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A Lunch BIT from Saving Global Fisheries by J. Samuel Barkin and Elizabeth R. DeSombre

The Earth’s oceans are overfished, despite more than fifty years of cooperation among the world’s fishing nations. In the following excerpt from Regulatory Capture: A BIT of Saving Global Fisheries, J. Samuel Barkin and Elizabeth R. DeSombre outline the limits of current global regulatory and policy approaches to fisheries management, describing the “capture” of regulation by industry.

Although the fishing industry is small in most countries relative to the size of the overall economy, the governance of fishing often has an undue bureaucratic prominence. This industry is in some instances one of very few (along with agriculture and finance) whose regulators have representation at the cabinet level in national governments. It is also arguably the only resource-extraction industry for which as a general rule there is no regulatory oversight by separate environmental regulators who are bureaucratically distinct from the industry regulator. Furthermore, the core constituency of fisheries regulators is often unclear. These regulators are generally asked, as a central element of their mission, to manage national fishery resources and to contribute to the management of international fishery resources with an eye to both sustainability and maximum yield.

But regulators are often also called upon to help maintain the socioeconomic character of existing commercial fishing communities and cultures, a goal that is not necessarily compatible with resource sustainability. For example, the fisheries regulator in Peru, home of the world’s second-largest catch in years with good anchovy runs, is tasked “to balance the sustainable use of aquatic living resources, conservation of the environment and socio-economic development.” Furthermore, fisheries regulators are often participants in government efforts to use fishery resources either as a vehicle for industrial development or as a way to extract rent in the form of license fees from either the domestic industry or from foreign governments. The potential conflicts among these demands on fisheries regulators serve to undermine ecologically effective fisheries management.

Some countries have cabinet-level departments or ministries devoted exclusively or primarily to fisheries. Norway, for example, has a Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs; Canada has a Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans; Malaysia has a Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries; and Vietnam has a Ministry of Fisheries. In the EU, which is an important actor in global fisheries regulation, the Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the equivalent of a cabinet-level department, is run by a commissioner, the EU equivalent of a cabinet minister.

A more common bureaucratic structure is for fisheries regulation to be a second-tier bureaucracy within a cabinet-level department or ministry. In most European countries with large fishing industries, for example, the fisheries regulator is housed within the Ministry of Agriculture or its equivalent (a significant exception is Spain, where a recent reorganization has left it as part of the Ministry of Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs). In Peru, it is part of the Ministry of Production and Economy, and in Chile it is part of the Ministry of Development and Reconstruction. In some cases, fisheries regulation shares a cabinet-level designation with agriculture, as in Japan, Russia, and Bangladesh (in the latter case, the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock).

Only rarely are fisheries regulators to be found in third-tier bureaucracies in countries with substantial fishing industries (examples include the United States, where the Fisheries Service is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, itself part of the Department of Commerce, and India, where fisheries are managed from within the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying in the Ministry of Agriculture).

Complicating the picture of fisheries regulation is a frequent problem of multilevel governance. This problem is most straightforward at the international level, where regulation of high-seas fisheries can only be accomplished cooperatively rather than authoritatively. But significant problems exist in federal and supranational systems as well. In federal systems such as the United States and Canada, individual states and provinces have rights over some aspects of fisheries governance, but not all. In the United States, for example, individual states have regulatory authority out to three miles, but the federal government has authority in the EEZ. Furthermore, governments at the state/provincial level can become political proponents and subsidizers of local fishing industries, knowing that the political costs of effective fisheries regulation will likely be born by the federal government. This phenomenon is known in the rational choice literature as “cheap talk,” so called because lower levels of government can express political support for the industry and hope to get its support in turn, knowing that difficult but necessary management decisions are the responsibility of a different level of government.

The EU case in this context is similar to that of a federal system, but one with a particularly weak central government. The EU, through the European Commission, has the authority to regulate fisheries resources in EU waters, but national-level governments often promote and subsidize their national fishing industries in competition with other EU members’ industries. The EU is, however, weaker as a fisheries regulator than most federal governments. Although the commission has the authority to regulate fish catches and impose quotas, it does not have any independent capacity to monitor and enforce its rules. It counts on national governments to do so with respect to their own fishers, which creates a classic free-rider problem and the kind of two-level enforcement game discussed in chapter 3. In addition, national governments have a much stronger direct voice in EU-level governance than do most lower levels of government in federal systems. Thus, the least responsible governments from a fisheries management perspective, such as Spain, have a greater ability to affect EU-level decisions and to undermine effective management than do lower-level governments in federal systems. The effect of this two-level process is sufficiently pronounced that the EU fisheries commissioner recently characterized the common fisheries policy as a “disaster.”

These problems of multilevel governance contribute to lighter regulation than would otherwise be the case and to greater levels of subsidization. The problem of regulatory levels is exacerbated by the frequent absence of outside environmental oversight of fisheries regulators. Industry regulators control rights to and levels of resource extraction. To the extent that there is any involvement of environmental bureaucracies in oversight of fishing practices, it generally focuses not on levels of extraction per se, but on the negative externalities of extraction, in particular pollution. Pollution from fishing vessels is indeed often regulated either by environmental regulators or by international treaty. But this regulation does not intersect with the problem of overfishing, leaving the issue of overfishing to be overseen only by the industry regulator.

The absence of outside environmental oversight is a problem in this case because of the multiple demands placed on fisheries regulators. When an industry regulator shares oversight responsibility with an environmental regulator, the latter’s bureaucratic focus can generally be assumed to be the control of environmental externalities rather than the health of the industry in question (although industry capture of environmental bureaucracies can be a problem as well). For example, in the United States the Environmental Protection Agency would be expected to evaluate the environmental effects of a new coalmine before approving it, but we would not expect it to be arguing for the subsidization of the coal industry at the same time. That is precisely what happens in most fisheries bureaucracies. Outcomes, in terms of the trade-off between the industry’s environmental impact and the economic cost to the industry of minimizing that impact, can be understood as the result of political and bureaucratic competition between two regulators, each of which has a clear and distinct priority. But in the case of fisheries regulators, there are often no clear priorities within the one regulator whose focus is the level and type of fishing activity and no external bureaucracy to focus on the direct environmental impacts of that fishing activity (rather than its externalities). And in cases where the priorities are clear, environmental sustainability is likely not to be the focus.

  • Posted at 11:08 am on Mon, 10 Feb 2014 in


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