Race-to-the-Bottom Watch: Fishing for Trouble

What’s the most deadly occupation in America? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s fishing. Commercial fishing, to be precise. Why is fishing so dangerous? Fisherman can be trapped in a perfect storm of collective-action problems and, well, actual storms.

The harsh competition in this already dangerous industry is leading workers to labor in ever-worse sea conditions in order for businesses to stay afloat (so to speak). The best fishing grounds are often found in the most treacherous seas, and the clock ticks down quickly in some fisheries (say, the crab fishery off the coast of Alaska) where the seasons last only a few weeks. When one vessel decides to go out in stormy weather in order to get a competitive edge, crews of other vessels are faced with the dilemma of either falling behind the competition or following suit in braving the potentially life-threatening conditions.

This dilemma is only exacerbated by the depleted state of many of the world’s most important fisheries.  In an effort to stem the “tragedy of the commons” of overfishing, authorities have commonly resorted to setting an overall limit of fish that can be caught in a given fishery for a given season.  The approach of giving an aggregated limit breeds intense competition because each fish caught by one fisherman entails one fewer available to all the others.  This creates what has become known as a “race to fish” wherein fishermen are willing to do almost anything in order to nab a greater share of the overall quota before it runs out, including foregoing safety precautions.

So this race to fish is really a race to the bottom. One crew deciding to risk the elements in order to gain a competitive advantage starts the race. But once the other vessels join the competition by going out in perilous weather conditions, the competitive edge that motivated the first mover vanishes, while the risk of death for all of the fishers increases.  Thus, in the race to fish we can see how individuals attempting to act in their own interest, while responding to the actions of others attempting to do the same, can all end up worse off.

Is there any way out of this race to the bottom? Some authorities have replaced the overall quota with individual allocations to prevent such fierce competition.  Critics protest, however, that this solution does not live up to the free-market principles of American capitalism.  However, it is evident that the case of a totally free market for fishing (in which fishers and their customers do not pay the cost of replenishing the fish stock) is likely to lead to overfishing and ultimately the end of any kind of market for fishing. What if the rights of individual allocations were auctioned off in advance?

 

 

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One response to “Race-to-the-Bottom Watch: Fishing for Trouble

  1. Leonard,
    This is really interesting. Just a quick note – there’s some interesting research on the informal ways people solve potential commons “tragedies” without relying on government. On marine resources, James Acheson’s _Lobster Gangs of Maine_ is a very good book about lobstermen developing their own regulatory institutions. But Elinor Ostrom, Nobel winner in economics, is the expert on this, and has advanced us a long way toward seeing how livelihoods that are inherently competitive can nevertheless develop cooperative strategies.

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