NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 31, 2005

Fisheries throughout the world are on the verge of collapse. This is due to a classic problem: an open access resource is being overexploited. The way to save fisheries is with property rights, says Ronald Bailey.

Fisheries are under pressure, because no one has an incentive to protect their health and productivity. Fishermen who leave fish in the water simply give their competitors another fish to catch. Bailey points out the plight of various Alaskan fisheries in the 1990s. He notes that:

  • The halibut season was once 10 months long, but due to overfishing, the government fisheries managers kept shortening the seas as a way to limit catches.
  • It didn't work -- by 1997, the halibut season was down to two chaotic 24 "derbies," yet the overall catch size was about the same that it had been when the season lasted 10 months.
  • This hurt both fishers and consumers -- with a 48 hour fishing season the market was flooded with poor quality frozen fish and processors could dictate prices to fishermen.

Eventually, local officials implemented individual fishing quotas (IFQs). Under IFQs, officials grant fishermen the right to a certain percentage of fish from the "allowable" catch. These rights are tradable. The results are promising:

  • Under the IFQs, the halibut season was expanded to 245 days.
  • Fisher safety has greatly increased because boats can stay in port when the weather is bad.
  • The pressure to overfish is now much less because IFQ holders understand that 1 percent of a bigger pie is better, so they leave more fish breeding in the sea so they can catch more in the future.

Source: Ronald Bailey, "How to Save New England's Fishing Villages," Reason, September 28, 2005.

For text:


Browse more articles on Government Issues