America’s Cod Collapse

Where a dynamic global capitalist economy meets a scenario of ill-defined property rights, over-exploitation of finite resources results. Hence our troubles with climate change and hence our troubles with cod:

But data released last year indicated that the fish was so severely overfished that even if all fishing on it ended immediately, it would not rebound by 2014 to levels required under federal law.

As a result, fishermen were looking at an 82 percent cut in what they were allowed to catch last year, a reduction that would have wiped out not only regional fishermen who rely on cod. Restrictions on cod severely limit fishing on other groundfish species with which the cod swim, like flounder and haddock.

Obviously that would have put the cod fishermen out of business, so they’re happy to hear that NOAA will instead promulgate a special emergency rule offering only a 22 percent cut. That’s a great compromise solution except for the fact that it still leaves the fishery on the road to destruction. If appropriately managed with quota-trading systems and the like a technically competent modern government can create a market solution for the tragedy of the commons created, but once a fishery reaches a state of extreme depletion it’s very politically difficult to set quotas low enough.