Living on a Finite Size Planet

FAO published some numbers on fishing today:

Global marine catches have been stagnant for over a decade, hovering at around 85 million tons per year. Meanwhile fisheries productivity — measured in terms of catch per fisher, or per fishing vessel — has declined, even though fishing technology has advanced and fishing effort increased.

Naturally, with a global resource that nobody owns or regulates, everybody is trying to exploit it before others can, leading to its decline and reduced benefit for all. Actually, it’s even worse than a grab free for all – governments subsidize vast overfishing fleets.

This is a game theoretical problem. If people can’t do agreements or there can’t be any agreed regulation, the situation leads, perhaps not to the last fish being caught, but at least to the state of fisheries being kept so low that fishing is very barely profitable.

A local optimum (everybody fishes for themselves as much as they can) is very far from the global optimum (total fish catch is increased and it is easier to fish since there are more fish when everybody limits the amount they fish), but the lack of coordination prevents from reaching the global optimum.

This nicely and sadly illustrates how things like contracts, agreements, treaties or regulations could improve the situation for everyone involved.

Of course from one fisherman’s viewpoint, it’s not his fault that everyone is fishing, and any regulations would only hurt him (in the short term they would).

In the past many such things were not a matter of much attention. Technology was so primitive that one could not overfish the seas. Or in other, smaller places where the limits of exploitation could be reached, nations controlled their resources wholly, meaning they could enforce regulation by themselves. It is mostly in the twentieth century that the effects of human action have been so vast that there have been needs for international regulation.

It would be interesting to hear how a libertarian takes these things into account. In my view “everybody for themselves” is a good strategy for many problems, but too simplistic to be used for everything. We see now where it has lead with global fishing.

Central control has also resulted in vast environmental damages, and hurting people as well. The Aral sea is one example.

Hence one would need some kind of negotiations between all the effecting and effected parties, and science and justness based decision making to manage the global fisheries. It is a very hard problem, not technically (you just fish less, nothing could be easier!), but politically.

At the same time, it is a test for humanity. Can this 6 billion bunch of apes engage in decision making that results in the medium term in positive results for all, even though it can be bad for some persons in the short time (though they can be compensated). On this finite size planet, as our capabilities grow, more and more actions are having longer term effects on the whole system. That means the future of both the actor as well as others.

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4 Responses to Living on a Finite Size Planet

  1. Clark says:

    I believe the standard libertarian view of this sort of “tragedy of the commons” situation –

    is that it could be prevented by allowing private ownership. A recent report in Science Magazine gives some support to this approach:

  2. gravityloss says:

    Thanks Clark!
    Gotta read that someday, it doesn’t strike as obvious how you can privatize or own something like fish in the sea that travel not caring about any borders and the individuals are indistinguishable and innumerable.
    There’s a lot of text but I can’t easily find a thorough explanation on what these shares do.

    It seems mostly still like limiting fishing, every fisherman just gets a share of the total catch, hence if the total catch is bigger, a single fisherman gets a bigger absolute upper catch limit.

    It’s very good if it works so well.

    This is all of course quite un-libertarian since it includes regulations and using government money incentives to guide behaviour.

  3. Habitat Hermit says:

    I don’t know all that much but I do know this is not a new situation or challenge, it has been a highly visible issue since at least the early seventies.

    While the article and some of your thoughts are right there are some mistakes:

    – One can own parts of the sea and states/countries do own a lot of it; it’s called the Economic Exclusive Zone and for example Norway (and many other countries) do regulate it by for example quotas, extensive regulation, and military power. Most nations delegate a lot of the implementation and control authority to their coast guard.

    In the Norwegian EEZ the coast guard/military forces firing upon, ramming, boarding and/or confiscating ships (including catch, and sometimes even crew… yes that sounds stranger than it is) that operate illegally or break regulations is not unheard of, nor are large fines uncommon (sometimes to the point of bankrupting an offending commercial entity) –Icelandic, Spanish, and Russian ships (and most likely more) have met such fates in the Norwegian EEZ. Surveillance of the EEZ is a big part of peacetime naval tasks (and depending on the country in question also other armed services, especially air forces).

    – The EEZs are often more important than international waters when it comes to fish populations. Good stewardship includes protecting breeding grounds.

    – The subsidizing of fishing fleets is very often (and increasingly) much like the subsidizing of farmers: they get paid not to work.

    – In addition at least some coastal nations also subsidize alternatives like aquaculture and development of new sectors (species) and technology of aquaculture etc.

    In other words no this is not a zero sum game nor really a tragedy of the commons; instead it is all about good stewardship and cultivation of the natural resources a country owns.

    P.S. I believe Norway is currently increasing its fish exports due to proper management.

    P.P.S. I’m not a 100% libertarian (I’m somewhere in the vicinity of what’s called a liberal in Europe) and what you call libertarian I would call ultra-libertarian/anarchist; there’s a big difference between wanting a small state and wanting no state at all. For that matter most libertarians view national defense as a valid state task and the topic of coastal waters & EEZ largely fit in that category.

  4. TokyoTom says:

    gravityloss, you are on the right track in identifying the nature of the “nature” problem – a lack of institutions such as property rights that give those who catch and sell fish the ability to protect and invest in the health of the resource that they use. There is movement toward what are called ITQs – individual transferable quotas.

    I’ve blogged a fair bit on this; see the following for a start:

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