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The Checkered Flag of Communal Ownership: The Race to Exhaust the Fisheries

April 19, 2010

Technology is not to blame for over-fishing; competition is not to blame for over-fishing; lovers of fish are not to blame for over-fishing; the culprit is the conditions created by communal ownership—the burden is the fishing chase!

It is hard to find a more textbook case of the Tragedy of Commons then the problem of over-fishing the lakes and oceans. Each fisherman, operating from the vantage point of his or her own self-interest, works, in harmony, to unemploy the other. Eventually, the fishermen are unemployed, the fish are lost and the fish consumers must substitute for another protein.

This is commerce within the public domain

The above account should be considered common knowledge within political and conservationist circles, as well as its remedy: ownership. Yet, such information is usually delegated to the preliminary remarks of the article or paper addressing the topic. While ownership (the remedy), if mentioned at all is usually only referenced somewhere in a caption bordering the picture depicting the ills of industry. Instead, the papers usually concentrate their efforts on the proposed solutions of banning or altering technology as well as banning or altering competition

Limiting Technology

Like everything, the fishing industry has evolved over the past centuries. No longer are fishermen limited to the wind of their sails, the distances from their home, night and day, weather, storage capacity, etc. These costs have declined to near nothing. Many of today’s fishing boats are like floating factories which can remain at sea for months at a time, traveling all around the world in synchronization.

“The sailing ships were gradually replaced by steamers, followed quickly thereafter by larger and more efficient craft such as side trawlers, stern trawlers and, later, factory freezer trawlers. As the fishing vessels changed and became more effective, so did the gear. Soon fishers were able to fish in any type of weather, and, in fact, some of the vessels rarely left the fishing grounds as crews rotated and freighters transported the finished product to market.” See Changes in Fishing Technology

In addition to changes in vessels, fishermen became better equipped with netting and reeling. Once caught, flash-freezing technology allowed fish to be preserved for long stays at sea, whereas before they were limited to the preservation permitted by ice or salt. Radar eventually allowed ships to sail at night and through fog. GPS eventually allowed for better tracking and the stories go on.

At each stage of this progression, fishermen faced an onslaught of protest and regulation. Fishing nets, be it trawl, seine, trammel, gill, drift, etc were eventually restricted in some regards or altered in others. Thus, in addition to the obstacles of catching fish there are obstacles to catching them as humanely as possible, with regard to the other ocean dwellers. With each new obstacle, came demand for circumvention; with each new regulatory hurdle came a demand for a technological sidestep. Today, fishing technology has developed into an entire industry of research and development designated to give one fisherman the edge over another.


Why do our good humanitarians and their policymaker counterparts believe they can wage a war against the demand for fish? More importantly, why can’t they see that their meddling in supply and demand is merely a function of shifting costs? Increasing the costs of netting will lead to the demand for better netting, eliminating a form of netting will increase the demand for alternatives. Therefore, your victories are not victories, they are reallocations!

Let us parallel these exponential increases in fishing technology to other protein substitutes. Cattle farmers need not invest in high-tech killing apparatuses to capture their herd; ditto for chicken and pig farmers. They may invest in more efficient methods of transportation or storage, but a cow must be breed and fed before it can be slaughtered and there is no competition toward killing it. If cattle fields were communal like the seas you would again see the rush to slaughter without regard to future proceeds. As Ludwig von Mises understood:

If land is not owned by anybody, although legal formalism may call it public property, it is used without any regard to the disadvantages resulting. Those who are in a position to appropriate to themselves the returns — lumber and game of the forests, fish of the water areas, and mineral deposits of the subsoil — do not bother about the later effects of their mode of exploitation. For them, erosion of the soil, depletion of the exhaustible resources and other impairments of the future utilization are external costs not entering into their calculation of input and output. They cut down trees without any regard for fresh shoots or reforestation. In hunting and fishing, they do not shrink from methods preventing the repopulation of the hunting and fishing grounds.
Chapter 23, Human Action

Limiting Competition

The regulation of the entrance and exit of the fishing competition has done little for the fisheries because, while limiting competition, it does little to address the race between the competitors. We must acknowledge that at our stage in technological evolution, with proper motivations, we could potentially slay any and every living thing on this planet. We can now do in days what took previous fishing vessels years. Therefore, why are we waving a checkered flag in front of our fisherman?

By creating a system of public ownership, be it within 200 nautical miles of our coast1, or beyond, we are, in essence, creating a system of senseless competition. Fishermen need not pay attention to repopulation growth rates, effects on specie degradation or even the by-standards caught unintentionally by the nets or lines. None of this matters because the costs are borne by everyone.

Thus, with years of communal struggle behind us, the fisheries, as they stand today, are as follows (see here)

  • 52% of fish stocks are fully exploited
  • 20% are moderately exploited
  • 17% are overexploited
  • 7% are depleted
  • 1% is recovering from depletion

So, shall we continue this game2?

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