Saving the fish & the fisherfolk
Parth J. Shah
Businessworld, 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
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
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.
Back to the top