May 14, 2006

Sea No Evil

(Mother Jones is running a great series on the ecological destruction we are inflicting on the world’s oceans. This piece takes some of their arguments a step further.)

In environmental economics, much of the theory and many of the policy applications involve areas in which people’s individual choices have negative environmental consequences (“negative externalities” in econ-speak) for society at large. Individual freedom is sometimes pitted against the general social welfare because so much of what we consume and the ways in which we live have broad consequences for regional environments and the global ecology. One area where environmental policy faces particularly challenging problems is the harvesting of fish and seafood.

The oceans are for the most part the world’s preeminent “open access” resources; that is, resources where there are few if any property rights, and where anyone with basic equipment can enter an industry and participate. This has led to the so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario in many parts of the world where people over-fish and fisheries become severely degraded or completely collapse. Economists have advocated creating property rights systems in which fishermen (and women) share quotas that are set and enforced at sustainable yields; this gives fishermen economic incentives to preserve the resource for the long-term, instead of getting as much fish as possible before someone else does. These systems have had some success in the U.S., Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, and other regions. As an environmental economist I should be applauding these successes and pushing for more of them (which I do).

But it is not so simple. Even these programs hide a disturbing fact that most people do not want to acknowledge: commercial fishing is an inherently ecologically damaging industry no matter how well it’s done.

No matter how good the technology, or how conscientious the fisherman, catching fish in large numbers almost always includes killing marine mammals, tons of fish that are not economically viable, and severely damaging fragile underwater ecosystems. Farmed fish are no better since the farms rely on wild fish as feed for the farm-raised varieties. In addition, with so much fishing taking place thousands of miles from shore in areas that are essentially impossible to monitor, environmentally nefarious practices are commonplace. Add to this the many instances of acute environmental damage perpetrated by fisherman (e.g., shark finning, the wanton killing of sea otters, pelicans, turtles, dolphins, whales, and other marine creatures who compete for fish) and one doesn’t have to be an animal rights activist to recognize that commercial fishing involves cruel behavior that is almost impossible to regulate. (Despite the similar damage and cruelty inflicted in other forms of animal agriculture, these are much easier to regulate since they are fixed, on land, and concentrated; the only thing stopping such regulation is the lack of political will.)

I often comment that if people actually saw what really went on to bring them the fish on their plates, they probably wouldn’t eat it. And when we finally recognize the extent of the damage we have done to the oceans in our pursuit of food, it will be viewed as a catastrophe that could’ve been avoided.

There are now seafood watch cards which indicate what types of seafood are harvested in a supposedly sustainable manner, and some fishermen’s groups are arguing for better practices. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that commercial fishing represents an tremendous burden on the ocean and the creatures that live in it.

The economist in me will continue to advocate for better management policies and incentive schemes to protect the ocean, because this is the sensible thing to do. But another part of me realizes that sometimes freedom means the conscious choice not to engage in certain acts, or indulge certain desires. This part of me will continue to use moral persuasion and reason to advocate that everyone give up eating fish and seafood from commercial sources (or even completely).

At the end of the day, regulation and public policy can only go so far (and should only go so far in free societies), leaving it up to us to take the final, perhaps most difficult, steps to protect the environment and the non-human world. Ultimately, only our individual choices, guided by our consciences, will lead us to a more expansive moral sphere where the non-human world is treated with greater respect and empathy. And the sooner we take a hard look and examine the chain of events behind the products we buy, the sooner we can end some of the most egregious forms of environmental destruction.


Update: It seems like I sparked some debate at Patrick Henry College based on my piece from a couple of weeks ago (A Call for Conversational Intolerance). I look forward to seeing what they come up with and will keep you posted.

Jason Scorse