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.
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.