My thoughts on Daniel Bromley’s critique (3): Are ITQs private property rights?

In my first post in this series I argued that although open access is just about the worst property rights regime to have in a fishery, it is too simple to blame all overfishing on ‘lack of property rights’; rather, we need to go into the details of the institutional setting. In my second post I argued that asking whether private property rights can manage a fishery is a waste of time: marine ecosystems are too complicated to implement any real form of private property.

But wait a minute. Aren’t ITQs supposed to be private property? You can find many articles in the scientific literature and the press, whether they’re in favour of ITQs or against them, that present ITQs as private property. Daniel Bromley does not agree. In his Fisheries article he lists as one of the deceits of fisheries economics its claim that “ITQs are private property rights.” His objection to this idea is that the Magnuson-Stevens act (which is by far the most important fisheries law in the United States) states that ITQs are permits, which can be revoked, limited, or changed by the government without compensation to the owner of the permit.

The reply of some economists is that in practice, even American ITQs are traded between fishers, they are used as collateral for loans, and they are subject to legal disputes over divorce and inheritance, just like houses or cars are. So de jure they might not be private property rights, de facto they certainly are.

In any case, I’m a European, and in Europe we could decide to make ITQs irrevocable rights that have an unlimited life span, and cannot be changed by the government (unless in cases of eminent domain). Would they then be private property rights?

If I were a German I would say: jein. The certificate would be private property: the law can be made such that you can freely trade the certificate, the government cannot take it from you without compensation, you can use it as collatoral, and if you die your kids might fight over it in court. But that’s the certificate – not the fish. As I argued in an earlier post: owning an ITQ does not mean that there’s a fish with your name on it.

As far as I know the closest equivalent of ITQs (assuming the most extreme case of privatization) would be shares in a corporation (or LLC, PLC, SA, BV, NV, whichever country you happen to live in – I’m no legal expert). In the fishery, the ‘company’ would be the fish stock; the ‘dividend’ would be the TAC; the ‘shareholders’ would be the fishers, who, unlike regular shareholders, are supposed to come and catch their ‘dividend’ for themselves. I’m no more a business economist than I am a legal expert, so I don’t know whether I should consider a corporation private property or common property. If I strictly follow Bromley’s terminology I’d guess they are common property, because it is the shareholders who commonly own the asset and have influence – albeit sometimes limited – on the company’s management. But I’m glad I’m writing this on a blog and not in a peer-reviewed article (that’s what blogs are for, aren’t they?).

There are some interesting differences between ITQs and corporate shares, but I’ll save that for later.

My thoughts on Daniel Bromley’s critique (2): Are private property rights a silver bullet for overfishing?

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?

My thoughts on Daniel Bromley’s critique (1): Is open access the problem?

In 2008 Daniel Bromley gave a keynote lecture at the biannual conference of the MARE Centre in Amsterdam where he strongly criticized economists for giving flawed adivce to policy makers (to use the more polite terms). The conference organizers must have had a hard time finding an economist willing to write a reply to his lecture, because they even contacted me – I chickened out. I felt I hadn’t been working on fisheries issues long enough yet to have a well-founded opinion on Bromley’s writings. Shortly after his keynote lecture, he published an article in Fisheries with a central message similar to that in his earlier keynote, but phrased in stronger terms – and with a lot more impact. In his Fisheries article he took a few arguments further to the point where just about every economist I know disagreed wholeheartedly (again, I’m being polite here). I discussed it with some of them, and with other fisheries scientists. I also discussed it in class once, but the students, most of whom were no native English speakers and had little economics background, had serious trouble with Bromley’s rather difficult use of vocabulary.

Lately, after coming across other work written by Daniel Bromley (and his co-author, Seth Macinko), I started reading these two articles again. Although I broadly agree with the mainstream economic analysis of fisheries management, I got the impression that perhaps he has been misunderstood by my fellow economists and it would be a shame if his ideas were ignored because of the impression his Fisheries article made on most economists (again, to put it politely). I decided to put my thoughts on his criticism of fisheries economics in a few posts.

To start with, there is the conceptual confusion on what is open access, what are commons, and whether fisheries resources fall under any of those regimes. In casual conversations with colleagues I do find that some of them present fisheries as an example of open access resources; some economics textbooks do the same. But are fisheries open access resources? In his book Environment & Economy: Property Rights & Public Policy Bromley distinguishes four property regimes, similar to the four property regimes in ancient Roman law:

  • No property (res nullius): the classical open-access regime
  • Common property (res communis): a regime where a group of people owns, manages, and uses the resource together
  • State property (latin name not given, but I believe it should be res publica): the government, as a representative of society as a whole, owns and manages the resource, and sets the rules by which citizens are allowed to use the resource
  • Private property (I believe this should be res privata but my Latin is pretty non-existent): an individual owns the resource and has the right to manage and use it as he or she pleases.

If you look at it this way you see that most fish are caught within the Exclusive Economic Zones of individual countries; in fact, only one sixth of global catch comes from the high seas. Within the EEZs aquatic resources are either private property (for example, oyster and mussel fishers own parcels, which they seed, and they have the exclusive right to harvest them) or state property (with regard to most fish species, the government sets the rules on how much to catch, and with which methods). So strictly speaking, open access is more an exception than a rule.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the open access regime is irrelevant to our understanding of fisheries problems. By looking at fisheries under open access, we lay bare the mechanisms that make fisheries policy so difficult: the individual fisher reaps the benefits of catching one more fish, whereas all fishers bear the costs to the resource, i.e. the future productivity lost because the fish is in the basket instead of the sea. In theory, state property regimes are able to deal with this problem as governments can exclude people from fishing. In reality, however, governments have problems of their own that prevent them from keeping in check the forces that lead to overfishing: many fish stocks are shared by several countries, there is lobbying by special interest groups, rent-seeking, and so on. It’s like Hobbes’s Leviathan (named after a sea monster!), which starts with how unrestrained human nature leads to a war of all against all, and then explains how this restraining of human nature should take place. To understand the regime you also need to understand the forces it is supposed to rule.

Another confusion, by the way, is that between open access resources and common property resources. The confusion started when the American ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote his Science article named The Tragedy of The Commons, where he explained how common lands will inevitably be degraded because the individual land user reaps the benefits of an extra sheep while imposing the costs of overgrazing on all users. Daniel Bromley has repeatedly argued against this article and I understand why. The problem is the choice of words: commons. Commons are owned, managed, and used by an exclusive group of users who have every possibility and motivation to make good arrangements and stick to them. In fact, researchers like Elinor Ostrom found that many commons are managed quite well. The “Tragedy” that Hardin describes takes place in open access regimes, like the high seas. Unfortunately the confusion is still omnipresent: just this week The Economist refers to the Tragedy of the Commons to discuss the problems with high seas fishing.

To me, this underlines the importance of defining your concepts well, and being wary of oversimplification. It’s too easy to use the broad brush of open access to paint all problems with resource overexploitation. We need to get into the details to really understand the matter. How are rights, priviliges, obligations, and such distributed? How do they work on paper (de jure) and how do they work in practice (de facto)? How are things like decision-making, monitoring, and enforcement organized, and what resources do they need? What is the role of official laws on one hand and unofficial norms and customs on the other hand, and where do they contradict? I feel that these questions have been overlooked in the debate that was unleashed after Bromley’s Fisheries article.