Crises – economic, ecological or both – hit the Atlantic fishery about once a decade, disrupting thousands of lives, weakening and destroying companies and costing government tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. With a long history of failed fixes, perhaps it’s time to ask if something is fundamentally wrong with Canada’s approach to fisheries management, if a different approach could produce superior results.

That’s the question examined in Taking Ownership: Property Rights and Fishery Management on the Atlantic Coast, a book published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. Featuring contributions from some of the world’s foremost fisheries experts, the book examines Canada current fisheries regime – based chiefly on common property, and government regulations and enforcement – and the emerging alternative, based on the establishment of property rights in the fisheries, usually through individual transferable quotas.

In his Introduction to Taking Ownership, AIMS president Brian Lee Crowley, who edited the book, describes the problem with a common ownership regime. “Fishers’ licences give them no right to a share of the catch, but only a right to put their lines or nets or traps in the water… Each fishing season becomes an ever-more-harrowing high-tech race to catch an unpredictable share of a dwindling resource.”

Memorial University President A. W. May, a former federal deputy minister of fisheries, addresses the same question in his Foreword to Taking Ownership. “The single overwhelming feature which bedevils attempts to produce prosperity and stability in the fishing industry is the common-property nature of resource exploitation. What is everybody’s property is nobody’s responsibility.”

Compare this, Crowley says, to a regime based on property rights, where each participant owns a set share of the total allowable catch. Now the property owners have an incentive to conserve the overall stocks, and thus their share of the stocks, rather than an incentive to fish as quickly and intensively as possible to enlarge their share of the catch. The fishers’ focus moves from increasing the amount of unprocessed resource that can be pulled from the sea to augmenting the value of their share of the catch.

“The owner becomes a powerful decision maker about what is to be done with the resource, a decision maker, moreover, who benefits directly each time the resource is put to a use which is more highly valued by customers in the market place. This means that the owner has a powerful reason to devote considerable time and attention to finding these more valued uses. The result is that society gets its natural resources efficiently: the minimum of resources is invested in order to achieve the most valuable uses,” Crowley says.

Taking Ownership examines how property rights can be put in place in a fishery; the limited experience with property rights in the Atlantic Canadian fishery as well as the experience in nations with more fully established property rights; the ecological implications of property rights; the alternative of “community” ownership of the fishery; international legal questions; and the role of technology in establishing property rights.

“This book outlines an alternative regime based on individual property rights in the harvesting of marine resources. It provides both the theoretical underpinnings of rights-based fisheries exploitation and a summary of practical experience in a variety of jurisdictions. It provides the basis for a consideration of alternatives, and for an informed public debate on those alternatives,” May says.


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