Privatize the sea

Could there be a better example of the incompetence of government management than the current state of the world’s fisheries? A combination of subsidies, quotas and the tragedy of the commons all play their part in the depletion of what should be one of the worlds most easily renewable resources namely the billions of fish that swim in our oceans.

We have seen the ludicrous, sad prospect of North Atlantic cod becoming extinct. Of course it has been claimed that the depletion of fish stocks is not due to the failure of government but the rapid increase in technology, which allow fisherman to increase their catch. This was the verdict of Scientific American in 1995. However, what the scientists should remember is that technology and innovation is not limited to our ability to harvest, but also to our ability to conserve. There is no zero sum game here.

Many governments' solution to the tragedy of the commons has been some market reform such individual fishing quotas where the total catch is decided usually by the government. Fishermen and other private companies then manage and trade their part of the quota. This is the situation that currently prevails in New Zealand and has proved to be fairly successful in conserving fish stocks.

However, a much more radical and effective approach can be taken. By introducing full scale property rights to bodies of water and large schools of fish, we can move from our current primitive hunter-gatherer method of fishing to fish husbandry and homesteading of the oceans. This is not as unrealistic as it may sound. Technologies such as Integrated Undersea Surveillance Systems and Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometry allow for close to virtual fencing of bodies of water and surveillance of fish movements, which can be harnessed to prevent poaching.

The use of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles can manage fisheries and pollution, as well as allowing the herding schools of fish toward optimal feeding grounds. A Japanese company is experimenting in fertilizing phytoplankton to increase fish stocks, and, on the increases observed, has estimated that a mere 100,000 square miles of ocean could produce the equivalent of what the entire world now produces in terms of tonnage of fish.

The potential for large-scale aquaculture is huge. Between the years 1984-1995, even with government restrictions, aquaculture (fish farms, etc) grew in production from 6.5 million tons to 21 million tons. Success has been seen not just in quantity, but also in quality. Through dietary control, aquaculturists can produce fish with higher or lower fat contents and adjust strength of flavour.

Property rights in oceans provide a huge opportunity for large scale sustainable aquaculture. Not only this, but ownership of the ocean floor would significantly encourage private investment into resource exploration and set clear lines in terms of the responsibility of those who mine oceans, should accidents and large scale pollution occur. The evolution of private property on land ended the tragedy of the commons, helping to move humanity from cyclical starvation to prosperity and growth. Ending the tragedy of the ocean commons in the world’s oceans may yet prove an equally revolutionary force in providing wealth, prosperity and alleviating the suffering of mankind.