08 October 2009

The end of fish

Daniel Pauly writes:
One study, published in the prestigious journal Science, forecast that, by 2048, all commercial fish stocks will have “collapsed,” meaning that they will be generating 10 percent or less of their peak catches. ....There is no need for an end to fish, or to fishing for that matter. But there is an urgent need for governments to free themselves from the fishing-industrial complex ..., to stop subsidizing the fishing-industrial complex and awarding it fishing rights, when it should in fact pay for the privilege to fish. Daniel Pauly, Aquacalypse Now, 'The New Republic', 28 September
Yes, a vital first step, and one that we seem incapable of taking in agriculture as well as fisheries, is to stop subsidising environmental destruction. That's necessary, but hardly sufficient. Rejigging the incentives is crucial, as Mr Pauly suggests. But if, as Mr Pauly also says, '[t]he truth is that governments are the only entities that can prevent the end of fish,' then we are in a sorry state indeed (as we are when dealing with other urgent global challenges - see my previous post, about climate change). Government's incentives are different from those of the people they represent, and they are certainly different from the wider interests of the world's human population.

So how would Social Policy Bonds try to avert the impending collapse of world fisheries? First: stipulate a goal. Governments are more likely to agree on a desirable outcome, than they are the means of reaching it. And ordinary people are more likely to get involved when policy is seen to be about meaningful outcomes than about surreptitiously subsidising favoured interest groups. So we could expect that national governments, influenced by genuine public participation, will collectively decide that the survival of the world's fisheries are a worthwhile goal. The definition will be subject to negotiation and fine tuning of course. Most likely 'survival' would include an array of stock and flow variables that would have to fall into stipulated ranges for the target to be deemed met. But once the goal has been defined, governments, under the auspices of some global body, would undertake to redeem the 'Fisheries Survival Bonds' that they back, once the target had been met and sustained for a lengthy period.

The effect would be to generate financial incentives for people to take care of the world's fisheries. Of course there would be difficulties with this approach. But I'd expect they'd be mostly semantic (what is 'a fishery'? 'what is survival?') and technical (how do we measure the health of a fishery?) and therefore solvable. What's clear is that the current course is heading for calamity. Has anyone got any better idea?

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