The ocean called, they’re running out of shrimp

That's from an absolutely classic Seinfeld scene:

Unfortunately, the ocean really is running out of fish.  The ocean is a terrific example of the "Tragedy of the Commons."  Since their is no true global governance of the oceans, each nation's incentive is to take all the fish it can.  Of course, when everybody follows their individual selfish incentive, everybody ends up worse off because there's no fish left.  This is one of the reasons we have government, to prevent such perverse outcomes.  But, of course, the oceans are largely ungoverned but for the few not particularly well-enforced international treaties.  Daniel Pauly had a great article in the New Republic this week describing the problem, the increasing threat to the marine ecosystem, and the general foolhardiness of policymakers:

Our oceans have been the victims of a giant Ponzi
scheme, waged with Bernie Madoff–like callousness by the world’s
fisheries. Beginning in the 1950s, as their operations became
increasingly industrialized–with onboard refrigeration, acoustic
fish-finders, and, later, GPS–they first depleted stocks of cod, hake,
flounder, sole, and halibut in the Northern Hemisphere. As those stocks
disappeared, the fleets moved southward, to the coasts of developing
nations and, ultimately, all the way to the shores of Antarctica,
searching for icefishes and rockcods, and, more recently, for small,
shrimplike krill. As the bounty of coastal waters dropped, fisheries
moved further offshore, to deeper waters. And, finally, as the larger
fish began to disappear, boats began to catch fish that were smaller
and uglier–fish never before considered fit for human consumption.
Many were renamed so that they could be marketed: The suspicious
slimehead became the delicious orange roughy, while the worrisome
Patagonian toothfish became the wholesome Chilean seabass. Others, like
the homely hoki, were cut up so they could be sold sight-unseen as fish
sticks and filets in fast-food restaurants and the frozen-food aisle.

The scheme was carried out by nothing less than a fishing-industrial
complex–an alliance of corporate fishing fleets, lobbyists,
parliamentary representatives, and fisheries economists. By hiding
behind the romantic image of the small-scale, independent fisherman,
they secured political influence and government subsidies far in excess
of what would be expected, given their minuscule contribution to the
GDP of advanced economies–in the United States, even less than that of
the hair salon industry… Today,
governments provide nearly $30 billion in subsidies each year–about
one-third of the value of the global catch–that keep fisheries going,
even when they have overexploited their resource base. As a result,
there are between two and four times as many boats as the annual catch
requires, and yet, the funds to “build capacity” keep coming.

The jig, however, is nearly up. In 1950, the newly constituted Food
and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated
that, globally, we were catching about 20 million metric tons of fish
(cod, mackerel, tuna, etc.) and invertebrates (lobster, squid, clams,
etc.). That catch peaked at 90 million tons per year in the late 1980s,
and it has been declining ever since. Much like Madoff’s infamous
operation, which required a constant influx of new investments to
generate “revenue” for past investors, the global fishing-industrial
complex has required a constant influx of new stocks to continue
operation. Instead of restricting its catches so that fish can
reproduce and maintain their populations, the industry has simply
fished until a stock is depleted and then moved on to new or deeper
waters, and to smaller and stranger fish. And, just as a Ponzi scheme
will collapse once the pool of potential investors has been drained, so
too will the fishing industry collapse as the oceans are drained of

I love the Ponzi scheme metaphor.  Read the whole thing.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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