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Homesteading the Oceans: The Case for Property Rights in U.S. Fisheries

  • Donald Leal

    Overfishing in the oceans is a classic example of the “tragedy of the commons”– overexploitation of an unowned resource. Fishing in U.S. waters is no longer a commons free of fishing restrictions, yet many fisheries still suffer from the tragedy of the commons.

    Since the 1970s, the United States government has controlled marine waters 12 to 200 miles from its shores by placing a morass of fishing regulations on fishers. Yet, at least a third of our fisheries are known to be overfished. Moreover, the regulations have resulted in hazardous fishing, the loss of millions of tons of fish due to poor handling and lost gear, and wasteful fishing investments, says Donald R. Leal, PERC Senior Associate.

    In “Homesteading the Oceans: The Case For Property Rights in U.S. Fisheries,” Leal proposes that we replace regulations with various property rights strategies for fishing. Some have been adopted by other countries and a few are used in selected fisheries in the United States.

    Foremost is the adoption of ITQs, or individual transferable quotas, which give fishers ownership of a portion of the annual catch. In New Zealand, these ITQs have become genuine property rights, increasing the value of fisheries and encouraging cooperation among owners in protecting the long-run future of the fishing areas.

    This is the latest in Don Leal’s studies, which encompass land, forests, water, and other natural resources. An earlier study, “Community-Run Fisheries: Avoiding ‘The Tragedy of the Commons'” (PERC Policy Series PS-7) showed how some fishing communities rely on tradition and custom to avoid the tragedy of the commons.

    This essay is part of the PERC Policy Series, edited by Jane S. Shaw and produced by Dianna Rienhart.

    Download the full report, including endnotes and references.

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