Technology vs the Tragedy of the Commons

Global fishing stocks are collapsing due to the tragedy of the commons and the resulting overfishing. Technology, however, suggests a possible solution:

Global Fishing Watch is the product of a technology partnership between SkyTruth, Oceana, and Google that is designed to show all of the trackable fishing activity in the ocean….

The tool uses a global feed of vessel locations extracted from Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking data collected by satellite, revealing the movement of vessels over time. The system automatically classifies the observed patterns of movement as either “fishing” or “non-fishing” activity.

This version of the Global Fishing Watch started with 3.7 billion data points, more than a terabyte of data from two years of satellite collection, covering the movements of 111,374 vessels during 2012 and 2013. We ran a behavioral classification model that we developed across this data set to identify when and where fishing behavior occurred. The prototype visualization contains 300 million AIS data points covering over 25,000 unique vessels. For the initial fishing activity map, the data is limited to 35 million detections from 3,125 vessels that we were able to independently verify were fishing vessels. Global Fishing Watch then displays fishing effort in terms of the number of hours each vessel spent engaged in fishing behavior, and puts it all on a map that anyone with a web browser will be able to explore.

Can vessels turn AIS off?

Sure, but that is certain to draw attention, like wearing a trenchcoat and sunglasses on a hot summer day. Global Fishing Watch will enable us to flag suspicious behaviors like suddenly disappearing, or appearing as if from nowhere, or jumping 1,000 miles and appearing to fish in the middle of Asia. It will give us the opportunity to identify who may have something to hide, and who is operating openly and transparently. Secondly, more countries and intergovernmental agencies like Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) are requiring AIS use within their waters, so more fishing vessels will be legally compelled to use AIS in the coming years. Many already are. For example, as of May 2014, all European Union-flagged fishing vessels over 15 meters in length are required to use AIS. Perhaps most importantly, AIS was primarily designed as a safety mechanism to help avoid collisions at sea. Turning off your AIS just to avoid being tracked puts your vessel and crew at risk of being run down by a cargo ship in the middle of the night.

Mark this as another example of the end of asymmetric information.

Hat tip: GHABS.


Fishing has always demanded creativity in property rights.

Elinor Ostrom won the Econ Nobel a half dozen years ago, in part for thinking hard about fisheries.

That's fine as far as it goes, but why can't GPS location data be used to award "acreage" to one "owner" on the high seas, for the exclusive use of that owner?

Perhaps if you "owned" one section of water, you could develop your section, such as building artificial reefs or some other way to encourage the growth of wild stocks of fish in that section, to which you would have exclusive access?

Long and bloody wars were fought to arrive at the present situation of "exclusive economic zones" and "international waters".

I think fisheries depletion is a larger on international waters. From the activity heat maps on the links, it seems a few countries (Chile, Argentina, Japan, New Zealand, Namibia, Mozambique) are fishing intensively inside their exclusive economic zones. The rest of the fishing activity is on international waters.

So, good idea but what kind of agreement needs to be developed to assure the ownership of international waters?

The main point had already been made. Establishing such rights would be very hard. I also think it missed the problem. It's the fish, not the water. Unlike cows who can be fenced in, fish may wander. Bluefin Tuna, for example, migrate across the Pacific covering distances from Japan to California. You could under fish your section of water to promote population growth only to have your hard work undermined the second the fish swim out of your zone into someone else's. You'd have the incentive to catch any and all fish in your zone before they leave it since the next person in the migration path may just catch them all.

A classic example, Swordfish spend part of the year off Maine, and part off Bermuda. (The Doryman's Reflection is a good book on practical problems.)

"only to have your hard work undermined " Not fishing is hard work?

Try to educate people and build an incentive and compensation structure to stop an economic activity ie fishing. There's your hardwork.

That's no where near as difficult as working the deck of a North Pacific limit seiner.

My intention is not to minimize this transparency effort. Indeed, this level of accountability is outstanding.

However, overfishing is not the only cause of fisheries depletion. Most fish need a special habitat to reproduce and this habitat is found inside exclusive economic zones. This habitat is affected by pollution, degradation of coral reefs and coastal mangrove, etc. People drawing the boundary between fishing and overfishing work based on the estimated total biomass of a certain fish stock. The variable they can control to manage the stock is just fishing, there's no control over fish reproduction success. So, a very interesting optimization and management problem.

Well said. Fish (salmon, shad, rockfish) will come back if given a chance, but constant overfishing usually means the fish are driven to extinction (Orange Roughy, which takes decades to reach maturity).

I think fishing in the wild for commercial purposes is simply not sustainable given the present human population. I've stopped eating fish by and large.

North Atlantic Cod might be making a comeback, but 25 years is longer than anyone expected at the time.

Fish is a really healthy food, but the human to fish ratio is sadly off.

I think fishing in the wild for commercial purposes is simply not sustainable given the present human population.

Sadly it seems that the enlightened "progressives" of today think that farmed fish is evil and prefer "wild caught" as much as "local" and "organic".

There are two honest scientific reasons fish farming can be bad. One is that it is done inshore and pollutes low-flow coastal waters with waste and antibiotics. The other is that massive amounts of antibiotics are used. I'd worry that cheap shrimp in the supermarket was fed waste and then doped up to compensate.

Best practices would be deep water or high flow locations, needing lower quantities of pharmaceuticals, but of course that's more expensive.

Thus wild caught salmon, from a sustainable fishery, becomes the lower-impact choice.

Since there aren't really any sustainable fisheries in the wild, it's really more a matter of whether you care more about local water pollution or global fish stocks. Maybe the better option is to purchase the "best-practices" ethically farmed fish.
Also since local pollution is much, much easier to control, this is much more likely to be made sustainable. We know how to internalize the costs of pollution on local waters. You can make the fish farmers eat the costs of any pollution they generate. The problem with international fisheries is not as easily solved.

I mention The Doryman’s Reflection above. It mentions Alaskan halibut as a success. Maybe there is a combination a non-migrating species and good management.

Too bad about the mercury, but they say coal is in big decline these days.

Hazel - having a sustainable fishery with current analytical abilities is not at all difficult for fisheries where all the main action happens within the territory of the same nation. This applies for several important fisheries in Canada, for example. The difficulty is when politics enters the question. And when the fishermen tell the scientists, "We've been fishing these waters for 50 generations, so don't think you know more than I do" or when immediate jobs are prioritized over sustainability.

And, as anon said, there are very legitimate scientific concerns relating to fish farms. I'm more with your line of thinking on this question, but the argument is definitely not clear cut.

"the enlightened 'progressives'"
How's it going Captain Ahab?

"It will give us the opportunity to identify who may have something to hide ... so more fishing vessels will be legally compelled..."

So knee-jerk police-state tactics are required to cure this supposed fishing problem-- more intense, high tech surveillance of all boats and of course more laws & law enforcers?
Why is this the instant prime solution?

The allegation that "Global fishing stocks are collapsing" is a highly questionable presumption. But even if correct, primary economic forces would act to minimize the impact.

What happens to prices and demand when the supply of a commodity is sharply reduced?
And all types of fish/seafood don't experience identical supply problems-- there are many alternatives in fish and food for consumers.
But government and police tactics are always the first and best solution for economic problems.

Highly likely that the people behind this scream about the NSA and government snooping. Its different when they do it though.

"primary economic forces would act to minimize the impact."

Fisheries can be fished away to the point of unrecoverable collapse.

Also, as opposed to the absurd level of monitoring that Americans are willing to hand over to unaccountable actors in the deep state for very questionable gains (never mind the HUGE risks this could imply for democracy and freedom), in this case there's actually an economic rationale for monitoring, with no serious infringement on broader freedoms.

"Global Fishing Watch then displays fishing effort in terms of the number of hours each vessel spent engaged in fishing behavior, and puts it all on a map that anyone with a web browser will be able to explore."

How is this a possible solution to overfishing?

They want the mob to mau mau fishing companies.

I struggle to comprehend the mind that things that the DWF enforcement of creel limits is some incredibly unjust infringement on one's rights, and thinks a much better solution is to give mobs the tools they need to enforce street justice,

A well informed public is better poised to drive intelligent policy decisions.

Even if that's true, it still isn't even close to a possible solution to overfishing. Whatever happened to underpromise and overdeliver?

Among other things, you know if they're fishing in waters they're not authorized to fish in, or perhaps can estimate catches as a function of hours spent fishing. Actually, I'm not sure. But I don't think they would have mentioned it if they didn't already have a solid data extrapolation in mind.

Tracking. Soon enough everyone will know how many times a day I visit the men's room (and how long I am in there). Neil Irwin's most recent column in The Upshot addresses the lull in productivity growth. But he concludes with the Happy Scenario of driverless cars. Irwin doesn't mention tracking. Why would Google invest large sums in driverless cars? Tracking. And Driving. In a driverless car, not only will Google identify the place where you should go eat but will drive you there. How convenient. Especially for those businesses that pay billions to Google to be on its advertising platform. With driverless cars not only will Google know where you have been, Google will know where you are going. Technology. It's such a wonderful thing.

I imagine that the advertising platforms in driverless cars will mostly be for middle class wage slaves. Wealthy people will surely pay full price for the car and enjoy an advertisement-free experience.

AIS is, for the most part, required for larger vessels (>65ft). This is why the map shows most fishing in international waters. There's probably more fishing going on world-wide that's not shown than there is highlighted here.

The Western nations will abide by efforts to limit fishing and the communist and 3rd world nations will not.

The British Navy made a reasonable dent in the international slave trade well before there was an international consensus that it was illegal.

Some people may not like this answer, but I think we should allow nations to claim sovereignty over nearby fishing grounds, like Canada's claim to the Grand Banks. Canada can then decide how to manage those grounds and has a military to enforce it's rule. Fish tend to cluster near coastlines so this would solve nearly all of the problem, if every nation chose to manage it's fisheries effectively. Whether they do it via catch-shares or quotas or what would be up to them. Sometimes it wouldn't work obviously, but nations that did so effectively would benefit in the long run, so there would be an incentive to get it right. The problem right now is that anyone from anywhere in the world can come and fish off your coastlines and there's nothing you can do about it under international law.

Every now and then Portuguese or Spanish vessels get impounded by the coast guard on the east coast of Canada. The continental shelf extends somewhat beyond the normal 200 mile exclusive economic zone, but the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) extends the exclusive economic zone for precisely such cases.

This is a problem in parts of the world where states are weak and/or where there are overlapping claims to certain waters. E.g. East Africa or the South China Sea.

"Global fishing stocks are collapsing due to the tragedy of the commons and the resulting overfishing."

They have been for some time now. There was a Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas negotiated in 1958 because of "overfishing".

Still plenty of fish though.

This is Global Warming, Part II. The same wild claims {no fish by 2048!!!!] and the same players [UN and environmental groups] supported by grant hungry scientists.

Influential environmentalists have been quoted yearning for the death of billions of humans. The environmental arguments are emotionally convincing and the true believer environmentalists at the top are consequentialist machiavelliens. The desires for grant money, cocktail party invitations, and professional acclaim are powerful. Ultimately, the environmentalists are right about humanities necessary negative impact against the lesser species it competes against. If you are an intelligent coward, you will agree with the environmentalist argument, but be afraid to say 'kill humans' as the pioneers of environmentalism did, or 'humans are rightly superior' as the people who see a value to reason do. Here you have your grant-seeking scientists.

By similar logic, deforestation is not an issue in Indonesia, because they're still logging.

"This is Global Warming, Part II."

You're as dumb as a fucking ashtray.

When was the last time you had cod from the Atlantic?

Thanks, I forgot about #4 in the global warming handbook, call your opponents names.

One species in one specific area [25 years ago} is not evidence of a general problem.

The passenger pigeon was hunted to extinction 100+ years ago, no shortage of pigeons.

You forgot about #1 in the speaking about things you know about handbook. It's called go learn something.

The flip side of fishing (extraction) is consumption. Supply equals demand.

So, if it is difficult to allocate fishing rights, that does not mean that it is difficult to allocate the right to purchase other words, countries would be allocated the amount of fish they could consume, and fisherman would bid to supply those quantities up to the amount that could be allocated to that country.

How will you manage intra-national rationing? Price is "unfair". How will you manage international rationing? US military action is "imperialistic". How will you punish the starving consumers of illegal fish? How about their dealers? The road to sefdom is paved by the fatal conceit that two of your sentences, applied with top down authoritarianism, can solve problems for billions of people. What IS wrong with Kansas, Bill? Don't they see that a militarily dominant works government run by Bill or someone Bill approves of is the solution to everything? I mean, do you know how many different toothpaste products are on the shelves at grocers - Bernie has a point.

Supply equals demand.

If supply is restricted, the price will go up and demand will fall until it reaches equilibrium.

in other words, countries would be allocated the amount of fish they could consume

This is majorly retarded. This would create massive arbitrage opportunities between rich countries willing to pay a high price for fish and poor countries with a large "need" for food. What you get is a lot of corrupt officials in poor countries getting rich selling their allocated fish to richer countries. Instead of actual fishermen benefiting from the "value of their labor" (I'll put it in Marxist terms to make it easier for you to understand).

Not retarded. Just not economically literate.

So what if countries that want fish exchange their allocations to countries that do not want fish.

If you restrict supply by allocating fishing rights you get the same results by allocating to each country the amount of fish they can consume, with less oversight (because you are monitoring countries) than you get by monitoring fishing vessels.

Hazel and Nathan, I can see you have difficulty getting your head around this, so maybe I can illustrate with a current example> Let's say countries set goals on how much carbon they will produce collectively and individually. They cap it. Now, think fish.

Carbon moves around a global atmosphere. Fish are restricted to certain geographic areas, even though some of them cross over many areas during different stages of their life cycle. It's different.

And, fish eaters do not move around. They eat in their country. It is easier for buyers to monitor their consumption than it is to police ships floating on the ocean.

That's a pretty good idea, Bill. The question is whether it would be gamed as easily as current rules.

Not that simple, if supply falls then prices will rise, making it even more profitable for fishermen to sell whatever fish they can catch, See tigers and rhinos and chinese traditional medicine, near extinction of those species has not dampen demand, just makes it incredibly profitable for a poacher to go for the few remaining specimens..

Response to comments:

1. Re allocation leading to price increases. Think about it. If you restrict fishing (the other alternative) will price go up or down. This is just the flip side. (By the way, price may actually go down relative to the alternative of restricting supply: look up M A Adelman's model for a monopsonistic buyer to disrupt OPEC, or the Japanese supply coop that purchases fertilizer on behalf of all farmers, lowering the price below the competitive market. All that is irrelevant, however, since if you restrict fishing, you also increase price.

Have any of you guys ever looked at the intersection of a supply and demand curve? Hazel, if the S curve shifts from countries restricting fishing it is no different than the D curve shifting to get the same Q.

2. Allocation agreements among nations on their allotment to purchase are no different than allocation agreements among countries on fishing rights.

In case my response was too opaque for relying on the socratic method, it is clear that if you restrict supply price rises, just as if you allocate allotments to purchase raises prices. Both have the effect of setting Q, either Q(s) or Q(d).

You can't arbitrarily shift the demand curve just by setting quotas. People want what they want. Like, you can try, but there are 7 billion people and a comparatively smaller number of fishing vessels. Ridiculously easier to control supply than demand. And never mind that quotas and rationing would completely screw with all the price signals which would mean that for what fish was caught, the fishing companies would receive much less money for the average pound of fish. It's a lose lose situation. At least with supply restriction they can enjoy higher prices. They might even make MORE money with restricted supply.

Nathan, If you restrict fishing, you are also messing with price signals the same way. May I suggest you do some reading on a subject called Market Design.

If you restrict the supply, the product will flow to where it can get the highest price. This implies happier consumers who can get what they want and happier producers (and their workers) who get more money.

For an analogy that will seem more obvious, a quota system would see Americans eating chicken feet, which they hate, instead of selling them to the Chinese, who love to eat chicken feet. And meanwhile, chicken producers would have to sell to people who will pay pennies for the dollar for what others are willing to pay for it.

The goal is to restrict the amount fished to preserve stocks, perhaps even for an optimal long-term harvest. Target the first order thing - the people fishing. Demand side quotas will just lead to less happy consumers and less happy workers/companies.

Nathan, You are missing the obvious. How do you get others to restrict supply if the restricted supply goes to you, and not some share to them. This is a simply allocation scheme, designed to share both the benefits and burdens. You do not gain anything, either, by creating a straw man argument when I quite clearly said that supply would be allocated among participants. And, since you also chose to ignore the point that states or entities could exchange allocations or sell them you seem to miss that point as well.

Nathan, there are some really good books on market design. Look up Roth, and look up Vulcan, Roth and Neeman.

I thought libertarians don't believe in concepts like tragedy of the commons and negative externalities.

"Technology, however, suggests a possible solution...."

Of course technology is the cause of the problem, if, indeed, there is one. Advances in fishing equipment technology, like the Puretic power block, civilian sonar and LORAN are what have made big catches possible.

I live in Bangladesh, a South Asian country with 160 million people. It is one of the most densely populated countries on earth and many people suffer from lack of protein. We are mostly a fish eating nation. What I understand is that if European countries fall short of catching fish then they will just pay some more money and import from countries like ours. It is perhaps inevitable and will happen within 10-15 years. We already export our best quality and largest lobsters. On the plus side, fish can become expensive and bring a lot of foreign currencies for developing countries.

1kg of fish can buy many kg of chick peas and lentils. On the plus side of AGW, Bangladesh will have a larger area for fisheries. Are the AGW alarmists properly accounting for this benefits side of the equation?

Why not just track prices.

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