The Tragedy of the Marine Commons

I’ve made this parody before:

Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat until the fish are extinct.

All indications are that our grandkids won’t be big fans of sashimi, as it will either be too expensive for them, or virtually non-existent, because we have driven the large fish species to (or near) extinction.  We’ve been making fish smaller, and less plentiful for millennia.  This is no huge surprise.  We ate all the tasty North American megafauna when we got here too.  We were hungry, and we didn’t know any better.  The world and its resources seemed vast beyond our comprehension.

Bluefin tuna in Tokyo fetch $25,000 each.
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License by Sanctu

The situation today is tragic partly because we know exactly what we’re doing, and partly because we could be sustainably harvesting vastly more fish today than we are currently mining at an unsustainable rate, if only we could somehow contrive to let fish stocks rebound to their Pleistocene levels.  At those very high (pre-human) stocking rates, the sustainable take would be enormous, but we would have to manage the harvest carefully with quotas (which we didn’t do the first time around, and which we are much better equipped to do now).  Such quotas are sometimes discussed as if they were purely economic or political quantities, but in some important ways they are neither.

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