Damn you, lack of global warming

The lack of Spring is taking its toll. We’ll have to wait another two weeks for our fresh maatjes:

The first barrel of fresh herring will be auctioned two weeks later than usual. The reason is the bad weather. Plankton, which is the main food source of herring, has been growing very slowly due to the lack of sunlight. (Source: Trouw.nl)

Actually, it’s not as dramatic as it sounds. “Fresh herring” is a bit of a oxymoron because all herring is frozen. If they weren’t you’d have to worry about this uninvited guest. So go on and order some onions with it.

Who’s the sucker here: Kiribati, Mauritania, or the EU?

In many developing countries with large fish stocks most of the fishing is done by fleets from rich countries such as Japan, Spain, or The Netherlands. The EU has made a few new deals recently and they make interesting case studies.

On the EU’s latest deal with Kiribati (H/T Adam Baske):

Kiribati has secured a US$1.71 million deal for 15,000 tonnes of tuna per year with the European Union. Under the agreement, the EU is now able to deploy four purse seiner and six longline vessels in Kiribati’s waters.

There are many Pacific Island Nations making such deals. It’s a classical Prisoner’s Dilemma: if those countries stick together in the negotiations they could earn a lot more than if they go it alone. No wonder the Parties to the Nauru Agreement are not amused. Dr Transform Aqorau of the PNA comments:

“Kiribati could have generated an annual income of US$11.3 million from its agreement with the EU. But as I said, countries have their own reasons for doing what they do, but you have to wonder why in the face of great need by our people, we allow our natural resources to be sold short?”

On the other side of the globe Mauritania seems to have taken the other extreme. The Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant reports (25 May 2013) that ever since Mauritania’s fishing deal with the European Union has come into force, hardly any European fishing vessel has entered Mauritanian waters. Fishing in Mauritania has become unprofitable for these vessels due to several restrictions, including the distance they are required to keep from the coast, the fee they are required to pay, and the number of Mauritanian workers they are required to hire.

European fishing in Mauritania’s waters is often portrayed as a hostile takeover of a poor African country’s resources by rich nations’ fishers, so you may be tempted to cry victory over Western imperialism. But this is no victory for Mauritania (my translation from Dutch):

According to Jedna Deida, a Mauritanian fisheries consultant, four thousand people in the port city of Nouadhibou have lost their jobs because the foreign fishing fleets stay away. A few thousand earned a living as crew. Many others worked in processing factories. “It’s a terrible situation, ” Deida says. “People can’t pay their children’s schools. It’s been like this for months.”

Many coastal (can I call Kiribati coastal?) developing countries struggle with the same question: should we allow foreign fishers in our waters? Under what conditions? Shouldn’t we develop our own fisheries? But what if we earn more from lucrative deals with big foreign vessels than from our own small-scale fleet?

Why economists argue with ecologists (6): Can we price nature?

Can we express nature’s value in currency, such as dollars, euros, or yuan? I usually get one of the following three replies to this question.

The first is the hardcore ecologist:
“Most certainly not. Nature has a value in itself. Pricing nature is disrespectful to nature; it violates nature’s intrinsic value; it’s cynical and perhaps even blasphemous. Can’t we just enjoy something without putting a price tag on it? Why does everything have to be expressed in money?”

The second is the hardcore economist:
“Well, duh. People have preferences. Do you prefer an apple or an orange? Do you prefer a highway or a forest? From preference orderings we can derive the amount of compensation people would need for building that highway. So of course we can price nature. We do it every time we make a choice between nature and something else.”

The third is the pragmatic ecologist:
“I don’t like it, but if we don’t do it policy makers won’t listen to us. Economists rule the world, so to promote nature conservation we need to speak the language of economists, and that is money. So I’ll just hold my nose and price nature. But I will also remind people that the price tag does not mean that nature can be substituted for something else.”

Believe it or not, but my view is closer to the hardcore ecologist than any of the other two. So what am I doing teaching monetary valuation of the environment next June?

When we do monetary valuation of, say, a coral reef, we don’t value a coral reef. Does my wage say how much I am worth as a human being? (Boy, am I glad I never pursued that career in Dutch folk music.) No, at best it gives an indication of the value of the skills and expertise I am offering in the labor market as a teacher and researcher. Likewise, coral reef valuation aims to estimate the economic value of the goods and services provided by a coral reef, like diving tourism, coastal protection, or nursing juvenile fish. By “economic value” I mean how badly we want or need those goods and services, and how easy it would be to get them elsewhere if the coral reef disappears. That tension between how badly we want something and how easily we can get it is also called relative scarcity. Water is not scarce in The Netherlands, even though it is an essential resource. The fact that it is so easy to get makes that it has a very low market price. On the other hand, diamonds are hugely expensive, not because we need them so badly but because they are so difficult to come by. You rarely see newspaper headlines about the scarcity of people, but there is common mention of scarcity of skills or labor. The last time we put price tags on humans was during the shameful era of the slave trade. Likewise, monetary valuation does not, and should not, even pretend to price nature as such.

This view puts me at odds with the hardcore economist who argues that ethics can be fit in preference orderings and compensated for. I don’t agree with this line of reasoning. It would imply that one person can block a policy if he finds it absolutely unacceptable – after all, he would require an infinite amount of compensation in order to be left “as well off” as without the policy. In practice we would call him a protest bidder and remove his data point from our analysis. Another problem is that this line of reasoning assumes that moral objections are purely individual. Moral considerations, however, typically pretend to hold for everybody. If I think eating meat is wrong, I can allow you to order a hamburger while still condemning it. If it were a purely individual preference, for instance if I would have no quarrels with eating meat but I simply don’t like hamburgers, I would have no reason to condemn your ordering of a hamburger. So when we talk about the intrinsic value of a coral reef or a species, we have no other option but to debate it with others. The outcome of that debate may be that the majority dismisses the idea of an intrinsic value of a coral reef. But at least the argument would have its proper place in the political process, which it would not have if we tried to express it in a monetary value.

It also puts me at odds with the pragmatic ecologist. First, I find his line of reasoning insincere. If you think coral reefs are unique, unsubstitutable, and should be preserved for their own worth, just say so and don’t start using economic value as an argument of convenience. Second, economic value implies substitutability, period. If I compensate you for the loss of an environmental asset, I substitute the environmental asset by something that makes you just as well off as with the asset. So I have substituted the asset by something of similar value to you. If I cannot substitute the asset by all the wealth in the universe, then its value must be infinite: hence Michael Toman‘s characterization of Costanza’s $33 trillion paper as “a serious underestimate of infinity”. Third, valuation should be done sincerely, and with the prime goal to make sure that all relevant information is available for public decisions. If you blur the line between moral considerations and purely economic ones, you will be tempted to overstate the economic arguments because the moral ones didn’t work.

The bottom line is that when you do economic valuation, you need to define very precisely what it is you are measuring, and whether the methods you use answer the question you ask. I am deeply skeptical of measuring such notions as existence value (an economic value derived from no more than knowing something exists), because I doubt whether people understand the concept, and whether we will ever be able to distinguish it from moral considerations. But perhaps that is what the role of economists should be in this issue: to properly phrase the question, to explicitly lay out the arguments and considerations, and to quantify those considerations that can be quantified.

Mapping marine economics (5): Getting the incentives right

On October 23, 1924, Canada and the United States of America signed their first Halibut Convention. Halibut fishers had long pressed for an international treaty to regulate the fishery, but it had taken a few years before Canada was finally allowed by its former colonial ruler, Great Britain, to sign its own international treaties. It was an important step to prevent overfishing of halibut, because the convention provided for a three-month closed season in winter. After a few years, however, those three months turned out to be insufficient. New fishers had entered the halibut fishery, and many fishers had invested in bigger vessels. So fisheries managers shortened the fishing season to compensate for the increased fishing capacity. What did the fishers do? They bought even bigger boats. Small wonder what the fisheries managers did in response. Around 1990, the Alaskan halibut fishing season comprised no more than a few 24 hour periods, spread over the year. In those few days the fishers caught all the fish they used to catch in nine months. It was a textbook example of what fisheries scientists call a derby fishery.

What went wrong here? No matter the good intentions of the fisheries managers, they overlooked an essential factor in the system they were supposed to manage: human ingenuity. Animals can be inventive (ever seen your cat figure out how to open your fridge?), but humans are champions at this. When fishing days were limited, they bought bigger boats. When boat length was limited, they built wider boats. Human ingenuity has brought us the wheel, the steam engine, the Internet, and the smallpox vaccine, but it has also exaggerated overfishing. So how do we make sure it works only in our benefit?

Enter ITQs (and discards)
In Alaska the policy makers introduced Individual Transferable Quota, or ITQs. ITQs work much like tradable water rights, or tradable pollution permits: the government sets the maximum allowable catch, and ITQ owners have the right to catch (mostly, actually, to land) a share of that maximum. The possibility to trade ITQs allows inefficient fishers to sell their share to more efficient fishers at a price that makes both better off than without the trade. In the Alaska halibut fishery it worked: the derby fishing was over while the catch of halibut remained within limits. ITQs are now all the rage all over the world, as they seem to be the best instrument so far that fisheries scientists have come up with. But that does not mean they are perfect.

The problem is that ITQs limit landings, not catch. Monitoring catch is very difficult unless you send a police officer with every fishing vessel. So instead of monitoring how much fishers catch out at sea, managers monitor how much fish fishers bring to shore, in ports, auctions and so on. But landings are not the same as catch. If you run out of plaice quota while having plenty of sole quota left, you’d be sorely tempted to throw back your catch of plaice and keep your catch of sole. What is being thrown back is called discards. Discards have been in the news lately due to the proposed EU discard ban, for reasons good and bad. Nobody likes throwing away food, and throwing away half the catch of edible fish, as happens in some fisheries, comes across as criminally wasteful. Moreover, discards distort fishery statistics because by definition, they are the difference between catch (which fisheries scientists want to know) and landings (which they actually measure). But let’s not forget that estimates of the survival of discarded fish vary wildly and depend on the type of fishing gear, the species, and how long the fish stays on board before being thrown back into the sea. In other words, not all discarded fish die. Moreover, the quota system is at least as much to blame as the fishers themselves. If you introduce ITQs in a mixed fishery like the Dutch cutter fleet, where fishers catch many different species in one single haul, but you do not consider the ratios in which those species are caught, you are bound to put fishers in a situation where taking your unused quota back to shore seems more of a waste than discarding fish. Perhaps you say it is wrong to discard fish. Well, it is also wrong to steal a bike, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lock yours.

There is no panacea
The bottom line is that fisheries management does not manage fish – it manages people. So to do it properly you need to understand how people think, how they make their decisions, and why. This holds not only for fisheries management, but also for other ecosystems where human activity is a key player, like rangelands. Coastal ecosystems are rarely untouched by humans, because by definition they are located where people are most likely to settle first; they are also important holiday destinations. So to manage mangrove ecosystems you need to consider how, why, when, and where shrimp farmers cut, pollute, or otherwise degrade mangroves. To manage coral reefs you need to understand how, why, when, and where clumsy divers do the most damage.

The research in this domain has provided us with innovative policy instruments like ITQs, TURFs (territorial use rights for fishers), and PES (payments for ecosystem services). What these instruments have in common is that each was once hailed as the answer to all the problems in marine and coastal management, and that each turned out not to be. Every medicine has side effects; there is no panacea. What is needed is the right medicine for the right situation.

So what do I do?
This year I had a paper in Ecological Economics on policy instruments to manage transgenic maize – not exactly a marine topic, but still an example of how applied economic models can give quantitative insights into the effectiveness and efficiency of policy instruments. My contribution to this year’s EAERE is about certification as an instrument to nudge fishers in a more sustainable direction. In BESTTuna we analyze, among others, how instruments like ITQs and Vessel Day Schemes can manage Pacific tuna stocks. I have been involved in the supervision of Diana van Dijk, who investigates the performance of multiannual quota and limits on adjustment of quota in a volatile fishery with costly capital adjustment.

And there is still plenty to do. The debate on ITQs and PES is far from over, and there are plenty of questions on how to consider human behavior in the design of policy instruments. There is a theme session on modelling human behavior coming up at this year’s Annual Science Conference of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which I organize together with Jan-Jaap Poos of Wageningen IMARES and Olivier Thebaud of CSIRO. One of the more difficult, and therefore more interesting, questions is how we include institutions and social norms in our analyses: can we model it? Or should we leave it to other social sciences that have better, qualitative tools to analyze these issues?