By Tito Sasaki
You may think fishermen are our poor brothers who still hunt for wild fish in the open sea while we farmers grew out of hunter-gatherer life ten thousand years ago by cultivating plants and domesticating animals. Right? Wrong!
Some fishermen do farm, and farmed fish is now overtaking beef in annual tonnage. Thirty years ago the ratio was barely one to ten; today the two are neck-to-neck at some 70-million tons a year. Practically all Atlantic salmon sold on the market today and over 90% of shrimp consumed in the U.S. are farm-raised.
Who are the “fish farmers” and what do they raise? As you might have guessed, the leading nation in aquaculture is China which accounts for over 70% of the world production. Worldwide, the most important farmed fish are carp, salmon, tilapia, and catfish. Crustaceans, mollusks, and seaweeds now contribute about the same tonnage as fish. Technology and management of aquaculture have been advancing rapidly. The future growth in aquatic food production will come from aquaculture.
But, how about the wild-caught fish? The annual catch, hovering around 90-million tons, will likely be surpassed by aquaculture by the end of the decade. On top of the unpredictable profitability and the highest occupational risk of any industry (115 deaths per year per 100,000), commercial fishing is plagued by the “tragedy of the commons” effects.
“The Tragedy of the Commons” is a seminal paper published by biologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. It described the logical consequence of herders grazing their animals in the commons – the land open to anyone. It will inevitably lead to overgrazing and, eventually, destruction of both production and environment. This was exactly what happened to cod fishing.
In response, the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 set the conservation zone to 200 miles. By the 1980s, the Law of the Sea spread worldwide and sovereign nations all started imposing strict restrictions on coastal fishing.
Hardin postulated that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided by private ownership of the property or by regulations. For water bodies, regulations were much easier for government to impose than defining pertinent property rights. So, fishery is now under heavy regulations.
Both commercial fishing and aquaculture lag behind land-based agriculture in one crucial area: well-defined property rights. The advance of agriculture was made possible only with the development of property rights. First, geo-political units such as kingdoms were created to protect the land from invaders; then, much later, individual land ownership came into being. In fiefdoms, lords or vassals protected the lands and regulated agricultural operations therein for maximum output. Today, individual farmers exercise their own judgment for sustainable optimum operations while being protected by the state against takings.
Aquaculture needs to be on guard. A cause of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co.(DBOC) problem is the ill defined property rights. If their leases had clearly defined DBOC’s property rights, the problem could have been avoided.
We are not safe, either. The proposed Riparian Corridor zoning erodes well-defined property rights. If we lose them, we will fall into the Tragedy of the Commons, thereby losing both our future agriculture and healthy environment.