A Montauk fisherman is in court because of a 74,000-pound catch.
Where are we going? To the tragedy of the commons.
Our story starts in 1976. Moving from 12 to 200 miles, the U.S. expanded its jurisdiction over coastal waters. The worry had been foreign fleets. However, the concern soon switched to the New Englanders with depleted fisheries. Looking for more bountiful waters, they headed south to Long Island. Or, as one local fisherman said, they came to “mooch.”
Catching the attention of regulatory authorities, the Mid Atlantic waters got new rules that ranged from the size of the mesh holes (larger holes let little fish escape) to when they could be used, As you might expect, fisherman found their livelihoods vastly constrained. Surely irritated by the new bureaucracy, fisherman spent their time filling in fishing vessel trip and dealer reports. Both tell the federal government what was caught and bought.
Some regions also implemented a catch share program that allocated what fisherman were allowed to bring home. Fishermen get catch shares that designate quotas for haddock, crabs, flounder, cod and other species. Based on fish stock estimates, the quotas combine conservation and property rights. Although the ocean belongs to all of us, they replace a “race to catch” with ownership incentives that encourage preservation.
The Winkler Case
Within this regulatory environment designed to restock fisheries, Chris Winkler egregiously overfished. Selling his catch to a wholesaler that also owned a restaurant and festive port facility for tourists, Mr. Winkler far exceeded the limits that were allegedly not disclosed in trip reports.
Seemingly simple, the rules obscure a slew of choices. You might have a haddock quota, but your net pulls in cod. In addition, you can sell or lease your share before or after you’ve caught it. Aware of all of these complexities, the Stockholm Resilience Center compares a lineup of chained prisoners to the overfishing challenge. Like the fishermen, the prisoners, don’t coordinate their steps. Tripping over each other, they need to coordinate.
So too do fisherman.
Our Bottom Line: The Tragedy of the Commons
This is where the tragedy of the commons enters the picture. Whether looking at air pollution, an overgrazed pasture or overfishing, people have the incentive to abuse publicly shared resources. Privately benefiting from our behavior, we tend to ignore the impact of everyone using the resource together.
The result is a tragedy of the commons.
My sources and more: The Chris Winkler case is a good way to learn about contemporary overfishing. However, the story started 50 years ago and then continued with more recent legislation. Touching only the tip of a complicated system, catch share is described here and here.