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Overfishing

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"Overfishing"

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As you may have heard, the world is scheduled to run out of fish in about 50 years. I don’t generally recommend libertarianism as an ideology, but it has very smart things to say about fisheries management and the management of economically valuable natural resources generally. Thus, I think John Tierney’s column on this subject was pretty good and he’s basically correct — the problem here is that we need to assign some property rights. Owners of fish (or of fishable patches of ocean) have incentives on both sides — they can make money by killing fish, but they can enhance the value of their property by growing fish stocks. That’s the right incentive structure — some fish come to market, but not so many fish as to destroy the fish stocks. Under a no property regime, the incentive is always to kill more fish.

In principle, regulatory caps could make a no property scenario work, but in practice regulatory capture keeps making these schemes fail (see also the new Economist blog’s item on this).

That said, Tierney’s claim that “You can get all the beef — or buffalo meat — you want from Western ranchers” isn’t really true. You can certainly get all the beef you want, but at this point pure-bred American Bison are extraordinarily rare. What’s available is “beefalo”, a cattle/bison hybrid. So I think his fatalistic optimism on this score is a bit off-base. It’s true that America eventually solved the tragedy of the commons that superficially seemed headed toward a meat-less plains, but this happened rather late — too late to really save the classic buffalo. Similarly with the fish. We can be fairly confident that seafood won’t actually disappear. But a lot of specific fish species actually might go extinct unless people take action to implement some kind of system of property rights in time to prevent that from happening.

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