Indian Ocean

The exploitation of our seas and oceans

Luke Warren

July 7, 2020

Free-market environmentalist policies are becoming an increasingly attractive option in the fight against climate change. So could they also be of advantage to our seas and oceans, in which contemporary mismanagement and rent-seeking have caused degradation of water quality and severe exploitation of fish stocks?

If one wishes to remedy such a situation, there are a number of areas to consider, fish stocks being one. While fish are not owned per se, fishers may purchase quotas granting them the right to fish in a particular location or for a given amount. Another reform centres around the actual ownership of the sea. Currently, nations claim territorial waters as “exclusive economic zones” that extend up to 200 miles from the shore. The rest is categorised as “international waters” which, in accordance with the 1958 Convention on the High Seas, is not owned by any country.

Throughout the last few decades, there has been a notable transition by policymakers towards market-orientated policies in this area. Fishing quotas and privatising fishing rights are being operated in a market in which they can be sold, bought and leased by individuals and businesses. In Maine, the lobster population has grown from 133 million in the 1990s to 518 million in 2010 in tandem with their fishing quota system.

Studies by the University of California have demonstrated the movement from a commonly owned good to a highly valued trade-able commodity, fish stocks have enjoyed careful maintenance and protection from previous exploitation. Due in part to the conferring of property rights from the commons to the new owners. Privatising fishing rights is the best way to shield fish stocks from collapsing.

The prospect of the ownership of actual areas of the sea does not attract great attention. As the seas are owned by no-one, there is little vested interest in its protection by those who utilise it. As a result, common dumping in 2013 led to a total of 268,950 tonnes of plastic mass on the ocean surface. Individuals or businesses who own property are far more likely to conserve and sustain it rather than exploit its resources.

As it is to their advantage to ensure its continued, productive use, deterring others from dumping in their area through increased security measures, for example. Terry L. Anderson of the Hoover Institute wrote that; “owners of land don’t overgraze. Owners of trees don’t overharvest”. Creating a system of property rights for seas and oceans would help to mitigate the current disastrous situation wherein oceans are regarded as a free dumping ground.

Privately owned nature reserves already exist and thrive across the world. The Audubon Society’s Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary uses the funds it generates from granting drilling permits for natural gas to conserve its sanctuary and protect local wildlife. Private nature reserves are often credited for successfully fusing their competitive and innovative business characteristics with their core conservation objectives. Permitting them to operate in a similar manner in our sea and oceans would bring about similar benefits.

Of course, the method through which this may be achieved is a source of contention. Issues including shipping routes, the balance between “exclusive economic zones” and private property, and who possesses the right to initially sell areas of the sea would all need to be considered. However, I believe the positives of conferring property rights to private actors to outweigh the negatives.

Until more market-orientated policies are adopted, our seas and oceans will continue to suffer from runaway and unaccountable exploitation that is so recurrent on common land. However, there is a glimmer of hope. States are turning to market-orientated policies, especially fishing quotas, proving there is a real appetite for practical, market-based solutions.

Eco-socialists may well regard privatisation, capitalism and free-markets as the root of environmental damage, but the time-tested alternative of common ownership has proven to be disastrous. To end the exploitation of our seas and oceans we must implement sensible, effective market-based solutions.


Written by Luke Warren

Luke Warren is a Senior Account Executive at BCW Global


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