Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Cod fishery in crisis

The federal government this week enacted what amounts essentially to a 6-month pause in commercial cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, according to a report by David Abel in the Boston Globe yesterday. This is a sad day for New England's most famous fishery.

Cod fishing is a classic example of a situation where free markets would be devastating for everybody, including fishermen and their families. Because overfishing in the past has pushed stocks far below maximum sustainable levels, each fishing boat harms the economic interests of the next. Economists believe that liberated markets serve environmental goals wonderfully in many situations, where property rights to natural resources are well defined, but free markets are a disaster when each producer is chasing a common resource.

Nobody thinks the New England cod fishery should be unregulated. Yet, cod fishermen complain about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulators who took action this week. Many fishermen believe the scientific estimates are overly pessimistic, leading regulators to be overly cautious.

Here you can inspect the evidence for yourself, in NOAA's report this past August. Using two different models of cod mortality (on the left and right), the figure reproduced here shows the downward trend over time in estimated spawning stocks biomass (top row) and the upward trend in estimated recent fish mortality (bottom row).

Of course, these estimates could be mistaken. Yet, as a non-expert reading them closely, I found them persuasive. If I were a cod fisherman, I would cry, plan, and organize politically, but I would resist the temptation to blame the messenger.

For the other side of the story, here is a link to the Northeast Seafood Coalition, but I haven't yet found a real scientific rebuttal to the NOAA estimates.

In the tragic political division in this country, so apparent in the recent election, the conservative party is (rightly!) devoted to the great prosperity economic markets can achieve, yet sadly unable to comprehend that vigorous and effective government sometimes is needed to let markets work well.

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