Crisis at sea: preventing the tragedy of the commons in marine fisheries

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Crisis at Sea: Preventing the Tragedy of the Commons in Marine Fisheries

Around the world the health of marine fisheries continues to deteriorate. (Adler 2002). In American waters, overfishing occurs in more than half of all fisheries. (Eagle, Newkirk and Thompson). Because they are an open-access resource “owned by all and owned by none,” (Carr) in the absence of some restrictions,fisheries are likely to be harvested until decimated. (Adler 2002). Countries continue to close their most profitable fisheries (Carr and Scheiber), threatening society’s health and economic welfare. (Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development).
The economic impact of fisheries is substantial. Capture fisheries and aquaculture provided greater than 15% of the world’s total animalprotein supply in 2000. Trade in fish products totaled $55.2 billion globally, employing 35 million people. (Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).[1] In the United States, the commercial fishing industry generates $25 billion annually. The recreational fishing industry is even larger. (Eagle, Newkirk and Thompson). Socially, overfishing leads to longer working hours, lowerwages, and increased rates of unemployment for fishermen. (Young, Kurlansky).
Beyond economic and social harms to society, the loss of fisheries is a serious biological and ecological concern. Scientists are just beginning to understand the fundamental shifts that the harvesting of species lead to within an ecosystem. Fishing causes immediate ecological damage by degrading and altering habitat.More importantly, large-scale, long-term commercial fishing appears to shift species makeup within ecosystems from a balanced structure to a composition that is less productive. (Pitcher and Pauly).
The value of healthy marine fisheries is high. They provide food to cultures around the globe, playing a vital role in many economies. Additionally, the link between fisheries’ health and thestability of marine ecosystems is becoming clear. What is not clear is how to best manage these resources. In the United States, marine fisheries management is governed by legislation enacted in 1976 designed to, in large part, give U.S. vessels a large share of the nation’s fisheries industry. (Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Magnuson). The Magnuson-Stevens FisheryConservation and Management Act (FCMA) attempts to regulate access to a common property resource without creating any per se private property rights in fish or fish stocks. (Young). Government agencies and regulations have managed this common resource since enactment of the FCMA.
Despite its intentions, regulation under the FCMA has not led to universally healthy or sustainable marine fisheries.(Adler 2002). Problems persist despite the billions of federal dollars spent on fishery science and improved laws. (Eagle, Newkirk and Thompson). In the face of evidence that government regulation leads to poorly managed fisheries, some suggest that privatization of fishery resources would result in healthier fish stocks. (Adler 2004, Adler 2002, Rieser, Leal, Cole). Supporters ofprivatization advocate for private property rights reasoning that market forces will drive industry participants to protect the resources on which they rely. (Cole). Within this debate, however, little attention is focused on efforts to regulate marine fisheries as an open access resource on the high seas. This paper explores marine fisheries management and critiques whether the current managementstructure is sufficient to ensure the tragedy of the commons does not occur for ocean fisheries.

I. OVERFISHING AND COMPETING INTERESTS IN MARINE FISHERIES MANAGEMENT

The ultimate goal of fisheries management is to contain fishing effort at a sustainable level. Overcapitalization, however, often hinders this goal. Overcapitalization occurs in fisheries where the volume of fishing...
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