U.K. Fishing Quotas Protecting Large Producers, Not the Environment

By Matthew Cameron

Emma Cardwell, writing in the Guardian, looks at Britain’s fishing regulations and concludes that they are a giveaway to large producers:

In the UK, the right to catch fish in territorial waters has traditionally been public – owned by the crown and managed by the state on behalf of the people. As fish stocks have dwindled, and under the catch limits imposed by the EU common fisheries policy, these rights to fish have become increasingly valuable and can now be leased to fishermen for substantial amounts of money.

Given this, it is somewhat shocking that very few members of the British public know that the British government freely gave these fishing rights to a small section of the fishing industry in 1999. These public goods have, since then, been bought, sold and leased for private profit on an unofficial, non-transparent and loosely regulated quota market.[…]

The vast majority of UK fishing rights were given to a small minority of large vessels. Smaller fishing boats (under 10 metres in length), which make up around 75% of the UK fishing fleet, were only granted about 4% of fishing rights. This means that thousands of British fishermen have been left with very little right to fish, although smaller boats provide more employment and are widely considered to be more environmentally friendly, they have been forced to either take on the considerable expense of leasing quota from the owners of fishing rights, or go out of business.

This should serve as a cautionary tale to developing countries as they implement their own environmental regulatory regimes. Britain’s major problem is that it tried to allocate fishing rights according to historic catch levels rather than through a market-based approach. Because of limited data availability, the government wildly underestimated the catch levels of small-scale fishermen, which caused them to receive a much smaller share of the fishing quota than they needed. This also meant that large producers obtained a surplus of fishing quota, from which they have profited by selling their excess rights to the smaller fishing fleets.

Of course, this could have been avoided had the government simply auctioned off fishing rights in the first place, ensuring a more efficient initial allocation of the quota while simultaneously generating revenue that could be put toward other uses.