California’s Fishy Fish Laws

Fishing rights can stop overfishing

California’s coastline is one of its greatest natural assets. Below the surface however, a number of serious environmental problems loom, principally over-fishing and the loss of productive marine habitat.

California’s answer to these problems was supposed to come in the form of 1999’s Marine Life Protection Act, which would create a system of marine reserves where fishing would be prohibited. But the massive deficit means the state does not have the funds needed to make the marine reserves a reality – at least not now.

While environmental groups lambasted California’s recent decision to suspend the reserves program, this fiscal crisis actually gives the state an opportunity to move towards a more effective long-term solution that stresses the cooperation of traditional foes – fisherman, both commercial and recreational, and environmental advocates.

California’s Marine Life legislation takes an unimaginative, typically unsuccessful approach to protecting marine resources; it assumes that fishing and fishermen are the problem, and attempts to either bar them from large areas or to change their behavior through command and control regulations and restrictions instead of cooperative efforts. In other parts of the world, however, where the rights to harvest fish are more secure, it is the fishermen themselves who press for conservation measures and who often even create their own marine reserves.

Marine reserves certainly offer great promise as one piece of California’s marine management puzzle. Numerous studies have shown that at least within the boundaries of marine reserves, marine life is more plentiful and diverse.

Jim Bohnsack, one of the leading marine reserve scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service, has described reserves as “civilizing the oceans” by “putting fences in the oceans.” And he’s definitely on to something – good fences do make good neighbors. But the picture is incomplete and California’s solution misdirected as long as it remains unclear who has the right to fish, and where.

The greatest threat to the oceans is what is referred to as the “the tragedy of the commons,” when the race goes to the swift fisherman, all commercial fishermen have little choice but to deplete the seas because any fish they leave behind will simply be caught be someone else, rather than left to grow and reproduce for another year.

Marine reserves don’t solve this key part of the crisis; they simply force fishermen to relocate. And the problem is frequently compounded by state or federal regulations that attempt to restrict fishing, but fail to address the reasons fish are over-harvested in the first place.

Other states and countries have successfully tackled this dilemma by creating tradable fishing rights. These tradable rights establish who has the right to catch fish, and how much they can catch (normally a percentage of an annual, scientifically determined, total catch).

In New Zealand , rights to fish are the equivalent of certifiable property rights. Their system has spawned the growth of innovative quota-owning management groups that invest heavily in fisheries science and enhancement. The management groups also tend to fish conservatively, leaving fish to repopulate the seas, because they recognize healthy oceans are a valuable asset.

The cooperative effort in New Zealand is in stark contrast to environmental efforts here.

In California, one species of rockfish, the bocaccio, may be a candidate for endangered species listing. When officials in California began a state-wide closure of the bocaccio fishery, fishermen were outraged. In a Los Angeles Times article about the fishery closures last summer, one Central California fisherman declared that “There’s plenty of fish out there – The problem is, there’s even more regulators.” When the system of fishing rights was created in New Zealand, on the other hand, fishermen immediately criticized the government for actually setting some catch limits too high.

Marine reserves are only as effective as the respect given to their boundaries. The more financial hardships commercial fishermen endure, however, the more likely they are to skirt regulations, including restrictions on where they can and can’t fish. The current system encourages cheating by making it difficult for fishermen to make a living. Healthy fisheries would also mean lower enforcement costs for the state, as fishermen will become more self-enforcing as they become more profitable.

Once the boundaries of marine reserves and fishing areas are well established, ocean advocates of all stripes are far more likely to act like good neighbors instead of fighting over the scraps. And seafood lovers around the state might finally see an increase in the supply of such delectable local fish as snapper, rockfish, Petrale sole, starry flounder, and sand dabs.

Michael De Alessi is director of natural resource policy at Reason Foundation