Why Tacs may be good

January 4, 2002

Fish stocks all over the world are over-exploited. The North Sea cod is in what may well be terminal decline. Swingeing cuts in total allowable catches (Tacs) have been agreed in Brussels for this and many other European stocks.

The causes of overfishing are primarily economic - after all, professional fishermen fish mainly to make money, not for the fun of it. This is not as widely understood as it should be, so any book that explains why, and what might be done about it, is to be welcomed.

Fish, Markets, and Fishermen is a modestly sized (and modestly priced) attempt to do just that. The first few chapters give a clear and fairly standard account of the economic causes of overfishing. The argument is presented in words and pictures (no equations), and is generally clear, although the diagrams are rather crude, and one of them (figure 5.2) actually illustrates a quite different point from the one stated.

The discussion is, however, almost entirely of the static equilibrium situation. There is virtually no mention of the very important problems caused by variability of stock sizes, costs and prices, and only small hints about the dynamics of this bio-economic system, which are vitally important. The book therefore fails to home in on the crucial problem of short-term losses, which are the principal reason why it is always so difficult to achieve sustainable management of fisheries. The only way to conserve fish is to catch fewer of them. That means reduced incomes for fishermen, at least until the stocks have recovered. Thus, if it does not hurt, it will not work. Fishermen almost always oppose any conservation measures that are likely to be effective, for the perfectly rational and thoroughly understandable reason that they will reduce their incomes. We desperately need to find a way to break the deadlock that so often results, but the authors do not address this issue at all.

Apart from this important omission, however, the case they make is sound and well presented.

The core of the book is a set of seven case studies of the effects of various management schemes. These are accurate, detailed and reasonably well chosen, though all but one are from North America. (The exception is a good analysis of the New Zealand experience.) We could have done with a summary of the salient points and the lessons to be learnt, which are rather obscured in the detail and not brought together as a whole.

The general implication of the these examples is that management by individual transferable quotas (ITQs) is probably the way forward. I think this is rather dubious. While the authors do discuss the problems of enforcement, they fail to stress that management by ITQs requires virtually 100 per cent coverage and accurate reporting of landings, and accurate scientific assessments to set the Tacs on which the ITQs are based. Both of these are expensive and affordable only for major stocks of high economic value. For most stocks in most parts of the world ITQs are simply not a option.

The final chapter that promises the conclusions contains no such thing. It consists mainly of a parochial blow-by-blow account of the US congressional process of reauthorisation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The book fizzles out without conveying a clear message, except that ITQs are probably a good thing.

There is undoubtedly more to be said on this subject. If we agree that the causes of overfishing are primarily economic, should we not be looking for an economic remedy? If this is a prime example of the failure of free-market mechanisms, should we not be discussing how to engineer the markets to deliver the outcome that society wants, rather than meekly accepting what historical accidents have delivered? The benefits of charging some form of resource rentals are not thoroughly discussed, even though this issue is central to the legislative problems in the US and elsewhere.

And what about taxation? It is a dirty word almost everywhere, to be sure. But the misinterpreted figure 5.2 actually demonstrates how effective a tax on fishing effort could be. It is strange to find these aspects considered so briefly in a book whose aim is to elucidate the economic aspects of the problem.

Nevertheless, this is a useful and affordable addition to the literature on the subject, easily accessible to students and interested members of the public. For any discussion of the problems on this side of the Atlantic, however, you will need to look elsewhere.

John Shepherd is at the School of Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton.

Fish: The Economics of Overfishing

Author - Suzanne Iudicello, Michael Weber, and Robert Wieland
ISBN - 1 85383 652 4 and 651 6
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 192

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