ITQs and organisational costs

There is a fair bit of controversy in fisheries science on the merits and caveats of ITQs, catch shares, or whatever you want to call them. I won’t go into the details of that debate here, but the following news caught my attention (H/T Adam Soliman/Ecology Action Center):

California fishers say quota system is all wet
(…) Commercial fishers, industry experts and government officials are among those who say that while fish populations are recovering, too few people in California are benefiting from that rebound in part because there aren’t enough qualified monitors to oversee the program. (…)

Apparently, all fishers under the California catch share system are required to have on-board observers to monitor their catch. This is quite expensive, especially for small-scale fishers. It is one of the great disadvantages of an ITQ system: how do you make sure that fishers do not catch more than their fair share? Monitoring landings, if at all possible, runs the risk of increasing discards. The latest trend in the EU is to install cameras, something which the Californian fishers in the article seem to favour as well.

Monitoring costs are part of the organisational costs of a policy instrument: you need people to do the paperwork, to decide who gets what, to monitor compliance, and so on. These costs usually depend little on the size of the transaction or the parties involved in it. That’s why the fishers complain:

Also, operators of small, family-run boats say the costs of the monitors, which are the same for them as for corporate boats, have created inequality.

I’m not sure what to say about this complaint. I don’t agree small-scale fishers or farmers should be protected for the sake of being a small-scale fisher or farmer; neither am I buying the argument that small-scale fishers are inherently more ‘sustainable’, whatever that means. Small-scale fisheries can offer valuable sources of income in developing countries, where poverty is rife and people have little to fall back on when they lose their job. California is not a developing country; although few Europeans would be impressed with its social security system, you cannot expect the local fishery to provide one. But I do believe that transaction costs usually prevent markets from finding efficient solutions, so a system that requires such heavy monitoring costs is likely to cause substantial losses in efficiency.

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