Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

What Kind of Problem is Overfishing, Really?

By Stephanie NeitlichPublished February 9, 2020

Cornell Roosevelt Institute
Governments around the world have tried a variety of strategies to slow the rate of their depleting oceans. But what if the reason for these unsuccessful results lies in the definition of overfishing itself?

Humans love technology. We thrive on it. It is no secret that we are always looking for ways to make our lives as easy and efficient as possible. The idea is hardwired into our brains. From the birth of the wheel, to bicycles, to driverless Uber cars, the next best thing has never been more than a technological breakthrough away.

This rule is no different in the world of commercial fishing. Fishermen’s technologies have evolved from the original hook and bait fishing to modern full-fledge capture vessels. These vessels have mastered the art of fishing, with most vessels equipped with a dangling 330 foot net weighted to the ocean floor which can engulf up to 250,000 river herring at any given moment. They are fishing monsters.

It is no surprise that governments have tried to cast these machines as the true villains of overfishing. Just this past January, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council passed its annual regulatory policy which focuses heavily on regulating vessel types. These regulations include the banning of entanglement nets, limiting the number of fish hooks allowed on fishing gear, and mandating that monitoring systems be present on every commercial vessel. Despite these governmental efforts, fish populations continue to plummet.  

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA), over 70% of the world’s fisheries are currently listed as either “fully exploited” or “over exploited”, meaning that fish are being extracted at a faster rate than can be naturally repopulated. Even more worrisome, nearly 10% of the 600 marine fish stocks monitored by FAO are labeled as being “significantly depleted”, meaning that natural populations have fallen well below historical averages, and are in real danger of permanently drying up. 

Monitored vessels are not the only threat to our shrinking oceans. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has also led to quickly dwindling fish populations. IUU fishing now accounts for an estimated 15 to 30 percent of global annual catches, with projections expected to increase in the following years. Still, global regulations over the world’s oceans have become more and more extreme in recent years. Although there are new laws passed every year that attempt to rehabilitate aquatic populations, long term success continues to fall out of reach for the majority of fisheries.

How could this possibly be the case? The answer to this lies within the root question itself: what kind of problem is overfishing, really?

The answer is that overfishing is a classic case of “A Tragedy of the Commons”. According to Trevor Manuel, former Global Ocean Commission Co-Chair, it is the nature under which our resources are operated that will lead to an inevitable depletion. He notes, “the lawless nature of overfishing on the high seas means we are squandering one of the most precious of our food systems”. Manuel is right; when the ability to exclude participants from accessing a resource is impossible, and there is no motivation for any parties to be responsible about the quantity they extract, a dangerous free-for-all is created. Every player has an incentive to take more than what is sustainable in fear that the next person who uses that resource will do the same. This creates a major problem that often leads to overconsumption and total depletion of a common-pool resource. This problem becomes even worse when combined with the complexities of maritime law. Since there is no ownership of open waters, enforcement becomes extremely difficult. This even allows for areas with highly restricted technologies to be exploited, as minimal policing of open seas prevents real change from occurring.

Solutions to this economic problem have been debated for decades. One of the most successful answers came from economist Ronald Coase. In 1960, Coase developed The Coase Theorem, an idea that works to solve this issue through very clear distinction of property rights. If ownership of a section of land is clearly defined, then the owner has an incentive to avoid exploitation of his resource. The owner, then, also has the ability to police who has access to this resource, and how much of it can be extracted at one time.

Lack of established property rights is a key issue plaguing fisheries in open-waters. Without any specific country or region having significant stakes in the health of the open-water ocean, aquatic resources will continue to deplete at an unsustainable rate. While technology remains at the center of most regulatory policy, the foundational problem of overfishing goes undiscussed. Until the root cause of this resource exploitation becomes central to conversation discourse, the phrase “there are plenty of fish in the sea” will be a thing of the past.