Saving the fish & the fisherfolk

Saving the fish & the fisherfolk

The Business World , March 28, 2005


The most severe impact of the tsunami in India has been on families dependent on fishing. The massive rehabilitation efforts meet the immediate needs of the affected people. But they do not address the basic problem of the fishing industry: overfishing.

Overfishing occurs because the fish or fish habitat (water) is a public resource. Anyone can use it - free access - but none has any incentive to maintain the fish population. When a fisherman catches a small fish, he does not throw it back into water for it to grow because, if he does, there is no guarantee that the next person who catches it will throw it back too. He, therefore, keeps the small fish; so does everyone else. And fish populations decline. We have to change this behaviour to protect the fish and the people dependent on fishing.

The common approaches to address this problem of overfishing have been to limit the fishing season (sometimes to only four months a year); require fishing nets to be larger, so that small fish can escape; allow only small boats or vessels with small motors; and ban trawlers or 'commercial fishing'. This maze of regulations is quite difficult to enforce along a coastline of several thousand kilometres. The result has been more corruption and harassment without any significant impact on fish depletion.

A relatively new approach is to let fishing communities manage fish populations and grant them fishing rights that are properly defined and legally enforceable. Each family gets a legal quota that permits it to catch exactly that much fish from the area. The quota is generally referred to as individual tradable quota (ITQ). The system has been implemented in Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Finland, and parts of Italy, Spain, the UK and the US. It has been an overwhelming success.

In 1979, Iceland introduced the ITQ system for herring. Given the success, it was introduced for capelin and demerol fisheries in 1980 and 1984. Finally, in 1990, the government created a uniform system of ITQ for all Icelandic fisheries. It first calculated the average amount of fish caught by each fishing family over several years. Then it gave the family a legal title to catch that amount of fish from the area every year. These quotas or legal entitlements were also made tradable. The quota owners then formed their own system to monitor and enforce the legal quotas. Every year, the association of fishermen hires experts to estimate the 'maximum sustainable yield' or 'total allowable catch'. From that, it allocates how much fish each family can catch that year.

Our fisherman in Orissa would not throw small fish back in the water. But he would if put in Iceland with the ITQ system! Why? Not because he becomes a different person or has higher awareness or consciousness. Simply because he has the right to catch the amount of fish defined by the legal title, he chooses to catch the biggest fish that fetch the highest price in the market. He voluntarily decides not to use up his quota by catching small fish. The change in the legal structure of property rights in fish changes the incentives.

Overfishing is caused by public or collective ownership. The effective remedy is to convert it into community or private property. The families with legal quotas to fish find it in their interest to take up activities to increase fish population since the benefits accrue to them directly. They themselves develop and enforce rules that increase the maximum sustainable yield.

ITQ would require modifications before it is adopted in India. Here, the majority of fishermen engage in subsistence and not commercial fishing, making allocation on quota on the basis of historical catch more difficult. The long coastline makes monitoring and enforcement more challenging. Compared to temperate waters, the tropical waters of India have many fish species. These differences demand innovative thinking, and a flexible and pluralistic approach. Nonetheless, ITQ points to a sustainable way to protect the fish and the fisherfolk.