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State Behavior and Fisheries Management

June 18, 2012

I’ve been thinking about another idea Hannesson shared in his book, The Privatization of the Ocean, which I recently reviewed.  In it he provided a theory of state behavior with regards to marine management.

His basic theory was that states would tend to manage their fisheries with individual transferrable quotas when fishing is of high economic importance, and states would implement marine protected areas when there is an active domestic environmental movement.

Here’s the quote:

There are several reasons why government might not be particularly interested in enhanced efficiency  in the fishing industry, or in other industries for that matter.  In most countries, the fishing industry is such a small part of the economy that it hardly matters one way or the others. [bold added] The effect on the gross domestic product of eliminating waste in the fishing industry would hardly be visible.  The United States is a good example; the fisheries are important locally but not overall; even in the state of Washington, home to much of the Alaska Pollock fleet, they do not amount to much in comparison to giant corporations such as Microsoft and Boeing.  In the United States there is, on the other hand, an increasingly vocal lobby of environmentalists… The establishment of marine protected areas is a part of an ongoing process in the United States, driven by environmentalists, to set aside large areas in which wilderness is protected and extraction of natural resources is not permitted.

By contrast, governments in countries or jurisdictions where the fishing industry is an important part of the national economy should be the ones most interested in establishing exclusive use rights in their fisheries.  There are not many countries like that.  Iceland is one of them, and practically all fisheries with the Icelandic 200-mile zone are regulated by ITQs. [p. 168]

Rainer Froese has written in Nature News about this phenomenon of governments abusing fisheries policy for votes when fishing is relatively unimportant.  He was specifically writing on the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy:

The fishing industry is less important to Europe’s economy than its sewing-machine manufacturers. [bold added] Yet it consistently gets to overrule scientific advice and drive fish stocks to the brink of collapse. Without massive subsidies, European fisheries would be bankrupt: the cost of hunting the few remaining fish would exceed the income from selling the catch.

Every year, fishery scientists are asked by politicians for advice on how hard stocks can be fished without pushing them over the edge, forcing the scientists into a position akin to that of a physician present at a waterboarding session. Adding insult to injury, much of their advice is ignored, and most stocks are outside of safe biological limits.

The sad state of European fish stocks is not a natural or societal failure that good management simply could not overcome. No, it is a desired outcome of Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which has allowed the fishing lobby to infiltrate the European Union’s political system. (intro available on Pew’s website; the link to the original is broken.)

This makes me wonder: what other variables might affect state behavior?  I’d add the following to any theory of state behavior.

Disenfranchisement of fishing communities. I’d argue that when fishermen are limited in their political participation through a lack of roads, low levels of education, or even a dysfunctional democratic system, states will tend to either ignore fisheries policy or engage in rent seeking, such as by allowing irresponsible foreign fishing fleets in to their waters for a fee.

The relative importance of foreign fishing fleets. This is only partly related to the disenfranchisement variable.  Here I suggest that if most of the vessels fishing in a countries’ EEZ are foreign vessels, then governments will have less a stake in responsible fisheries management because poor management will have little impact on the ballot box and short-term thinking politicians can simply profit off the fishing fees.

The strength and status of scientific institutions.  This theory is that states that lack decent scientific institutions would less often implement scientific-based management of fisheries.  Further, even if there are scientific institutions, if science is not culturally-valued, then it will have less importance. (See here for more on this.)

The current status of fisheries resources.  If fisheries resources are already in a bad state, then states will tend to not implement responsible fisheries management practices because the costs are too high.  This could be considered the ‘catch-22’ of fisheries management:  states should not bother with reforming their fisheries management unless stocks are overfished; it is too costly to reform fisheries management when stocks are overfished.

The relative importance of shared stocks.  If a state’s fisheries are mostly comprised of stocks stocks shared with other countries’ fishing fleets, then the state will likely not engage in active fisheries management due to the challenge of coordinating with other state actors.

Economic development.  A country of low economic development will tend not to engage in responsible fisheries management as it is costly and costs are typically not recovered from industry.  Instead, it is usually a subsidy the government provides using general tax revenue.

Any other variables you think we should add?


I thought more about this on my morning commute.  Here are a few other variables:

Proximity and global norms. I think state behavior could be affected by the fisheries management regimes of other countries in close proximity and of importance for normative signaling.  For example, the United States’ strong fisheries management regime could have possitively pushed reform in Mexico, and I think there is a lot to say about how New Zealand’s fisheries management influenced fisheries management in Australia.  You are also starting to seem some interest in rights-based management in the Eastern Pacific as Chile has had over a decade of experience with it, and Peru incorporated rights-based management into its anchoveta fishery not too long ago.

State Structure. It really matters that there are institutions that environmental and industry groups can meaningfully engage the government.  Thus, state behavior would also be affected by the structure of decision-making, the existence of ocean management agencies, and transparency.  The EU is a great example here; fishing there is managed in a terribly opaque fashion making it tremendously difficult for environmental groups to push reforms.


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