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Enclose the high seas

I always knew there was something fishy about the Spectator. My suspicions were confirmed by the article which surfaced for air last week (but which I have only just got around to reading).

The author is very troubled by the apparently catastrophic collapse in fish stocks:

In a single human lifetime we have inflicted a crisis on the oceans, comparable to what Stone Age man did to the mammoth and the sabre-toothed tiger, what 19th-century Americans did to the bison and the passenger pigeon, what 20th-century British and Norwegians did to the great whales, and what people in this century are doing to rainforests and bushmeat. This crisis is caused by overfishing.

The emotionally overdone analogies (integral to any discussion concerning wildlife or the environment it seems) could well tempt me into dismissing his entire thesis. But that would prevent me from making what I regard as a more important point so, for now at least, I am willing to play along with the proposition that fish stocks are, indeed, under some degree of threat. In any event, I have no evidence to the contrary.

But at this point the author of the article and I part company, as the former goes on to lay the blame for impending eco-disaster on the proliferation of celebrity chefs with their apparently insatible appetites for exotic fish dishes. A conclusion so absurd as to be almost worthy of satire.

In common with every other ‘opinion former’, the author draws on what he regards as an unarguably correct and obvious equation: if some species of fish are dying out it can only be because we greedy, selfish humans are eating too many of them. Not once does it seem to occur to the author that if that equation were true then we surely would have chomped cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens into extinction long ago.

The dwindling numbers of marine animals is a ‘tragedy of the commons’ arising from the fact that the high seas are insufficiently owned. Apart from some nationalised coastal waters, fishermen are pretty much at liberty to trawl for as much fish as they can lay their hands on anywhere they please, anyhow they please and as often as they like. There is simply nothing to stop them.

In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that they fail to husband or manage the species they live off. There is no incentive for them to do so. However, if stretches of sea were owned in the same way as land is owned then not only would the owners be able to bar trespassers but (as with land farmers) they would have an commercial incentive to find ways to breed as much edible marine life as possible for human consumption and resultant profit. Hence the countless millions of farm animals in the world despite the prodigious rate at which we humans kill and eat them.

Until such times as the oceans are parcelled up into ‘watersteads’, stocks of marine animals will continue to decline. If you want to save the seas from becoming a watery grave, privatise them now.

20 comments to Enclose the high seas

  • While I broadly agree with this post, I have to point out the major difference between land and sea (other than wetness): fences. A farmer owns not only land but livestock, and can erect fences to stop his livestock moving onto someone else’s land. Were a fisherman to own a stretch of sea, it is difficult to see how the ownership of the fish (and plants and mammals and crustaceans and invertebrates) would be managed. For instance, if he knows that his neighbours are overfishing, how does he stop “his” fish swimming onto their property and having their stocks decimated?

    Any ideas?

  • Richard Garner

    “any ideas?”

    There are means of tracking fish presently used in marine research. In addition, there are certain environments that certain types of fish are attracted to. Artificially manufacturing those environments will all owners of that area to keep fish in that area.

  • ernest young

    If you want to save the seas from becoming a watery grave, privatise them now.

    Doesn’t the author really mean ‘nationalise’ them now? That is, they become the domain of States and Nations, or even worse, the United Nations, thereby ensuring that we have even more to argue about, and, of course, to wage war over.

    The whole article is just another piece of pseudo-intellectual nonsense, concocted to fill a space, on a quiet day.

    From the sections that you quote, it sounds very much as though it was written by one of those worthy individuals who have too much time on their hands, and is looking for some ‘enviro’ flag to wave. Next thing they will be having a ‘Save the Sardine’ campaign, or maybe a fifty pound a plate Lobster dinner to help finance the campaign.

    These morons just do not realise that they are doing more harm than good, by espousing such stupid ideas. The net effect being to add to the totally mind numbing effect of yet another worthy cause in need of funding. It is not that that the piece was even well written.

  • Richard Garner

    “any ideas?”

    There are means of tracking fish presently used in marine research. In addition, there are certain environments that certain types of fish are attracted to. Artificially manufacturing those environments will all owners of that area to keep fish in that area.

  • Richard,

    Tracking fish is all very well, but doesn’t solve the problem of whose they are.

    Your second point is a good one, though.

  • There are problems with owning a bit of ocean since so many creatures live portions of their lives in different areas.

    Sea farming works by using huge cages to contain fishes.

    ITQs, or individual tradable quotas, give fishermen an asset that they can buy and sell, based on establishment of a total allowable catch.

    Lynne Kiesling is a blogger you may admire that has done useful work on this subject.

  • zmollusc

    Reduce the appeal of fishing by getting scientists to stop cloning hitler from aliens’ stem cells and having them construct some krakens.

  • Older than dirt

    When my wife returned from diving in Belize, she remarked that it was clear that the fish knew where the boundaries of the preserve areas were. Though she was partly joking, it is true that lots of species are moderately territorial and do not move around much. Don’t know if this applies, for example, to cod on the Georges Bank.

  • John Thacker

    On the bright side, same article does note that farm-raised fish avoid the problems. This is of course because of the property rights involved. Most environmentalists I know (perhaps grudgingly) admit that fish farming does prevent fish stock depletion.

  • Mashiki

    First extend national boarders from 300 nautical miles to 1000 nautical miles. Second, any nationality caught fishing inside such a border will have their ships seized and their persons charged. If they run, they will be shot and sunk.

    Biggest problems we have here in North America are European’s and Asian’s(we do get some Aussies and others) fishing ‘just’ off the 300 nautical mile limit with illegal nets hauling in whatever they can get. Too small, take it, too big, take it. Wrong type…take it…spawning…take it. Doesn’t matter.

    They don’t like it…tough. We’ve cut back on our industries here by alot. And we still have countries traveling half way around the globe depleting stocks of ‘protected’ fish.

    Next, fish farms and no catch for the next 10 years in the least. That might ‘help’ the stocks rebuild…it was 15 or 20 years ago, that people out east here were saying that we had so many fish in the ocean we’d never run out.

  • Doug Collins

    Ownership of areas of the sea is likely to conflict with freedom of movement on the seas. That would be my major objection to 1000 mile territorial limits. There may be ways around this problem, but they would require some restraint from the parties involved. I don’t like the idea of an international policing body at all. But without one, you can have fish pastures or you can have freedom of movement, but not both.

  • Mashiki

    Well here’s the problem Doug, countries who agree not to fish in area’s where the stocks are depleted simply remove their flags. Fish, leave the area and put their flags back up. Or fly ‘flags of (in)convience’, and piss us off over here.

    We know *exactly* what countries are doing it, we see them come in…see them remove the flags, see them go fishing, see them leave, and put them back. Their governments just shurg and say…meh…and go back to their daily gruff. 1000 miles, piss in our pool and get shot. If you can’t follow the rules it’s time to play hardball.

  • Julian Morrison

    The solution to the “fences around fish” problem is to make the law like it is for wild game beasties in England: what wanders onto your land is yours, until it wanders off. You don’t own the fish per se, you own the fishing rights. So the “fence” is just a polygon defined by GPS coordinates, and if you want to keep the fish inside, you’ll have to make the area attractive to them.

  • Other than the long line deep ocean fisheries (which I agree need more help) just about all major fishing grounds are already inside the 200 mile or continental shelf national “Exclusive Economis Areas” described by the Law of the Sea. The one major exception is the Sea of Okhotsk.
    The “ownership by nations” therefore already exists. The problem is that within those areas nations still allow the Commons problems to persist.
    Yes, ownership of stocks, with breeding preserves, will solve the problem as they arguably have in the Faroes, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand: those being the places they have been tried. But blaming international law is a red herring (sorry). The problem is the nation states not doing what they already can under international law.

  • Tom

    I think the CATO institute has done some stuff about fish stocks and property rights.

    Blaming fish “shortages” on celebrity chefs has to be one of the dumbest ideas I have heard (mind you, the Spectator is full of nonsense these days, apart from Mark Steyn). After all, herring was a staple diet of the working class in Britain for many centuries, and demand reached such a peak that eventually the stocks were fished dry. As far as I know, this happened a long time before Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Rick Stein were born.

  • lucklucky

    I’ts not the chefs….. it’s the whales that are eating all fish in ocean….

  • Good article and I wholeheartedly agree, though I have no idea how such a concept of sea ownership would be implemented and enforced at this time.

    But, the Spectator seems to be having some real confusion about it’s ideals. Isn’t it supposed to be some sort of Tory rag? Matthew Parris’ latest is a jaw dropper. He longs for the communist glory of Leningrad and the beauty of centrally planned cities with trains that run on time. Mark Steyn has been taking issue with his Spectator bretheren for awhile now. I can see why.


  • Mmmmm, fish!

    I just bought a whole albacore for only $1.50 a pound. The fisherman even filletted it for an extra $2.

    Once stocks deplete to the point that most people can’t afford fish, I think we’ll see a rebound.

    Once again, there is no problem that being wealthy does not mitigate.

  • Jonathan L

    Of course the real answer to falling fish stocks is to subsidise investment in new boats and fish finding technology so that fishermen can continue to make big catches.

    Isn’t it clever? No? Well why is the EU doing it 🙂

  • kp

    I just read an article about fish stocks and what extensive fishing is doing to our oceans. It’s a good subject to discuss and think about. One thing the article mentioned was the following: “The depletion of large fish not only threatens the future of these fish and the fishers that depend on them, it could also bring about a complete re-organization of ocean ecosystems, with unknown global consequences.” That’s a scary thought. You’ve made me even more interested in looking into this topic. Thanks for the article.