Defining Ideas

Save the Fish

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Many of the world’s valuable, highly-migratory fisheries are at risk of depletion. They include those of tunas (Bluefin, Yellowfin, Bigeye, Albacore, and Skipjack), swordfish, marlins, and sailfish. They are among the most beautiful and amazing fish species, and are not only the object of many sports fleets, but are the source of both high-end sushi and low-cost protein. These fish roam far across the vast oceans of the planet, crossing the 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of coastal countries that were established in 1982 by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as the high seas. 

Their value and their journeys place them in jeopardy. Highly-migratory stocks are subject to open-access fishing—the Tragedy of the Commons—by increasing numbers of vessels from more and more countries, many with little fishing histories. China has experienced the largest growth, but others, such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, have expanded their fleets. Some developing countries have little effective control over vessels flying their flags. This expansion is coupled upon traditional harvests by established fishing nations, such as Japan, Spain, Norway, Iceland, Korea, and Taiwan. 

Save the Fish by gary libecap
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The economic and biological losses of the tragedy of the commons are huge. Some estimates are that over $50 billion is lost annually by excess capacity and over-fishing of the world’s ocean fisheries. This number is larger than the value of the annual production of many large oil deposits. For instance, it is about half the value of Iraq’s total current oil exports, a country with among the world’s largest oil reserves. 

International cooperation to control harvest is called for by the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, and the 1995 UN Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (UNFSA). Additionally, there are numerous bilateral treaties among adjacent countries on management of trans-boundary fish stocks, and if the fish remain generally within cooperating countries’ economic zones, then successful limits on harvest are feasible because property rights, such as individual transferable quotas (ITQs), or shares to a total yearly allowable harvest are possible. There are some cases, such as the Pacific Northwest Halibut Fishery, shared by the US and Canada, where cooperative management and ITQs have brought dramatic economic and ecological gains. But highly-migratory species do not stay in such convenient locations. Their travels take them out of well-managed regions into waters where they face great peril.

International efforts to protect these valuable and highly-migratory species are confounded by scientific uncertainty about the status of the stocks and by natural environmental factors, such as shifts in ocean temperatures that generally are beyond the control of collaborating nations. A more formidable obstacle, however, is the undermining of the property rights that are critical for conserving stocks by international equity considerations. Any property rights regime that is established by cooperating country fleets can be undone by the entry of new fishing vessels from other countries. Because the open seas are under no sovereign’s control and because international agreements stipulate that ocean resources are open for all human kind, they are effectively made open access by international law. The outcome is the tragedy of the Commons. 

Although UNCLOS and related treaties are aimed at conservation, UNCLOS requires that the exploitation of the sea be open to nationals of all countries, subject to restrictions called for by treaties and voluntary Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs) that are designed by UNCLOS to coordinate conservation efforts among countries. UNCLOS acknowledges coastal-country property rights to more stationary resources within their economic zones, but it does not do so for the highly-migratory fish species that pass through them. 

RFMOs have varying mandates and areas of coverage for fishery management. They commonly collect scientific data on fish stocks within their jurisdictions and the (self-reported) harvest data of member-country fleets. They use this information to set an annual total allowable catch (TAC) consistent with the estimated status of fish stocks and then distribute the TAC among member countries as country quotas. Member countries, in turn, divide their quota in any manner they choose. 

These quotas are national property rights to fish the stock. Those countries that divide the quotas into shares among their fishers create property rights to the right to fish for their nationals as individual quotas or ITQs. When the quotas are secure and transferable, consolidation of fleets takes place and fishing pressure is reduced. If member countries adhere to their national quotas, then ITQs become a property right to the expected returns from good management and controlled harvest. 

There is a catch, however, that is not good for the fish. Because these fisheries include the open seas, additional countries can join the fishery. Under UNCLOS these additional fleets are to be accepted by RFMOs as new members or affiliates so that all fishing states are made part of the same management scheme. This sounds good, but in so doing, adding new countries dilutes existing member’s share of the overall TAC. Individual country quotas have to be recalculated and a smaller share distributed among their national fleets. This reallocation changes expectations among fishers, their incentives for conservation, and the security of the property rights they hold through their ITQs. 

Paradoxically, new entry is encouraged by the very success of previous agreements among established fishing countries that result in the rebound of the fish stock. New member vessels can take advantage of any fish stock improvements and obtain a share of the returns. The conflict between international equity and the security of individual country property rights to the fishery is clear. Each time a new entrant comes into the fishery, the expected payoffs from conservation by existing member country fishers falls. Incumbent commercial and recreational fishers, supporting industries, and their communities lose as additional fleets are granted access into the fishery, reducing their incentive to support RFMO controls and conservation quotas. 

The fish, of course, also lose. When fishing is a critical industry for a country or parts of it, there is understandable backlash on local national politicians to resist fleet and harvest reductions as RFMOs respond to new membership. Support among established RFMO members for fishing cutbacks and efforts to protect the stock deteriorates. This reaction occurs even among fishers who have a long experience with the fishery and otherwise would seek to protect it. Even when there is agreement on a new lower annual harvest and a reshuffling of country quotas, there are limited incentives to abide by the rules. As a result there is considerable illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing for many highly-migratory stocks. Estimates of the annual losses of IUU fishing range between $10 and $24 billion. Stocks are driven down with the resulting competitive race to fish. 

The Case of the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Perhaps no fish population better reflects this Tragedy of the Commons, underscored by the mandate for open fisheries for all, than does the Atlantic Bluefin tuna. Bluefin tuna are the world’s most valuable fish. Prices are often greater than $100,000 per fish, and a 593-pound tuna sold for $736,000 at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market in January 2012. 

There are five RFMOs that manage tunas, and the Atlantic Bluefin falls under the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) for the Atlantic and adjacent seas, including the Mediterranean and Gulf of Mexico. Even though the ICCAT was established in 1969 Atlantic Bluefin stocks are today perhaps most in danger of the world’s Bluefin tunas. 

The figures below show the ICCAT’s huge jurisdiction and the western (Gulf of Mexico) and eastern (Mediterranean) stocks that it manages. The fishery is divided arbitrarily along the 45°W meridian even though there may be overlapping migration patterns and some mixing of the stocks.

Save the Fish by gary libecap
Save the Fish by gary libecap


Stocks in the eastern and western Atlantic have declined and may be about half that necessary for supporting a long-term fishery. Current harvests appear not sustainable, but there is continued entry into the fishery. As stocks decrease and knowledge of migratory patterns increase, fleets target lower age classes, damaging future fish recruitment to add to the stock. In 2010 concern about the status of the Atlantic Bluefin tuna led to unsuccessful efforts to place the species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). 


This effort was opposed by ICCAT, which resisted loss of jurisdiction, Japan and importantly, developing countries that wanted to enter the fishery. Tunisia, along with the United Arab Emirates and Grenada, emphasized that listing the Atlantic Bluefin tuna under CITES would block trade and the growth of their industries and affect the “livelihoods and food security of Small Island Developing States.” 

The next figure shows the estimated biomass and total allowable catches for the eastern and western Bluefin fisheries. As shown, the biomass for both stocks has been declining, especially for the western fishery. The eastern stock peaked around 315,000 metric tons in 1958 and the western at 52,000 metric tons in 1973.TACs were first assigned to the eastern stock in 1998 for the 1999 season, and before that there was no catch limit.TACs were assigned in the early 1980s for the western fishery and have been lowered, but only moderately so, despite continued declines in the stock.

Save the Fish by gary libecap


There is no unified support among ICCAT member countries for major constraints on harvest despite declines in the stock and growing fleet capitalization. One reason for a lack of consensus on fishing limits is that the growing number and diversity of member countries. Country interests vary according to the structure and development of the fishing industry. Representatives of developing countries with rapidly growing populations and previously unexploited EEZs reflect constituents with shorter time horizons and higher discount rates. 


Hence, they have different preferences and values for addressing the problem and for assigning secure property rights. Their representatives argue that developed countries with long histories in the fishery should bear the greatest cutbacks because they contributed directly to the current state of the stock. This bargaining position places them in conflict with the influential fisheries of France, Italy, and Spain. 

It is no coincidence that just as stocks have fallen, the number of countries in ICCAT has grown from 9 in 1970 to 48 by 2008. Most of the new members have been developing countries. The data in the table below illustrate the shift in harvest or fishing pressure in the most important eastern fishery from developed to developing countries. 

As shown, between 1980 and 2008 developing countries, including Morocco, Croatia, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, Algeria, China, Egypt, Syria, Yugoslavia, Panama, and Taiwan have increased their harvest share, replacing traditional leaders such as France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Portugal, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Iceland, and Korea.

Save the Fish by gary libecap


The ICCAT assigns TAC quotas to member countries, sets minimum fish size limits, and maintains a vessel registry, but it does not limit the number of vessels in the fishery. Quota allocation is controversial. Any allocation based on historical catch disadvantages new members and countries whose fisheries historically have used smaller vessels or less-effective equipment. Many coastal states within the ICCAT’s jurisdiction do not have tuna fleets or only small ones but want to take advantage of the valuable fishery through a greater share of the TAC. 


Between 1983 and 1991 ICCAT quota distributions were made according to perceived stock status, country historical catch, proximity to coastal states, and consideration for small and developing fisheries. At the insistence of new members, however, historical catch gradually has been given less weight. This changing and uncertain allocation, however, makes long-term assessments of the benefits of cooperation by incumbent country constituents difficult and reduces the attraction of granting individual transferable quotas as property rights when the shares are repeatedly reduced or uncertain. 

ICCAT decisions must be approved by majority vote and every stock management or quota allocation decision requires a two-thirds majority. With the large number of new members who seek access to the fishery, country coalitions can form to block stricter management policies. ICCAT also allows member nations to opt out of regulations. Further, coastal member states have sole authority within their EEZs and although ICCAT prohibits the sale of member quotas, developing countries without an established industry circumvent this restriction by selling flags to fleets from distant water fishing nations (DWFNs). 

As catch declines with falling stocks, vessel owners in all member countries pressure country regulators who coordinate with ICCAT to relax conservation controls.With the potential for entry by other fleets, no party can anticipate that they will benefit from any conservation controls. Enforcement of ICCAT rules can occur through trade sanctions agreed to by other member countries, but their effectiveness is questionable. 

Heterogeneity of fleets also makes agreement among member countries more difficult. Bluefin are intercepted by vessels of many different sizes and gear types. Long line fishing can include numerous small vessels that are difficult to monitor, while purse seine fishing is dominated by larger, more capital intensive, high technology fleets from developed countries. Additionally, tuna ranching, whereby juvenile fish are trapped and placed in pens for growth, requires other techniques and vessels. This assorted mix of production types with different costs, productivity, and impact on the stock raises the costs of agreement on management policies and the distribution of property rights within the RFMO.

Another impediment to agreement on TACs and quotas is scientific uncertainty about the stock, its response to harvest reductions, and the role of natural fluctuations in recruitment. Although the species has been well studied, its mobility makes stock assessments and determination of the impact of fishing less accurate. Fishing vessels have information on their catch and the bycatch of juveniles that may not be reported to ICCAT. IUU harvests can only be generally ascertained.There also is the question of whether the eastern and western Bluefin tuna stocks are truly separate, affecting current stock assessments and TACs. 

If valuable highly-migratory fish species are to be saved from over harvest, property rights must be secure. Security, however, requires restrictions on entry into the fishery even for stocks that travel outside a country’s waters into the open sea. Equity considerations in international fishery management regimes that call for reallocation of access, however, insure that stocks remain open to all. While understandable from the point of view of those who want to exploit the fishery’s potential, it is a recipe for a race to deplete the stock. 

Given the global rush for resource rents among developed and developing countries alike, some with catch histories and many without, it is a challenge to create property rights security. The challenge must be met if these magnificent fish are to remain as viable contributors to the ecology and economies of the planet.