shore.

For those of you who don't know, the curse of fishing (the "tragedy of the commons") is that there are too many boats chasing too few fish. The result is few fish, small catches and smaller profits.

The sad side of the story is that this fishing cooperative was disbanded by the Alaska Supreme Court when non-members complained that it was against the Alaska constitution for people to benefit from "fishing activity" without going to sea, i.e., that it was illegal to cooperate to reduce fleet size.

I have no idea what these guys were thinking, since more boats are worse for everyone. Perhaps they wanted to see MANY others fail instead of the same others succeed by fixing the messed-up incentives.

In any case, there are no winners from the resumption of the free-for-all.

On a related note, check out the articles in the Economist's "Special Report on the Sea." It's so good that it could serve as a text for a class on the environment and natural resources (the sea and the fish). The sad news is that we are in DEEP DEEP trouble with the seas (overfishing, acidification, pollution, etc.)

Bottom Line: Enjoy the seas (and their declining abundance) while you can. It doesn't seem like politicians are interested in saving for tomorrow the things that we are exploiting and destroying today. :(


Philip said...

I don't know whether to post this in the space exploration post or here, but...where we should be spending exploration money (and possibly sending some humans) is in deep sea exploration, not in distant space. We know surprisingly little about what is our comparative back yard in the deep seas. Understanding the biology of our fisheries, the earth's nitrogen/carbon balances, and the adaptive responses of exotic deep sea life forms are all critically important *right now*.

Four Mound Farm said...

Should I have guilt about savoring delicious Bay scallops from NoCal, oysters, Dungeness crab, and fat mussels from Puget Sound, and Ahi tuna from the open Pacific? Why are so much of these obviously endangered species so readily available in abundance at Costco? I'm visualizing how much seafood is at my Costco, plus the other three stores in just our region and it is a huge amount. Add ALL of the Costco stores with an identical selection and it boggles my mind...

I now have an insight into why given scarcity some people "use it or lose it" rather than conserve . I will sorely miss seafood and this makes me crave it!
Seafood is as important as water in my life!

NPR had a story where an expert declared every single fishery in the world to be significantly depleted, and added that our government only disputed that contention on two minor fisheries.

Nic said...

The way the cooperative is described makes it sound like collusion. Still, it's an interesting observation.

David Zetland said...

Well Nic, cooperatives ARE often forms of collusion (e.g., revenue sharing among sports teams), but this one was blessed by the fishing regulator (that apparently forgot to ask the Supremes :(

Umlud said...

Unfortunately, this post is still timely, as it would have been 5 years ago. Not much action is actually being done with this; there seems to be no political (or financial) traction in telling the world how and how quickly commercial fishing will crash (let alone the social outfall that will inevitably come of it).

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