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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Brief History of Fishing, Part 1

The Concord Monitor runs an Associated Press story by Jay Lindsey on the new regulatory regime facing New England fishermen.
Fishermen are working to switch by next year to a new "catch share" system that allocates a total allowed catch to groups of fishermen, who divide it among themselves. Today's system tries to stop overfishing by making fishermen less efficient, including by restricting the time fishermen are allowed to spend at sea.

The current system is broadly hated. Overfishing on important stocks has continued, as shown in an annual report of the status of the U.S. fisheries, released yesterday by NOAA. Also, fishermen are forced to throw away huge amounts of their catch when strict daily limits on a species are reached. The fleet has withered as the number of days fishermen are allowed has dropped to about two dozen annually for many in New England.
I'm not an expect on fishing regulations, but during my time on the National Ocean Policy Study, I learned enough to be dangerous.

The fishing grounds off New England and eastern Canada are among the richest in the world, and have providing untold millions of tons of "Cod" and other groundfish for 500 years. I highly recommend Mark Kurlansky's book for a glimpse into the history of the industry.

The open ocean is owned by no one, and no nation has jurisdiction beyond 3, 12, or eventually 200 miles beyond its coastline. For hundreds of years, fishermen headed to the fishing grounds, dropped their nets in the water, and pulled up virtually unlimited amounts of fish. They were limited only by the size of their holds, their ability to preserve their catch, and of course their will to endure a backbreaking and deadly job. But these catches exceeded the ability of the targeted species to reproduce, and fishing stocks declined.

It was a classic "Tragedy of the Commons", where a public good was exploited precisely because no one had the right to limit its use. The answer: regulation.

To be continued...

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