Saturday, August 3, 2013


Catfish is good. Over a billion people rely on fish and other seafood as their main source of protein. Over half of our oxygen comes from the oceans that house those fish and marine life. And steadily, we have fished and fished and overfished such that much of our marine life and fish are endangered. Yet only 2.3% of the world’s waters are protected as marine reserves.

The Blue Marine Foundation calls it the largest solvable problem in our world today. That’s a huge statement and I’m not sure it necessarily is (there are other large solvable problems) but I love they are drawing attention to this problem. I think Blue Marine means that it is probably the largest easily-solvable problem in our world today. We are literally moving to a place where we are “running out of fish” in our oceans and it’s all because of the problem of renewable resource management.

I’m using the term renewable resource because you can think of fish like a renewable resource. Since fish give birth and produce other fish they are in some sense “renewable.” In a broad sense, renewable and non-renewable can be interchangeable for the same resource. On geological time scales (billions or hundreds of millions or tens of millions of years), for instance, petroleum and fossil fuels are considered renewable. But in the short time that we uncover them from the ground and use them for various products or fuel, they are not renewable. Water is renewable, but if you use water faster than the hydrological cycle recharges water, you’re using it at a non-renewable pace. This same effect is happening with fish.

Global fishing is a mess. This is partly because of an issue of ownership, partly an issue of ethics. Ethically, you are not ever responsible to pass down all your resources in tact, exactly as they are, to future generations. However, one framework in which I like to operate, asks this question: How do I maintain or pass down the value of those natural resources to future generations? Luckily fish are a renewable resource. With renewable resources (like animals and crops) you can maintain the size of the stock and consume or live off the harvest. So in this way you can pass on the value of the resource to future generations in two ways: 1) build the stock and make future generations pay for the increased stock or 2) consume or deplete the stock and provide future generations with money for the decreased stock.

However, it’s hard to imagine that happening without properly drawn-up rights which create a framework in which you must pay to over-deplete or over-consume. Ownership presents another problem. Who owns the fish? Better yet, who owns the ocean? Water resource management is a really difficult issue compared to land resource management. At least land is usually contained within the borders of a country and governed by a nation. Fish aren’t assigned to any nation. International waters are anyone’s guess. Look at the Arctic, for example. Due to the oil there, Canada, Russia, and Norway are all contesting for the rights to the natural assets in the Arctic. And they are following the proximity principle that assumes ownership should belong to the person who is nearest the natural asset.

Currently there are three classes of fish and ownership. If the fish are in a farm, they belong to the fish farm. If the fish are in territorial waters, they belong to the appropriate government. If the fish are outside of territorial waters, they are fair game with no owner. Remember, there is nothing intrinsic to fish that determines ownership, it’s simply geography.

In territorial waters, the duty to maintain the value of the fish is that of the corresponding government. They should limit the amount of fishing by selling rights to fish for a certain amount of fish and then properly police and enforce the quotas. However, in territorial waters, the fishing lobby has been winning. The fishing lobby receives quotas for free as well as subsidies. The danger of free quotas is that you will try to get as many as you can get because it’s free. This raises the harvest rate and as you can already tell due to the fact that this is a problem, politicians have allowed unsustainable harvest rates through this system.

Now, those subsidies have an effect on international waters, too. Imagine for a moment. Fishing revenues each year are about $80 billion and subsidies are about $30 billion. Those subsidies are for OECD countries and they are provided to OECD fisherman to fish anywhere—international waters and the poorly defined waters of countries in the Bottom Billion. Theoretically, this means that a Korean fishing fleet can fish off the coast of Sierra Leone sponsored by OECD fishing subsidies.

Paul Collier tells a story from the Minister of Fisheries in Sierra Leone. They don’t have the means or resource to police their territorial waters so they must watch helplessly while foreign subsidized boats deplete the fish on the coast of Sierra Leone. Fortunately, the Chinese provided one police fishing vessel. However, the first foreign fishing boat it caught was Chinese. And the problem gets worse when you consider a country not only without a ministry of fisheries, but a country with no properly functioning government like Somalia. Its coastal seas are ransacked by foreign fishing all the time.

And the problems continue. The world’s fishing fleet is estimated to be about 40% larger than the optimal size for a sustainable yearly catch of fish. At this rate, you begin to see the enormity of the problem. Yet, all of this can be solved by assigning an international body like the UN or the World Trade Organisation to manage (and not give away for free) the rights to fish around the world in international waters. Of course there is a lot to work out there in terms of policing and setting prices (auctions are good), but the current system is not working.

In honour of World Oceans Day, I wanted to highlight some of the issues and point you toward a film called The End of the Line. It was produced by the Blue Marine Foundation, and it talks about the large crisis facing fish and our oceans. If you have a moment you can watch the The End of the Line trailer.

Cinema trailer for The End of the Line from The End of the Line on Vimeo.

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