We need to debate ideas, not just jettison them.
by Don Cayo


I believe in property rights as a tool to manage the fishery. I’ve said so for years, no matter which hat I’m wearing – editor, think-tank guy or part-time columnist.

So Senator Gerald Comeau piqued my interest with his recent musings on the subject. He’s as skeptical as I am enthusiastic.

Responding in part to my previous editorials and columns and in part to others of like mind, the senator wrote that rights-based fishing has plenty of critics. And he notes that it risks creating new problems while seeking to solve old ones.

He’s right.

He concludes, “The scope and far-reaching impacts of extending property rights in the fishery are such that it would be . . . prudent to initiate a public debate on the direction of our fisheries policy than to jump on the privatization bandwagon.”

Right again. I don’t advocate jumping blindly onto any bandwagon, not even one I like. So, in the spirit of the debate we both believe in, let me respond to the senator.

The senator doesn’t say so, but he’s talking about Individual Transferable Quotas. Fair enough – these ITQs are the main method that people like me suggest as a way to implement a rights-based fishery.

He begins by reciting the theoretical advantages: no more mad race for fish and secure to access to the resource when people own a long-term right to the stock; extended fishing seasons and sensible planning of capital expenditures both asea and ashore when fishermen can land their catch at a time of their choosing.

Then he suggests that the T in ITQ – “transferable”, or able to be bought and sold – creates a powerful tool for rationalization. If some fishermen sell out, fewer will be left to harvest the stocks.

That, too, may be true – but it’s not the way I look at it. Rather, I see it as a potentially graceful out for people whose other alternative is the dole. No matter how we manage future fisheries, we’ll never again see so many fishermen putting out to sea. Not in our lifetimes. Blame who you will, but the fish are too far gone for that.

So which is better, Senator Comeau? That former fishermen have something valuable they can sell to help finance their retirement? Or that they don’t?

On his next point, I think the senator is wrong. “It is no secret,” he writes, “that individual quotas provide a strong incentive to misreport and intentionally reject low-value catches for higher valued fish. This destructive and wasteful practice, known as ‘high-grading’, is perhaps the most damaging feature of individual quota management, making enforcement, monitoring and surveillance more problematic and costly.”

But the incentive for high-grading is not ITQs; rather it’s short-sightedness and greed. This wasteful practice is perhaps most tempting in a system that provides individual quotes that are neither long-term nor transferable. But high-grading is and has been a problem for a long time. People throw back the little ones, or the undesirable ones, when they see a chance to fill the hold with something worth more.

And high-grading becomes least tempting when you add “long-term” and “transferable” to a fisherman’s quota. It provides an incentive for stewardship. If they take care of their resource this year, their “property” – the ITQ – will be worth more next year. It works for farming, and it can work for fish. Nothing but good sense prevents a potato farmer from “mining” his soil, and a few may do so. But most don’t. They build assets when they tread lightly on their land; they provide for the future as well as today.

The senator’s final point is tougher to refute. He’s concerned about concentration of ownership – not an inevitable result of property rights, but a possible one – and the impact on smaller fishing communities if ITQ ownership concentrates, regardless of the number of owners, in just a few places.

That’s a concern I share. In spades. But I balance it with my other nightmare scenario. What happens if we continue on our current path – a mad race stayed only occasionally by fishery closures; inept and politicized management by Ottawa; way too much capacity and way too little earning power for the people trying to wrest a living from the sea; high-grading galore as fishermen struggle to make the payments? That scenario means no winners whatever, instead of some winners and some losers. And that looks worse to me.

My best hope is that a way will be found to integrate some sensible and responsible aspects of community management, and some opportunities for less-than-huge scale operators, in a property rights regime. That won’t happen easily. And the difficult details won’t be worked out in detail in a think-tank office in Halifax or Saint John, or in the Senate Chamber in Ottawa. They’ll be worked out, if at all, through the process of debate and discussion with everybody who’s involved, directly or indirectly.

So thank you for nudging this debate along, Senator Comeau. And thank you for your civil, reasoned tone. I hope that you – and a lot of others like you who are willing to look at both sides – continue to weigh alternatives and to chew on this difficult, urgent issue.