Commons in the News

Last Sunday’s New York Times included a provocative piece about commons environments that should interest all intellectual property lawyers, scholars, and policymakers. No, I’m not talking about the lengthy and fascinating profile of Lewis Hyde, which intellectual property lawyers, scholars and policymakers should read, too. I’m talking about “A Seafood Snob Ponders the Future of Fish,” a poorly headlined article that has relatively little to do with food snobbery and much to do with saving fish stocks. Hypothesis:  commons lessons generalize.  Substitute “knowledge” metaphorically for fish in the excerpt below, and ponder:

“The ocean has an incredible amount of productive capacity, and we could quite easily and simply stay within it by limiting fishing to what it can produce.”

This sounds almost too good to be true, but with monitoring systems that reduce bycatch by as much as 60 percent and regulations providing fishermen with a stake in protecting the wild resource, it is happening. One regulatory scheme, known as “catch shares,” allows fishermen to own shares in a fishery — that is, the right to catch a certain percentage of a scientifically determined sustainable harvest. Fishermen can buy or sell shares, but the number of fish caught in a given year is fixed.

This method has been a success in a number of places including Alaska, the source of more than half of the nation’s seafood. A study published in the journal Science recently estimated that if catch shares had been in place globally in 1970, only about 9 percent of the world’s fisheries would have collapsed by 2003, rather than 27 percent.

“The message is optimism,” said David Festa, who directs the oceans program at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The latest data shows that well-managed fisheries are doing incredibly well. When we get the rules right the fisheries can recover, and if they’re not recovering, it means we have the rules wrong.”

(The world’s fishing countries would need to participate; right now, the best management is in the United States, Australia and New Zealand; even in these countries, there’s a long way to go.)

An optimistic but not unrealistic assessment of the future is that we’ll have a limited (and expensive) but sustainable fishery of large wild fish; a growing but sustainable demand for what will no longer be called “lower-value” smaller wild fish; and a variety of traditional aquaculture where it is allowed. This may not sound ideal, but it’s certainly preferable to sucking all the fish out of the oceans while raising crops of tasteless fish available only to the wealthiest consumers.