Economies of Scale(s) – Literally

Since free markets are taking it on the chin this week, a little reminder.

There is an article in the Economist which describes how a free-market can solve an environmental problem, an issue typically addressed from a governmental perspective. From the article:

Like most other fisheries in the world, Alaska’s halibut fishery was overexploited—despite the efforts of managers. Across the oceans, fishermen are caught up in a “race to fish” their quotas, a race that has had tragic, and environmentally disastrous, consequences over many decades. But in 1995 Alaska’s halibut fishermen decided to privatize their fishery by dividing up the annual quota into “catch shares” that were owned, in perpetuity, by each fisherman. It changed everything….… Now a study of the world’s 121 fisheries managed by individual transferable quotas (ITQs), one form of market-based mechanism, has shown that they are dramatically healthier than the rest of the world’s fisheries (see article). The ITQ system halves the chance of a fishery collapsing.

By giving fishermen a long-term interest in the health of the fishery, ITQs have transformed fishermen from rapacious predators into stewards and policemen of the resource. The tragedy of the commons is resolved when individuals own a defined (and guaranteed) share of a resource, a share that they can trade. This means that they can increase the amount of fish they catch not by using brute strength and fishing effort, but by buying additional shares or improving the fishery’s health and hence increasing its overall size.

It’s now official, I am the only blogger in the world to note Alaska and not mention the Republican’s VP candidate.

See the complete article at end of this post.

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Economies of scales
Sep 18th 2008
From The Economist print edition

A new way of saving fisheries shows it can work; it deserves more attention

BEFORE 1995 the annual fishing season for Alaskan halibut lasted all of three days. Whatever the weather, come hell or—literally—high water, fishermen would be out on those few days trying to catch as much halibut as they could. Those that were lucky enough to make it home alive, or without serious injury, found that the price of halibut had collapsed because the market was flooded.

Like most other fisheries in the world, Alaska’s halibut fishery was overexploited—despite the efforts of managers. Across the oceans, fishermen are caught up in a “race to fish” their quotas, a race that has had tragic, and environmentally disastrous, consequences over many decades. But in 1995 Alaska’s halibut fishermen decided to privatise their fishery by dividing up the annual quota into “catch shares” that were owned, in perpetuity, by each fisherman. It changed everything.

Bream of sunlight

Despite their salty independence, even fishermen respond to market incentives. In the halibut fishery the change in incentives that came from ownership led to a dramatic shift in behaviour. Today the halibut season lasts eight months and fishermen can make more by landing fish when the price is high. Where mariners’ only thought was once to catch fish before the next man, they now want to catch fewer fish than they are allowed to—because conservation increases the value of the fishery and their share in it. The combined value of their quota has increased by 67%, to $492m.

Sadly, most of the rest of the world’s fisheries are still embroiled in a damaging race for fish that is robbing the seas of their wealth. Overfished populations are small, and so they yield a small catch or even go extinct. Yet the powerful logic in favour of market-based mechanisms has been ignored, partly because the evidence has largely been anecdotal. Now a study of the world’s 121 fisheries managed by individual transferable quotas (ITQs), one form of market-based mechanism, has shown that they are dramatically healthier than the rest of the world’s fisheries (see article). The ITQ system halves the chance of a fishery collapsing.

By giving fishermen a long-term interest in the health of the fishery, ITQs have transformed fishermen from rapacious predators into stewards and policemen of the resource. The tragedy of the commons is resolved when individuals own a defined (and guaranteed) share of a resource, a share that they can trade. This means that they can increase the amount of fish they catch not by using brute strength and fishing effort, but by buying additional shares or improving the fishery’s health and hence increasing its overall size.

There are plenty of practical difficulties to overcome. In theory, for instance, you should allocate shares through auctions. But if fishermen do not agree to a new system, it will not work. So fishermen are typically just given their shares—which can lead to bitter, politicised arguments. In Australia, a pioneer in ITQs, a breakthrough came when independent allocation panels were set up to advise the fishing agencies, chaired by retired judges advised by fishing experts. The next test will come in November, when two large American Pacific fisheries decide whether to accept market management.

ITQs, and other market mechanisms, are not a replacement for government regulation—indeed they must work within a well regulated system. And they will not work everywhere. Attempts to use ITQs in international waters have failed, because it is too easy for cheats to take fish and weaker regulations mean there are no on-board observers to keep boats honest. And ITQs will not work in slow-growing fisheries, where fishermen may make more money by fishing the stock to extinction than they ever would by waiting for the fish to mature. But in most of the world’s fisheries, market mechanisms would create richer fishermen and more fish.

There was a time when fishermen were seen as the last hunter-gatherers—pitting their wits against the elements by pursuing their quarry on the last frontier on Earth. Those days are gone. Every corner of the ocean has been scoured using high technology developed for waging wars on land. Politicians and governments still seek to cope with fishermen’s poverty by subsidising their boats or their fuel—which only accelerates the decline. Instead governments should promote property-rights-based fisheries. If fishermen know what’s good for them—and their fish—they will jump on board.
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A rising tide
Sep 18th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Scientists find proof that privatising fishing stocks can avert a disaster

FOR three years, from an office overlooking the Atlantic in Nova Scotia, Boris Worm, a marine scientist, studied what could prevent a fishery from collapsing. By 2006 Dr Worm and his team had worked out that although biodiversity might slow down an erosion of fish stocks, it could not prevent it. Their gloomy prediction was that by 2048 all the world’s commercial fisheries would have collapsed.

Now two economists and a marine biologist have looked at an idea that might prevent such a catastrophe. This is the privatisation of commercial fisheries through what are known as catch shares or Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs).

Christopher Costello and Steven Gaines (the biologist) of the University of California and John Lynham of the University of Hawaii assembled a database of the world’s commercial fisheries, their catches and whether or not they were managed with ITQs. As these fisheries were not chosen at random and without having any experimental control, they borrowed techniques from medical literature—known as propensity-score matching and fixed-effects estimation—to support their analysis. The first method compared fisheries that are similar in all respects other than the use of ITQs; the second averaged the impact of ITQs over many fisheries and examined what happened after the quotas were introduced. Whichever way they analysed the data, they found that ITQs halted the collapse of fisheries (and according to one analysis even reversed the trend). The overall finding was that fisheries that were managed with ITQs were half as likely to collapse as those that were not.

For years economists and green groups such as Environmental Defense, in Washington, DC, have argued in favour of ITQs. Until now, individual fisheries have provided only anecdotal evidence of the system’s worth. But by lumping all of them together the new study, published this week in Science, is a powerful demonstration that it really works. It also helps to undermine the argument that ITQ fisheries do better only because they are more valuable in terms of their fish stocks to begin with, says Dr Worm. The new data show that before their conversion, fisheries with ITQs were on exactly the same path to oblivion as those without.

Racing to fish

Encouraging as the results are, ITQ fisheries are in the minority. Most fisheries have an annual quota of what can be caught and other restrictions, such as the length of the season or the type of nets. But this can result in a “race to fish” the quota. Fishermen have an incentive to work harder and travel farther, which can lead to overfishing: a classic tragedy of the commons.

The use of ITQs changes this by dividing the quota up and giving shares to fishermen as a long-term right. Fishermen therefore have an interest in good management and conservation because both increase the value of their fishery and of their share in it. And because shares can be traded, fishermen who want to catch more can buy additional rights rather than resorting to brutal fishing tactics.

The Alaskan halibut and king crab fisheries illustrate how ITQs can change behaviour. Fishing in these waters had turned into a race so intense that the season had shrunk to just two to three frantic days. Overfishing was common. And when the catch was landed, prices plummeted because the market was flooded. Serious injury and death became so frequent in the king crab fishery that it turned into one of America’s most dangerous professions (and spawned its own television series, “The Deadliest Catch”).

After a decade of using ITQs in the halibut fishery, the average fishing season now lasts for eight months. The number of search-and-rescue missions that are launched is down by more than 70% and deaths by 15%. And fish can be sold at the most lucrative time of year—and fresh, so that they fetch a better price.

In a report on this fishery, Dan Flavey, a fisherman himself, says some of his colleagues have even pushed for the quota to be reduced by 40%. “Most fishermen will now support cuts in quota because they feel guaranteed that in the future, when the stocks recover, they would be the ones to benefit,” he says.

Although governing authorities are important in setting up ITQs, so is policing of the system by the fishermen themselves. In the Atlantic lobster fishery a property-based system has arisen spontaneously, says Dr Worm. Families claim ownership over parcels of sea and keep others out. Anyone trying to muscle in on the action risks being threatened; their gear may be cut loose or their boat could vanish.

Jeremy Prince, a fisheries scientist at Murdoch University in Australia, has been involved in ITQs since they were pioneered in the early 1980s by Australia, New Zealand and Iceland. In Australia they are only one way of managing with property rights, he says. Depending on the nature of a fishery, other methods may work better. These might divide up and sell lobster pots, numbers of fish, numbers of boats, bits of the ocean or even individual reefs. The best choice will depend on the value and underlying biology of each fishery, and in some places they may not work at all. In a fishery with a large, unproductive stock that grows slowly, fishermen may prefer short-term profit to the promise of low long-term income and catch all the fish straight away. Nevertheless, Dr Prince believes that, overall, market-based mechanisms are the way forward.

The most difficult place to introduce market-based conservation methods is in international waters. Attempts to do so have ended in failure. One problem is that there is simply too much cheating in the open ocean. Some scientists think a renegotiation of the law of the sea through the United Nations is the only way forward—or a complete ban on fishing in international waters. Although a dramatic course of action, the effects may not be so huge. Dr Worm reckons that 90% of the world’s fish are caught in national waters.

So, if Dr Costello and his colleagues are right and the profit motive can drive the sustainability of fisheries, why do the world’s 10,000-plus fisheries contain only 121 ITQs? Allocating catch shares is a difficult and often fraught process. In America it can take from five to 15 years, says Joe Sullivan, a partner in Mundt MacGregor, a law firm based in Seattle. The public, he says, sometimes resists the privatisation of a public resource and if government gets too involved in the details of the privatisation (rather than leaving it to the fishermen to work out), it can end up politically messy. But evidence that ITQs work is a powerful new hook to capture the political will and public attention needed to spread an idea that could avert an ecological disaster.
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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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