Oceans Need Innovation, Not Bureaucracy

Stewardship and property rights are essential

Depending on whose science you subscribe to, our oceans are either: on the verge of trouble, in trouble, or on their deathbed. And you can pick your poison: habitat destruction, overfishing, and pollution are just a few of the problems we face.

The 16-member U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy just released a nearly 500-hundred page preliminary report, 2 1/2 years in the making, which is supposed to nurse our oceans back to health. Unfortunately, apart from making a timely acknowledgement of the environmental, commercial and recreational importance of the oceans, the report leaves much to be desired.

Instead of applying a comprehensive framework to oceans policy, the commission focuses on creating more administrative offices such as the National Ocean Council and Presidential Council of Advisers on Ocean Policy. Think Department of Homeland Security for our oceans. We’re on orange alert, or is it yellow today? As most taxpayers, especially fresh off tax day will attest, bureaucracy does not equal “coordination,” no matter how high it reaches or how small the minutiae it addresses.

In addition to layers and layers of added bureaucracy, the report recommends increasing federal research dollars and security for shipping and oil and gas activities (hardly surprising proposals considering the commission consists primarily of academics, federal agency representatives, and the oil and gas industry – all groups that would benefit).

At all levels, the heart of the problem is what is referred to in environmental circles as the “tragedy of the commons” – resources are depleted or damaged because they are free for the taking, whether fish, clean water or habitat.

The commission still doesn’t seem to realize that more regulation and more government agencies won’t beat man’s ingenuity and the tragedy of commons. Consider Alaska: the state thought its halibut stock was being overfished, so it slashed the halibut fishing season from almost 10 months to just 72 hours. The result? There was no significant decrease in the number of halibut caught because fishermen and companies packed 10 months worth of fishing into three days.

The key to rehabilitating and sustaining our oceans is stewardship and property rights. The Alaskan halibut fishery is now a success story, not because of new regulations, but because it is one of the few fisheries in the United States managed on a property rights model. Fishermen have Individual Fishing Quotas, which allocate the right to catch a specific percentage of the scientifically determined total allowable catch. The quotas give fishermen both the incentive and the means to care more about the health of our seas. Fishermen in New Zealand using this system have actually voluntarily reduced their catch levels because they know the long-term health of the oceans is in their best interests.

Traditional societies in the Pacific Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands used these concepts to protect marine resources. Native Americans often had complex arrangements within and between tribes to allow salmon to move up and downstream in order to maintain the spawning runs and ensure a future supply of fish. Native Hawaiians recognized triangular strips of property running from mountaintop out to sea and respected the boundaries. According to a Hawaii Sea Grant study, this system was set up “to sustain the pattern of Hawaiian life,” and included strict limits on harvests of “species, types, sizes and portions of fish.”

In the eyes of the commission, property rights are valuable tools for solving specific problems, but not as an overall framework for oceans policy. This is a mistake. Of course there is more to managing ocean resources than fishing, but the fishery dynamic applies to every facet of oceans management. After all, most Americans are far more concerned with the price and quality the fish at their local supermarket or the health of their favorite fishing holes than they are about deep-sea topography or federal agency hierarchies.

The health of our oceans deserves bold, forward-thinking policies that have proven highly successful across the world, not another government agency promising more research.

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