I confess, in the past I’ve been very sceptical of claims by commercial fishermen that their livelihoods are threatened by over-regulation. I’ve seen too much ‘factory fishing’, where entire fish populations are driven to the point of collapse by over-exploitation. (For example, I’ve never forgiven the then-Soviet Union for sending in bottom trawlers to Mozambique after that nation’s independence from Portugal. They wiped out the prawn beds off Lourenço Marques [today Maputo] in just six months. Whilst the national prawn industry continues, it’s based in other centers today, and has never been as good as before, according to acquaintances who were there at the time.)
Nevertheless, a new book, ‘The Fish Market‘, argues that new regulations and the so-called ‘catch-shares’ program have idled thousands of fishermen, effectively depriving them of a livelihood.
In an article discussing the book’s findings, the New York Post reports:
The town of St. George, off the Bering Sea near Alaska, was long home to some of the most robust pollock fishing in the country. But due to a fishing rights management scheme called “catch shares,” the town has no rights to fish its own waters and regularly watches their former industry literally pass them by.
“Every year, the industry takes about $2 billion in gains out of this fish resource on the Bering Sea,” St. George Mayor Pat Pletnikoff tells Lee van der Voo in “The Fish Market.” “Not one plug nickel sticks to St. George.”
Catch shares work by dividing our oceans just like any other physical property, creating theoretical property lines. Then the rights to fish different species in various sections are awarded to applicants — which could be individuals or companies — based on how much fish they catch over a certain period of time. These rights are given by eight fishery councils throughout the country, which also place restrictions on how much of any species can be fished.
While catch shares are credited with greater species management — the US government found in 2007 that of 230 species of fish, 92 were going quickly extinct due to overfishing — the catch-shares program has virtually privatized our oceans, destroying the livelihoods of many lifelong fishermen and other small businesses in the process.
While any system has winners and losers, catch shares allow for one major exploitation: Those who own the rights to fish a certain area can rent or sell them like feudal landlords, in perpetuity. That means fishermen, who used to freely fish certain areas, now have to rent those same areas from absentee landlords.
. . .
The bizarre setup means owners of fishing boats have become the equivalent of Uber drivers for share owners who take anywhere from 50 percent to 75 percent of the profit.
Owners of less than 20 percent of a boat are required to be aboard any vessel catching their fish, but are not required to fish. This has led to boat owners offering amenities such as “big screen and satellite TVs, massive DVD collections, quality grub and staterooms” to attract share owners aboard to relax while the owner and his crew do the back-breaking work of fishing.
There’s more at the link.
I hadn’t been aware of the impact of this new approach, but if the book’s author is correct, it looks like yet another attempt to ‘restore order by regulation’. I can’t think of many cases in any industry, or with any natural resource, where that’s worked. Whenever bureaucrats and regulations multiply, it seems to me that natural balance and individual enterprise lose.