is director of Reason
Natural Resource Policy
Fishy Fish Laws
Effective marine reserves
[Michael DeAlessi] 4/2/04
's coastline is one of its greatest natural assets. Below the
surface however, a number of serious environmental problems
loom, principally over-fishing and the loss of productive marine
's answer to these problems was supposed to come in the form
of 1999's Marine Life Protection Act, which would create a
system of marine reserves where fishing would be prohibited.
But the massive deficit means the state does not have the funds
needed to make the marine reserves a reality -- at least not
groups lambasted California 's recent decision to suspend the
reserves program, this fiscal crisis actually gives the state
an opportunity to move towards a more effective long-term solution
that stresses the cooperation of traditional foes -- fisherman,
both commercial and recreational, and environmental advocates.
's Marine Life legislation takes an unimaginative, typically
unsuccessful approach to protecting marine resources; it assumes
that fishing and fishermen are the problem, and attempts to
either bar them from large areas or to change their behavior
through command and control regulations and restrictions instead
of cooperative efforts. In other parts of the world, however,
where the rights to harvest fish are more secure, it is the
fishermen themselves who press for conservation measures and
who often even create their own marine reserves.
certainly offer great promise as one piece of California 's
marine management puzzle. Numerous studies have shown that
at least within the boundaries of marine reserves, marine life
is more plentiful and diverse.
one of the leading marine reserve scientists at the National
Marine Fisheries Service, has described reserves as "civilizing
the oceans" by "putting fences in the oceans".
And he's definitely on to something -- good fences do make
good neighbors. But the picture is incomplete and California
's solution misdirected as long as it remains unclear who has
the right to fish, and where.
threat to the oceans is what is referred to as the "the
tragedy of the commons," when the race goes to the swift
fisherman, all commercial fishermen have little choice but
to deplete the seas because any fish they leave behind will
simply be caught be someone else, rather than left to grow
and reproduce for another year.
don't solve this key part of the crisis; they simply force
fishermen to relocate. And the problem is frequently compounded
by state or federal regulations that attempt to restrict fishing,
but fail to address the reasons fish are over-harvested in
the first place.
and countries have successfully tackled this dilemma by creating
tradable fishing rights. These tradable rights establish who
has the right to catch fish, and how much they can catch (normally
a percentage of an annual, scientifically determined, total
In New Zealand
, rights to fish are the equivalent of certifiable property
rights. Their system has spawned the growth of innovative quota-owning
management groups that invest heavily in fisheries science
and enhancement. The management groups also tend to fish conservatively,
leaving fish to repopulate the seas, because they recognize
healthy oceans are a valuable asset.
effort in New Zealand is in stark contrast to environmental
, one species of rockfish, the bocaccio, may be a candidate
for endangered species listing. When officials in California
began a state-wide closure of the bocaccio fishery, fishermen
were outraged. In a Los Angeles Times article about
the fishery closures last summer, one Central California fisherman
declared that "There's plenty of fish out there … The
problem is, there's even more regulators." When the system
of fishing rights was created in New Zealand , on the other
hand, fishermen immediately criticized the government for actually
setting some catch limits too high.
are only as effective as the respect given to their boundaries.
The more financial hardships commercial fishermen endure, however,
the more likely they are to skirt regulations, including restrictions
on where they can and can't fish. The current system encourages
cheating by making it difficult for fishermen to make a living.
Healthy fisheries would also mean lower enforcement costs for
the state, as fishermen will become more self-enforcing as
they become more profitable.
boundaries of marine reserves and fishing areas are well established,
ocean advocates of all stripes are far more likely to act like
good neighbors instead of fighting over the scraps. And seafood
lovers around the state might finally see an increase in the
supply of such delectable local fish as snapper, rockfish,
Petrale sole, starry flounder, and sand dabs. CRO
published in TechCentral
2004 Reason Public Policy Institute
2004 Reason Public Policy Institute