Property rights can rejuvenate British fisheries after Brexit

Ben Ramanauskas

August 30, 2018

It’s war! British and French vessels have been squaring off in the English Channel where a number of skirmishes have broken out. However, this is not Pitt the Younger versus Napoleon, nor is it (thankfully) May against Macron. This is not a war between two nations states, but rather a battle between the fishermen of both countries. They are not fighting over land or ideology, but rather over scallops.

French fishermen sent 40 vessels to prevent British fishermen from trawling for scallops. Boats have been rammed, objects thrown, and insults exchanged. The French police have promised to send boats in an effort to prevent the situation from escalating any further.

But this has not been the first time that scallop fishing has caused tension between the UK and France. A deal was struck which saw larger vessels staying away from the area, in return for more fishing rights. However, a report from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea warned that the fishing effort in the Bay of Seine by France, the UK, Belgium and Ireland was “too high”.

All of this raises plenty of questions about the future relationship between the UK and the EU in the light of Brexit, but also about fishing rights in general.

Fishing in the territorial waters and exclusive economic zones of the UK and other member states of the EU is regulated by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). A policy that has been disastrous for fishermen, consumers and the environment.

Under the CFP, fishermen from other EU member states have the right to catch fish in UK waters. This, coupled with quotas placed on the number of fish caught, has resulted in fish stocks in British waters being depleted, and in turn, the number of fish caught by British fishermen has decreased.

In 1970, before the UK’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC), British fishermen landed 948,000 tonnes of fish. In post-accession 1975, this figure had decreased to 842,000 tonnes. The number of fish landed by UK fishermen has continued to decrease over the years and the figure stood at 415,000 tonnes in 2015.

The impact of the CFP on the amount of fish landed by UK fishermen is illuminated further when one considers the international situation. Although UK vessels land a large amount of fish compared with other EU countries, they land far fewer than vessels from countries which are not bound by the CFP, such as Norway and Iceland.

This decrease has placed immense pressure on fishermen in the UK. This drop in supply, coupled with an increase in demand, has led to an increase in prices for consumers. Indeed, perversely, the quota means that a huge number of dead and dying fish have to be thrown back into the sea too.

Brexit gives us the opportunity to re-think the UK’s fishing policy, and to design a policy in which fishermen, consumers and the environment all benefit.

Because one of the main problems with fisheries at the moment is that they are, in effect, a resource open and available to all. As such, people have an incentive to use the resource as much as possible before someone else uses it themselves.

This is what the economist William Forster Lloyd called the tragedy of the commons, where the resource is overused and depleted. Murray Rothbard, too, stated: “Anyone can capture fish in the ocean, or extract its resources, but only on the run, only as hunters and gatherers. No one can farm the ocean, no one can engage in aquaculture. In this way, we are deprived of the use of the immense fish and mineral resources of the seas.”

One solution to this problem is the granting and enforcement of property rights. This could be achieved by following the example of countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, and some American states. In these jurisdictions, fishermen are granted permits which allow them to catch a certain amount of fish in a sustainable way. All caught fish are landed, and no dead or dying fish are thrown back to the sea. If vessels exceed their allowance then they must buy or trade quotas from other vessels.

Such an approach has been a great success. Consumers get affordable fish at stable prices, fisherman can make a profit, and it means that fish stocks are far less likely to collapse.

An alternative method would be to grant individuals and organisations property rights over specific areas of the ocean where they would be able to catch any fish within their jurisdiction.

This approach on a larger scale could also help to tackle pollution. Oil spillages and plastic dumped into the ocean have a devastating impact on marine life and those responsible are seldom held to account. However, if individuals and organisations had property rights over areas of the oceans and the marine life living there, they would be able to enforce these rights and sue the person or business responsible.

As for Britain in particular, Brexit gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect the oceans, ensure that fishermen can make a living from their work, and make sure that consumers can enjoy seafood at a reasonable price. Property rights are the way to achieve these noble goals.


Written by Ben Ramanauskas

Ben Ramanauskas is a research economist at Oxford University and a former adviser to the International Trade Secretary.


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