The Future of our Fishery

Philip Lee
New Brunswick Telegraph Journal
January 20, 1997

Consider two recent stories from the troubled Atlantic fishery.

Frustrated fishermen on New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula voted last week to increase the size of the lobster they will keep. They were tired of waiting for Ottawa to act in the best interest of conservation. Lobster landings have decreased by 10 per cent in each of the last two years and the fishermen are concerned enough about their future to demand an increase in the minimum lobster size to help conserve the resource.

These fishermen are showing that they are prepared to take ownership of their fishery. But their vote is symbolic at best. Ottawa still has to approve the increase in minimum size, and that decision will be met by an intense lobby from other lobster fishermen who don’t want change. Expect Ottawa’s decision to be based on politics, not conservation.

Meanwhile, on Campobello Island last week, local residents had a nasty confrontation with federal fisheries officers who suspected they were picking sea urchins off the shore at low tide. They didn’t have a licence to harvest the urchins, but felt they had a right to use a resource on the beaches of their island.

At the same time, there are grave fears among both fishermen and conservationists that the urchin harvest may not be sustainable in the long term. As always, it seems Ottawa, fishermen and rural communities can’t seem to find a way to work together to conserve the fishery and create an economically sustainable industry.

Our fishery is badly in need of real reform. Last week, the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies suggested a course of action by releasing a new book entitled, Taking ownership: Property Rights and Fishery Management on the Atlantic Coast. The book should help to spark a serious debate on how we can chart a new course for fisheries in Atlantic Canada, a course that will allow fishermen and fishing communities to take ownership of their own resource.

More than a decade ago, New Zealand began a program of radical reform its inshore and offshore fisheries to dress the most basic of problems that plagues the industry worldwide – there are too many fishermen chasing too few fish.

The New Zealand reforms began with a simple statement of principle in a new Fisheries Act: The fishery should promote both the conservation of the resource and the greatest economic return possible.

“The Fisheries Act, although fairly general and vague, constitutes a watershed New Zealand fisheries management story,” writes Dr. Ragnar Arnason, a professor of fisheries economics at the university of Iceland. “On the basis of this, significant steps toward the efficient management of the fisheries were undertaken.”

Dr. Arnason contributes a chapter to Taking Ownership about the experience of countries that have established fisheries based on property rights. New Zealand’s fisheries reforms have been among the most successful.

He writes that by 1986, New Zealand divided its offshore fishery, which had been a common property resource, into individual Transferable Quotas. The quotas were divided among companies that were at least 75 per cent New Zealand owned. The companies had to process at least 35 per cent of their catch onshore.

When the government divided the fisheries fairly, it knew there were still too many fishermen, so it immediately began to aggressively buy back quotas, spending $30-million (U.S) in one year alone.

By 1990, the government realized its buy-backs couldn’t reduce the fishing pressure enough to protect certain species. It reformed the system again so that the private quotas, which are transferable and divisible, represented a percentage of a Total Allowable Catch set by government scientists. The offshore fishery has been brought under control.

Meanwhile, in the inshore sector, the government put similar reforms in place, first dismissing all part-time fishermen, and then basing private quotas on a fisherman’s catch history over the last few years. Now inshore fishermen are assured a percentage of the total catch.

Two years ago, New Zealand took its private fishery one step further. It is now collecting fees from the industry to pay for all management, enforcement and fisheries science – about $25 million (U.S) a year. The New Zealand reforms have not been without their problems but certainly there are lessons for Atlantic Canada in this experience.

As our Atlantic fishery slowly recovers from the collapse of the northern cod and other essential groundfish stocks, a fundamental question lies at the heart of the debate that surrounds its future: Will we continue to treat the fishery as a common property resource regulated by government and surviving only though substantial public subsidies, or will we move toward a new way of harvesting fish based on individual property rights?

Dr. Art May knows the Atlantic fishery as well as any scientist or fishery manager in Canada. He spent 27 years with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as a scientist, research director, international negotiator and senior manager. From 1978 , until 1985 he was first the assistant deputy  minister in charge of the Atlantic fishery, then deputy minister. He is now president and vice-chancellor of Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld.

In a forward to Taking Ownership, Dr. May says one problem continues to plague the Atlantic fishing industry: No one owns the fishery.

“Periodic crises in the fisheries, their severity increasing as harvesting technology becomes more sophisticated, are a feature of all developed fisheries,” Dr. May writes. “The problem is often boiled down to the simple statement that there are too many fishers chasing too few fish. While true as far as it goes, even this oversimplification ignores the circumstances under which the chase is pursued….

“The single overwhelming feature which bedevils attempts to produce prosperity and stability in the fishing industry is the common-property nature of resource exploitation.

“What is everybody’s property is nobody’s responsibility, and this self-evident and fundamental truth is the overwhelming feature which is the cause of those structural characteristics of fisheries which are the most troublesome to the industries and economies built on competitive fishing regimes.”

Dr. May writes that the Atlantic fishery is slowly evolving into an industry “founded on private rather than communal rights in the fisheries,” but reforming centuries-old traditions is a slow process. “The pace of evolution from common-property fisheries to rights-based fisheries has been tentative and cautious.

“It may still be easier to underpin fisheries by public subsidy than it is to change a way of thinking which has persisted through generations.”

Real reform is being stifled by the continuing flow of government subsidies, Dr. May writes. Each crisis in the fishery is met with another multi-million dollar government bailout, and the cash always seems to attract more people into the industry. After each downturn in the fishery we end up with more fishermen chasing even fewer fish.

“As long as enough public subsidy underpins a common-property fishery, there will be no incentive to change,” Dr. May writes. “As long as those engaged in the industry see rights based fishing as producing unacceptable conditions for their participation, there will be organized resistance to change. Meanwhile, as long as the experience which has already been gained in Canada and elsewhere though the introduction of rights-based fishing is ignored, we may be doing our fishing industry a disservice.”

The new Atlantic Institute of Market Studies book is an attempt to foster debate about fisheries reform, and to provide practical advice about turning the fishery into a right-based industry.
The book is a fascinating read (although it too often retreats into dense, bureaucratic language) that explores fishery management regimes in New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Norway. It examines the history of rights-based fisheries in Alaska and the experiences of community-based fisheries in Atlantic Canada.

The book features an impressive group of contributors. Anthony D. Scott, the professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, a specialist in fisheries economics, writes a chapter about how transferable quotas work. R. Quentin Grafton of the University of Ottawa writes about the prospects for reform in Atlantic Canada. Donald R. Leal of the Political Economy Research Center in Montana contributes one of the book’s strongest chapters on the experience of community-run fisheries around the world.

Gordon Munro of the University of British Columbia writes about managing transboundry fisheries. And William Apold and Stanton Guy, both experienced fisheries consultants, explore the role of technology in implementing property rights in the fishery.

Elizabeth Brubaker, the executive director of Environment Probe and the author of the recent book, Property Rights in the Defense of Nature, draws the debate sharply into focus with her chapter, “The Ecological Implications of Establishing Property Rights in Atlantic Fisheries.”

She argues that along with the economic arguments that support a rights-based fishery, there are also important ecological implications.

She refers to a case in 1934 when a New Brunswick smelt fisherman asked the courts to stop the International Paper Co. from polluting. The company was discharging effluent into the tidal waters near the mouth of the Restigouche River, fouling and tearing the fisherman’s nets and preventing the water from freezing properly in the winter. His fishery had been ruined two years in a row. However, the judge ruled that the nuisance was common to the whole public, and therefore the pollution could not be stopped in the courts.

Ms. Brubaker writes: “The fisher had no title to the fishery, nor did his fishing license confer on him any exclusive property right. His ‘rights were only those which he possessed as one of the public and he suffered exactly the same interference as any other who assumed to exercise the public right of fishing.'”

Without property rights in ocean fisheries, fishermen can’t fight the pollution that harms them, Ms. Brubaker argues. “As long as ocean fisheries remain common-property resources to which fishers lack secure rights of use or ownership, courts will continue to find ocean pollution violates only the public interest.”

When a common property resource is being damaged, the courts will only consider claims brought by governments, and Ms. Brubaker points out that under the “not-so-watchful eyes” of governments, Atlantic Canada’s most productive estuaries have already been badly polluted.

She points out that property rights offer fishermen the legal tools to protect their holdings from pollution, and provide them with economic incentives to practice good conservation. “Knowing that they will gain from any activities that better their stocks, fishers holding secure rights are more likely than others to engage in ecologically beneficial activities.”

Ms. Brubaker establishes the essential framework for a rights based fishery. Property rights in the fishery need to be exclusive, enforceable, perpetual, transferable and accompanied by the greatest possible devolution of decision making power to the owners.

“In the case of the fisheries, the best informed decisions will often be made by the fishers themselves, who often have more detailed and more immediate knowledge of fisheries than a remote government does,” she writes. “Complex and varying ecologies preclude decision-making from afar. Fishers also have more of an incentive to make responsible-as opposed to politically expedient-decisions, since they will bear the long term benefits and costs. Ultimately, it is the fishers who will be affected by management risks taken or foregone; only they can know how much risk they can afford to take.”

She adds that government should maintain an important role in protecting unowned marine resources, like sea birds, and creating marine reserves where no fishing would be allowed.

“By setting aside vital spawning grounds, nursery areas, feeding areas, and habitats, governments can conserve stocks and preserve biological diversity for generations to come.”

For years, Atlantic fishermen have wanted a say in how their resource was being managed. Inshore fishermen predicted the destruction of the northern cod years before Ottawa drove the greatest fish biomass on the world into commercial extinction. They were powerless to prevent the destruction of their livelihood. Under a property rights regime, fishermen could not fish in a way that harms another’s property. They would follow the ancient common law maxim: “Use your own property so as not to harm another’s.” And there, the salvation of the Atlantic fishery may be found.


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