November 3, 2014

Overfishing and the tragedy of the commons

Overfishing and the Tragedy of the Commons
by C.W.

Browsing Reddit a few weeks ago, I came across a video concerning overfishing. Environmental economics is not a field I’m well versed in, and to be honest, I haven’t done my due diligence in assessing fallacies/ political agendas, and bias’ from the following video. Nonetheless, it does bring up the issue of the tragedy of the commons and the state of overfishing in our oceans.

First, points of emphasis from the video:
  •          Fish are the largest source of food in the world
  •          In the last 60 years some scientists believe stocks of large fish (e.g., bluefin tuna) have fallen by 90 percent
  •          The same scientists believe that the collapse of a sizable portion of fish species will occur in less than 50 years
  •          With today’s technology, a state-of the art trolling vessel can catch 500 tons of fish
  •          Shrimp trollers throw away 80-90% of “bycatch” (non profitable fish), devastating marine ecosystems
  •          EU fishing limits have not been properly enforced and are often inadequate
  •           There are  billions of Euros, in subsidies, for fishing industries with strong legislative power - à la lobbying

Tragedy of the commons, coined by Garrett Hardin in 1968, is

 “…a  dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will lower the yield a shared limited resource, even to the point of ultimately depleting it, even when it is clear that it is not in everyone's short or long term interest for this to happen.” (

Mises writes in Human Action:

“If land is not owned by anybody, although legal formalism may call it public property, it is utilized without any regard to the disadvantages resulting. Those who are in a position to appropriate to themselves the returns — lumber and game of the forests, fish of the water areas, and mineral deposits of the subsoil — do not bother about the later effects of their mode of exploitation.” (

Tragedy of the commons is a dilemma where there is no mechanism to prevent the exploitation of a common good; in this case, our oceans. Privatization of the common good seems farfetched, given the logistic and propriety issues and by all indications, current EU legislative actions has been inefficient and complicated by the fact that many European communities depend on fish for economic livelihood. Individuals/fishing corporations will behave in way conducive to their self interest -often overfishing, when dealing with a shared good (fish stock). An argument for the development of farmed fish can be endorsed; however, the majority of farmed fish in aquaculture infrastructure as of today, are carnivorous, requiring… guess what? More fish! 

There doesn't seem to be an easy answer and barring a strong change in consumer preference/sentiment or sudden government revelation, the problem of overfishing will linger. Social awareness, as evidenced by this potent video, offers another solution to this problem. As  social consciousness evolves, the valuation and importance of the issue will increase and set an impetus for action. This social consciousness will manifest itself, perhaps, in the advocacy of an effective permit system or other government regulation, thus becoming the mechanism to prevent this tragedy.  Hopefully…

No comments: