From the diagnosis that missing property rights drive overfishing it’s only a small step to prescribing property rights to manage fisheries. In his Fisheries article Daniel Bromley criticizes that idea that, in his terms, “Private ownership is necessary and sufficient for socially beneficial stewardship.” He cites an article that investigates the link between catch shares (i.e. ITQs) and stock collapse. The article fits in a sequence of articles that link ‘ownership’ of a resource to ‘stewardship’:
Examining specific cases, Beddington et al. (10), Hilborn et al. (11), Grafton et al. (12), and Griffith (13) argue that rights-based fisheries reforms offer promising solutions. Rather than only setting industry-wide quotas, fishermen are allocated individual rights. Referred to as catch shares or dedicated access privileges, these rights can be manifest as individual (and tradable) harvest quotas, cooperatives, or exclusive spatial harvest rights; the idea is to provide – to fishermen, communities, or cooperatives – a secure asset, which confers stewardship incentives.
Source: Costello et al., 2008, Science
The first author of the article, Chris Costello, explains it as follows in laymen’s terms:
The difference [between rights-based management and other sorts of fisheries policy instruments] is comparable to renting an apartment versus the house you own. […] If you own something, you take care of it – you protect your investment or else it loses value. But there’s no incentive for stewardship when you don’t own the rights to it.
Source: Marine Science Institute, UCSB
The ownership-stewardship link
This link between ownership and stewardship is also made elsewhere in the literature, and it has explicitly been object of research in at least one article that I have seen. The fundamental idea here is that people must have a stake in conservation of natural assets before they support it: if they don’t have a stake in it, why would they care? This idea is also part of the rationale behind many PES schemes, or programs like CAMPFIRE.
Bromley’s arguments against this idea are twofold. First, if the interest rate is very high, the owner of the asset is better off depleting the asset and investing the proceeds in, say, a savings account. Second, other people besides the owner might also be affected by how the owner manages the asset.
To hell with Orange Roughy and the Eiffel Tower!
The reply to the first argument is that interest rates are rarely so high that it becomes optimal to deplete a resource and put the proceeds on the bank. Some species do indeed grow so slowly that leaving them in the ocean would be like leaving your money on a low-interest bank account – you would earn more by withdrawing your ‘money’ from that account and investing it somewhere else. Orange Roughy, with an annual growth rate between 4% and 6%, springs to mind. Most species, however, grow much faster than this. You could also argue that in a well-working market, if it is optimal for the owner to deplete a resource and put the value thus generated on the bank, it would be optimal for society.
But this is probably not a well-working market, and that is how we get to the second argument. People might appreciate natural assets, like fish, for more than just their consumptive value. Economists call this existence value: economic value ascribed to things just for their mere existence, like whales or pandas. But even if you don’t like this concept (it’s debated), you can still argue that living creatures should be preserved for their own sake: call it intrinsic value, or animal rights. All these are considerations why we don’t like leaving natural assets at the mercy of a small group of owners. Imagine how Parisians would react if the Eiffel Tower were sold to the highest bidder, who is allowed to sell it on the scrap market if the steel price is high enough.
But should it be private?
The question, however, is whether we need private property rights to induce stewardship. The Costello paper does not say so explicitly. Other authors do refer to ITQs as a way to privatize ocean resources, and that this is a good thing (but I have to admit I still need to read that book). But making fish resources private property, i.e. making fish stocks the property of a single person or company, is a pipe dream anyway. How do we deal with stocks that cross borders? How do we deal with interactions between species through predation or bycatch? Imagine owners of top-of-the-food-chain stocks getting sued by owners of lower species, just like dog owners are liable for what Brutus does to Fifi.
That’s why I think the whole question is moot. Private property rights – real private property rights, like owning land, or a dog – are nearly impossible to implement in a fishery. Some form of property rights, be it state property, common property, or private property, is necessary but not sufficient. Although most fish resources fall under some form of property regime, many are still overfished; nevertheless, high-seas fisheries, which are as close to open access as it gets, are managed worst of all. If you want people to support conservation, it surely helps to give them a stake in it. However, unlike Zimbabwean farmers, who have little to expect from biodiversity conservation but crop damage and sleeping sickness (which is why CAMPFIRE was developed), fishers do have a stake in good management of fish stocks – regardless of the property rights regime. So why shouldn’t they be good stewards already?