Skip to Global Futures Initiative Full Site Menu Skip to main content
September 30, 2016

Responding To: Climate Change and the Oceans: Challenges Ahead

Fishermen, Fish, and the Tragedy of the Commons

Paul Sullivan

My brother and I ran a fishing boat off the cost of New England in our youth. One stormy night during those times I was listening to a VHF radio, which  fishermen used then (and still do now) to contact each other—although now they have the cell phone, social media, and so forth depending on how far at sea they may be. A couple of the more colorful fishermen were talking about the new fisheries regulations that were to come into effect soon. Let’s say they were using words not for a family program or an article for Georgetown.
The most pressing issues they were facing were the decline in the catches over the years in their usual places to fish, and the decline in fish stocks and flows in most of their alternative fishing spots. The Banana Shoal, the Grand Banks, the “Dumping Grounds,” and more saw declines for years. Swordfish were on the wane. Even the ubiquitous bluefish were having a bad year. Striped bass catches were way down. Some fishermen moved all the way to Alaska to stay in the business.

I was listening to this radio chatter of fishermen filled with bitterness and complaint (isn’t that what fishermen do all the time anyway?) and began to think about some of the economics I was just starting to learn about in college. It was clear to me that what was happening was a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. For economists it was an interesting theory. For the fishermen it often effectively proved to be a real tragedy, like the family we knew that lost their home after the father put it up as collateral for his son to get a trawler—and the son could not pay off the boat loan.

A fisherman’s goals were then and are still to get as much fish as possible as quickly as possible at the best price to get the most money to take care of their families, to pay off the boats, pay the crew, get tackle and bait, and all the other costs and responsibilities they faced. Fishermen were thinking in terms of short run revenues without considering the stability and sustainability of the very business they were in. The fisheries and the long run livelihoods of the fishermen were being harmed in the process.

Over the many years since then global fish stocks dropped even further in many places. Some fish types have been overfished or even past or near extinction. Just browsing the FAO’s “State of the Fisheries 2016” is enough to make this former fisherman turned economist-resource security person cringe and get increasingly concerned. I remember the ocean teeming with so many fish the only thing stopping us from catching more was exhaustion.

Now I look at data that show a sad face of world fisheries in many places. Some fisheries have come back much due to the very regulations and laws that those fishermen on the VHF complained about so many years ago. Some fisheries have turned around because of the coordination of fishermen with their governments and other regulating bodies.

The tragedy of the commons is a textbook case of market failure in need of something to make the market get “a better grade.” Sometimes interventions, albeit smart, well-considered and practical interventions, can save an industry and those working in it (as well as the families who depend on them). They can also help save the only oceans we have and the protein-rich fisheries that a huge proportion of the world population relies upon.

Many fishermen realize this now. It is just a sad shame for the fishermen, their families, the fish, and the oceans that this was not realized sooner and by many more globally.

Indeed, as Secretary John Kerry said in a recent speech at Georgetown we have been pillaging the resources of the sea much to the detriment of what he calls “our variability to exist.” Fisheries are a vital, yet abused and misused resource for billions of people.  

However, it is not too late. Secretary Kerry most aptly and importantly stated in his speech:
“The bottom line is that none of what we are working toward is beyond our capacity. This is not a question of what do we do, this is a question of the willpower to do what we know we can do. And if we make the right choices, if we set the right priorities, if we respond to the same understanding that saving our ocean isn’t just an option or a priority, it’s an absolute necessity, we will get there.”
We can still save fisheries and the people who work in them, rely on them, and find their sustenance from them. However, this will require proper long run strategic thinking—and a lot of heart-felt logic and efforts.

Dr. Sullivan is a professor of economics at the National Defense University, an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Department at Georgetown, a senior adjunct fellow in Future Global Resource Threat at the Federation of American Scientists, and a senior international fellow at NCUSAR. He advises at very senior levels on issues related to energy, water, food, and economic security globally, but most particularly regarding the Middle East and North Africa.

Other Responses