George Monbiot might be right but remarkably unobservant

George Monbiot tells us that the fishing industry isn’t working - in which he’s right. We wouldn’t go so far as to recommend his solution, that all just stop eating fish, but we agree that sorting out the structure and incentives of the business is not just a good idea but a necessity.

This means that the first duty of a journalist is to cover neglected issues. So I want to direct you to the 70% of the planet that was sidelined even in the sparse coverage of the new report: the seas. Here, life is collapsing even faster than on land. The main cause, the UN biodiversity report makes clear, is not plastic. It is not pollution, not climate breakdown, not even the acidification of the ocean. It is fishing. Because commercial fishing is the most important factor, this is the one we talk about least. The BBC’s recent Blue Planet Live series, carefully avoiding any collision with powerful interests, epitomised this reticence. There was not a word about the fossil fuel or plastics industries – and only a fleeting reference to the fishing industry, which is protected by a combination of brute power and bucolic fantasy.

This is not in fact something that has been ignored. Far from it in fact. We know the theory behind what is wrong here. It’s a real and actual example of Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. We also know what the solution is, we either have to regulate access to the resource or we have to privatise it, make it property.

For if we have that unlimited access - as, say, George Monbiot fishing in Cardigan Bay from his kayak - and we’ve 7 billion people doing it then we’re going to exhaust that resource.

We can go further too. We’ve tried that regulation bit and as the abomination of the Common Fisheries Policy shows that doesn’t in fact work. Do recall Hardin’s point that which solution we use, socialism or capitalism, is not a prejudicial or political decision, it’s one based upon the details of the matter under discussion. Dependent upon those details one philosophic approach will work and the other won’t.

It’s entirely true that many inshore fisheries are accessed by groups small enough to use Elinor Ostrom’s communal self-regulation. But the major fisheries simply are not.

We’ve even tried that capitalist method of assigning ownership of the fish stocks to known and named individuals. It works too. One of those details which makes it work is that a stock well above sustainable levels is more profitable. A profit maximising owner thus runs the fishery at well above merely sustainable levels of stock. But that owner must be able to exclude others to avoid that Commons Tragedy.

We’ve no problem, of course we don’t, with people identifying problems which need to be solved. It’s even true that at times, as here with fisheries, we’ll agree that it is a problem that does need to be solved. What does irk is people complaining that no one is paying attention - when for a couple of decades now it’s been known and obvious that there is a solution. It’s been tested - notably in New Zealand and Alaskan waters - and it works. When fishermen own fish stocks as farmers own fields and cattle then our commons problem over fish will be solved.

So, assign ownership of fish stocks and solve the problem. Far from being ignored the problem is solved - of only those shouting about the issue would listen then implement.