Wednesday, 19 September 2007

What would 'Party X' do about the environment? - PART 6: A fishy story

Continuing this serialisation based on my 'Free Radical' article 'Environmental Judo' - seven environmental policies that a genuine opposition party could adopt if they were serious about spontaneously shrinking the state, without any new coercion along the way.

Today, de-politicising the oceans:

6. A Fishy Story
NZ’s fisheries are at present what’s known as a “managed commons,” a system in which the tragedy of the commons is limited only by bureaucratic management of property effectively held in common by all those who own quotas. The quota system is simply a system of rationing by bureaucrat, with no incentive for the bureaucrats who set the level of rationing to get it right, nor for quota holders to maintain the resource.

The result has been politicisation of the fisheries, short term thinking from fishermen (rational in the circumstances), and pressure for even more government control of local fisheries.

I suggest we need a rethink. The best way to protect fish stocks and to protect the legitimate interests of fishermen is not through rationing but through property rights.

We know that when property is secure that property owners tend to look to their longer term interests: no reasonable property owner wants to destroy the goose that lays his golden eggs. When property rights are insecure however the situation is reversed: the greatest incentive with the short-term horizons created by insecure property rights is to grab what you can while the going is good.

Such has been the recent experience in NZ’s fishing industry where property rights are rationed by bureaucratic fiat, and we see claims of increasing bottom trawling and bycatch, and scary reports of decreasing fish stocks and a decimated fishery.

The answer is not more politicisation, but less.

Think about it for a moment. There are extinct native birds; there are decreasing fish stocks; but there is no immediate likelihood of dairy or beef cows becoming extinct. There’s a crucial difference here isn’t there: the difference is that farmers’ property in their cattle is protected. That’s the whole difference.

Farmers have historically protected their property in their stock with methods such as barbed wire, brands and enclosed paddocks. Obviously, none of these methods of protecting farmer’s property in their stock works with fish at present (except perhaps with shellfish, for which water rights and seabed rights are necessary), but giving fishermen the opportunity to show reason WHY their ownership in a fishery should be recognised should be seriously considered.

We can use the power of good law to promote the technological means by which law good law can be brought to bear on the problem. Think about the development of property rights in cattle, and how technology helped:

The use of cattle brands was the first simple method enabling cattlemen to define ownership of their stock, which it was the law’s job to protect, allowing them to plan and to grow their herds ‘sustainably’ in the full knowledge that their investment in the herd was protected. The better the legal protection, the longer term the investment and the planning that could be done. This is the reason that cattle rustling was treated so severely in the days when cattle still roamed the plains, and before barbed wire was invented.

The invention of barbed wire revolutionised farming, allowing farmers to protect and define both their stock and their land across huge areas, allowing them to plan ahead and to protect both their herd and their land ‘sustainably’ in the full knowledge that their investment in herd and land was protected.

Both inventions enabled the legal technology of property rights to be brought to bear to protect first the resource (by means of identifiable brands) and then the environment (by means of barbed wire).

What’s needed now is the same thing to happen with the fisheries. If fishermen’s own interests in fisheries and fish stocks are safeguarded, then every incentive exists for them to take the long term view.

What’s needed with the fisheries is the maritime equivalent of brands and barbed wire so that fish stocks and fisheries are protected by those who have the most interest in protecting them: the fishermen themselves. What’s needed is technology.

Political parties don’t invent technology. They can’t. But what they can do is offer the protection of property rights to those who do.

I suggest the best way to obtain what we want here is to invite the fishermen themselves over, say, a three year period to present methods either technological or otherwise by which their own interests in fish and fisheries may be objectively recognised and protected in law, and then commit to enact that protection.

I predict an explosion in fish stocks, the depoliticisation of the fisheries, and a big export market in the technology produced.
[Tomorrow, Part 7: A Kyoto Plan with a difference]
* * * * *

INTRO: 'What Would Party X Do?'
PART 1: 'Eco Un-taxes
Part 2: 'A Nuisance and a BOR.'
Part 3: 'Small Consents Tribunals'
Part 4: 'Privatisation: Iwi then Kiwi'
PART 5: 'A Very Special Carbon Tax'

'Transitions to Freedom: Shall We Kill Them in Their Beds?'


  1. Tuna migrates.

  2. PC said...
    What’s needed with the fisheries is the maritime equivalent of brands and barbed wire so that fish stocks and fisheries are protected by those who have the most interest in protecting them: the fishermen themselves. What’s needed is technology.

    PC, the idea of fisheries property rights is absurd for any commercial enterprise to even contemplate on. The technology is already available today, Radio Frequency Identification Tracking (RFIT) although in its infancy, which are already being applied commercially in the retail industry for item tracking. The cost is so huge to start RFIT'ed tacking fish stock in this way, unlike the farmers where their herd are confined to their property, the owner of certain fish stocks could end up with his stocks scattered around the world, say one fish is along the coast of South Africa, one in South Korea, one in the UK, perhaps 2 in the US, 4 in the Antarctic, and so forth. How on earth are you going to commercialise your product if they scattered around the world like that? The cost of trying to herd the fish back to NZ for harvesting, by using some technology to be invented would be so huge, that commercially it would be unviable to do so.

    Not everything in life could be argued in terms of property rights. If that's the case, then the AGW crowd could also argue that air we breath should also be owned. A technology must be invented so that corporate polluters could confine their CO2 to their own space, so that the AGW proponent don't have to breath in CO2 produced by others.

  3. Typo mistake, in my last post. It should read as:

    The cost is so huge to start RFIT'ed tagging fish stock in this way...

  4. It may be tough for tuna, but that doesn't mean private property in at least some fish isn't a good idea. One could claim ownership of fish on one's own stretch of seabed - Ironically, the Leigh marine reserve proves that such an approach may work. Snapper inside the reserve are far larger than those outside, despite the fact that snapper can migrate very far. Another approach is the giant, floating sea cage for large fish such as tuna - plans are already being made for such things.

  5. Another approach is to give all quotas to fishermen, permanently, with no more government say in the matter. One of my old professors said this is like asking the wolves to take care of the sheep, but this approach would bring an end to fisheries lobbying the politicians to increase quota levels, and they would have to rely on good conservation. I've read a book by Donald Leal which touches on this matter.

    Oh, and one last thing. END FISHING COMPANY SUBSIDIES, PERMANENTLY. Much unsustainable fishing, both ecologically and economically, has been subsidized to death by governments, and this was part of the reason the cod stocks of Canada collapsed.

  6. FF

    You need to understand what the economics concept of "scarcity" actually means. Then you will not make the mistake of the environmentalists.



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