Globe and Mail
May 16, 2003
William Forster Lloyd is not exactly a household name in St. John’s, but perhaps he should be. One hundred and seventy years ago, he introduced the notion known to economists as the "tragedy of the commons." In a 1833 book on population, the English mathematician observed that, if everyone had free access to a common resource, that resource would soon be exhausted.
He illustrated his theory with a parable about a village pastureland, or commons. As the population of the village grew, more and more herdsmen would graze their sheep and cattle on the commons, eventually ruining it through overgrazing. Because the pasture is communal, no one feels responsible for conserving it. Rather than cutting back on grazing, each herdsman rushes to graze his animals before the grass is gone, hastening the destruction.
What’s all this got to do with the price of bread? Not much. But it may bear on the price of fish.
The crisis in the world fishery is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Because fish live in unfenced seas, owned by no one, fishermen have a natural tendency to fish till the fish are gone. That seldom happened in history, because of the vast numbers of fish and the limited means of the fishermen to catch them.
The advent of modern, industrial fishing has changed all that. High-tech, all-season factory trawlers can rake the seabed for thousands of tons of fish, then fillet and freeze them on board. According to Elizabeth Brubaker of Toronto’s Environment Probe, fish-harvesting machines plying the waters off Newfoundland took as many northern cod in the 15 years between 1960 and 1975 as had been caught in the 250 years after explorer John Cabot’s arrival. We all know the result: the collapse of cod stocks, the loss of thousands of jobs and the imposition of fishing moratoriums like the one that angered Newfoundlanders last month.
It is not only Canada that has suffered. The fisheries crisis is a worldwide phenomenon. A new report released this week says large-scale industrial fishing has decimated every one of the world’s most economically important fish species, including swordfish, halibut, tuna and marlin. Fishing practices have become so efficient that a fleet can sweep up 80 per cent of a species’ population in just 15 years.
This is no small matter. About 950 million people depend on fish as their main source of protein, and hundreds of millions more count it as an important part of their diet. Between 15 million and 21 million people fish for a living, and some developing countries make 80 per cent of their export income from selling fish.
Yet, despite the huge economic and environmental importance of the world fishery, governments have squandered the resource. Rather than striving to control the natural impulse to plunder the watery commons, governments have often encouraged it by heavily subsidizing the fishing industry. Subsidies worldwide amount to between $14-billion and $20-billion (U.S.). After Canada established a 200-mile fishing zone in the 1970s, governments funnelled millions in low-cost loans to fishermen for the purchase of bigger boats and better equipment and to fish processors for bigger, more efficient plants.
Floating on a wave of public money, the world’s fishing fleet grew by 322 per cent between 1979 and 1989 alone. The Chinese fleet grew by four times in the 20 years up to 1990. Overfishing was the inevitable result. The world fish harvest grew by as much as 6 per cent a year in the 1960s and 1970s, slowed during the 1980s and levelled off in the 1990s at 100 million tons annually.
The economic effects of overfishing are well-known. The environmental effects are just beginning to be understood. Overfishing can lead to "fishing down the food chain" – first, the boats fish out the bigger, predatory species, then smaller ones, and so on down the line. Then there is the "bycatch" problem. About a quarter of the world fish catch is made up of unwanted fish netted or hooked by accident, and most of these are discarded or thrown back dead.
After many years of this folly, governments are waking up to the problem. Some are pushing for rules against fishing subsidies in the latest round of world trade talks. Others have been paying fishermen not to fish or buying up their vessels. The European Union has just announced tough new limits on cod fishing.
It is all costing billions of dollars, but somewhere along the line a lesson has been learned. If pouring public money into resource industries is bad economics, it is even worse ecology. Subsidies hurt the environment by keeping marginal land under the plow when it could be returned to nature, by encouraging loggers to strip marginal forests – and by sending too many fishermen after too few fish.