Mises Wire

Preserve Our Fisheries by Expanding Private Property Rights

In the United States, fisheries are regulated via licenses, regulations, and quotas. The issues with a broad enforcement through regulations and quotas is twofold. They do not prevent overfishing in certain areas and they do not incentivize any actions that might improve conditions in the future. Owning sections of the ocean, however, would create a profit incentive to self-regulate fishing practices to ensure sustainable — or even growing — yields from year to year.

The Maine Lobstermen

The Maine Lobstermen are a great example of what private property could accomplish in the fisheries market. By law, Maine’s fishing grounds are considered a public resource. Despite the state law, an informal set of property rights has been set up by the fishermen or lobstermen themselves. According to a paper by Edella Schlager and Elinor Ostrom “Property-Rights Regimes and Natural Resources,” “Prior to 1920, the entire coast was divided into a series of lobster ‘fields’ with the men from each harbor or island fishing only the grounds associated with their own harbors.”1 These informal property rights have allowed sailors to efficiently harvest their areas and avoid the tragedy of the commons issue that occurs in most other fishing areas. “The lobstermen in each fishing village determined who could enter their grounds. Further, they decided how these grounds would be used — what production techniques would be allowed, etc.”

Unfortunately, because these property rights are not acknowledged officially, occasionally the lobstermen end up resorting to vandalism or violence to protect their fishing areas. While this situation is far from ideal, there is one simple solution that could fix all of these problems: officially recognized property rights. According to Avi Perry in the Ocean and Coastal Law journal, “There has been a call from within the lobstering community for abandonment of the informal territorial system in favor of state enforcement of property rights.” If these property rights were acknowledged and supported by government authorities the same way property rights are on land, the lobstermen wouldn’t feel the need to enforce these rights themselves.

Farmers on land own the source of their income and therefore know how to and are invested in caring for and making the most of their resource. The same principle seems to be the answer here. Once again, all of these problems could be avoided if there were clearly defined property rights.

Indigenous Conservation Techniques

One of the main reasons that bottom-up methods for dealing with natural resource issues are so successful is due to the ability to put local knowledge to use. The conventional one-size-fits-all approaches typically used by governments simply do not apply to every situation. While these policies may present marginally acceptable results as a whole, they can be less than ideal or even harmful in specific circumstances.

The Cree Indian fishery located in James Bay, Canada, is a great example of how local knowledge can be very effective at managing resources. The Chisasibi fishermen have developed a very sophisticated knowledge of the best fishing practices for this area. While living amongst this tribe, Fikret Berkes had an opportunity to observe some of these practices. From his book Sacred Ecology, he was awed by the details they were able to discover without the aid of any of our technologies. “The Chisasibi fishers knew, for example, that in spring the best catches of whitefish were obtained following the melting ice edge in bays; fishers knew where the pre-spawning aggregations were in August, and they knew that in September whitefish was best harvested over a sand-graveI bottom at certain depths of water.”2

Their methods of conserving this vital resource were equally impressive.3 Fishermen would use nets with various sized holes to catch adult fish while allowing the adolescent fish to pass through. They would also rotate fishing areas to prevent any one spot from being over fished. In short, the Chisasibi fishermen learned how to fish for each species at each time of the year to ensure they would continue to thrive in future generations.4 It is highly doubtful that a conventional top-down system of enforcement could match the success of this Cree fishery. Instead, governments should shift toward smaller more localized regulation for the best benefits: whether that be regions, communities, or ideally, private entities.


Private property is really about stewardship. When someone is directly responsible for something — and rely on that thing for current and future sustenance — they will manage it better. When property is privately owned, the owner has incentives to conserve resources to ensure sustainable profits or maximum resale in the future. Private property and other bottom-up localized methods for resource management are much easier to implement, can be customized to local environments, are much less costly, allow more personal freedom, and have been successful where conventional top-down practices have failed.

  • 1Schlager, Edella, and Elinor Ostrom. “Property-Rights Regimes and Natural Resources: A Conceptual Analysis.” Land Economics 68, no. 3 (1992): 249.
  • 2See: Berkes, Fikret. “Cree Fishing Practices as Adaptive Management,” Sacred Ecology (New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 111.
  • 3Davis, Wade, Carr Clifton, Trevor Frost, and Paul Colangelo, The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass (Vancouver: Greystone, 2011).
  • 4Chapin, Iii F. Stuart. “Case Study of Indigenous People Keeping the Land Healthy — Threatened Species and Community-Based Conservation,” Principles of Ecosystem Stewardship (Springer, 2014).
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