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How to Make Individual Transferable Quotas Work Economically, Socially, and Environmentally

Summary and Keywords

The economic tool of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) gives their owners exclusive and transferable rights to catch a given portion of the total allowable catch (TAC) of a given fish stock. Authorities establish TACs and then divide them among individual fishers or firms in the form of individual catch quotas, usually a percentage of the TAC. ITQs are transferable through selling and buying in an open market. The main arguments by proponents of ITQs is that they eliminate the need to “race for the fish” and thus increase economic returns while eliminating overcapacity and overfishing. In general, fisheries’ management objectives consist of ecological (sustainable use of fish stocks), economic (no economic waste), and social (mainly the equitable distribution of fisheries benefits) issues. There is evidence to show that ITQs do indeed reduce economic waste and increase profits for those remaining in fisheries. However, they do not perform well in terms of sustainability or socially. A proposal that integrates ITQs in a comprehensive and effective ecosystem-based fisheries management system that is more likely to perform much better than ITQs with respect to ecological, economic, and social objectives is presented in this article.

Keywords: economic incentive, property rights, fish quotas, ecosystem-based fisheries management, auctions

Introduction

There is general consensus that the world’s wild fish stocks are susceptible to overfishing (Bolster et al., 2012; Pauly et al., 2002) and that many are indeed currently overfished (FAO, 2012; Pauly & Zeller, 2016; Worm et al., 2006). The consequences of such overfishing are devastating for biodiversity, food security, revenues, incomes, and jobs (Sumaila et al., 2012; Teh & Sumaila, 2013). This situation has led to many proposals over the years that seek to arrest the unsustainable use of wild fishery resources, including the implementation of limited entry schemes, licenses, total allowable catches (TACs), seasonal and area closures, gear restrictions, marine protected areas (MPAs), and individual transferable quotas (ITQs) or, more broadly, catch shares (Costello, Gaines, & Lynham, 2008).

Over time it has become increasing clear that none of these measures alone can stop the trend toward the total ecological and economic waste of major fish stocks around the world. Thus, this makes it more and more difficult to meet the generally accepted objectives of fisheries management, that is, to manage fisheries with the goal of achieving ecological, economic, and social sustainability.

The focus of this contribution is on the use of ITQs as a fisheries management tool. ITQs give their owners exclusive and transferable rights to catch a given portion of the TAC of a given fish species. Authorities establish TACs and then divide them among individual fishers or firms in the form of individual catch quotas, usually as a percentage of the TAC. ITQs are transferable through selling and buying in an open market.

This article provides, first, a summary of the current understanding of the state of global fisheries and then presents a short history of fisheries management. This is followed in section “ITQ and Its Discontents” with a description of the main discontents of ITQs, that is, the usual issues that scientists, policymakers, managers, fishers, and indeed the public are concerned about. Section “A Proposal: An Integrated Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management That Includes ITQs” presents a proposal that would make it possible to benefit from the merits of ITQs while mitigating its discontents. This proposal is based on a comprehensive, inclusive, and ecosystem-based fisheries management system. Finally, section “Conclusion” concludes the article.

State of Global Fisheries

Fishing effort has seen rapid increases following World War II when most was still concentrated in coastal waters. These increases have led to a number of concerns regarding their environmental and economic impacts, with a growth in overall fish catches since 1950 until 1996, when they peaked at about 86 million tonnes. The expansion of the geographic extent of fishing has been accompanied by a 10-fold increase in global fishing effort since 1950, a figure that rises to 25-fold for Asia over the same period (Watson et al., 2013). Overall, the decline in global catch per unit effort suggests a decrease in the biomass of many fished populations, likely by over 50% (Watson et al., 2013). The reasons for this large increase in fishing effort are many: open access, ineffective and non-cooperative management of common property resource, technological innovation in the face of ineffective management, and policy failures such as the provision of subsidies chief among them (Sumaila, 2016). The consequence of this overcapacity and the depletion of fish stocks is a substantial net economic loss to the global economy to the tune of an estimated 50 to 80 billion USD annually (Kelleher, Willmann, & Arnason, 2009; Sumaila et al., 2012; World Bank, 2017).

Fisheries Management Over Time

Up until the 20th century, not much attention was paid to fisheries management, except by a few local fisheries. This was because before then it was thought that humans could never overfish. This view of ocean fisheries and their inexhaustibility is captured by the following 1883 quote from the British government top fisheries scientist at the time, Thomas Huxley—“Probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible.” The folly of this assumption became apparent in the 20th century, when it became obvious that the combination of rising demand for fish, increasing trade, as well as the subsidized development of huge fishing capacity and rapid technological progress, could indeed result in massive overfishing. This in turn led to the development of management and governance systems for fisheries, whose aim was and still is to counteract the tendency to overexploit “common pool” nature of fisheries (Sumaila, 2016).

To this end, fisheries are managed by local, national, regional, and global institutions, depending on whether fish stocks are domestic, transboundary, or highly migratory, using a combination of management instruments. Hence, different levels of governance institutions, ranging from international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) to local management arrangements by fishing communities (e.g., customary fishing-rights areas known as qoliqoli in Fiji) have been established in countries around the world to manage fisheries (Sumaila, 2016).

Nationally, fisheries are managed by a set of institutions that are either full-fledged ministries such as the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources in Namibia or a government department, for example, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada. As is to be expected, countries have different objectives and capabilities when it comes to managing fish stocks and marine ecosystems. When evaluating how well countries are doing, two approaches immediately come to mind. First, the approach of Pitcher, Kalikoski, Pramod, and Short (2009), which uses the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries could be a good basis for evaluating how successful maritime countries are in managing their fisheries resources. Pitcher et al. undertook a detailed evaluation of 53 maritime countries, which together landed about 96% of the global marine catch reported for 1999. The authors found that compliance by many of these countries falls short of what is needed.

ITQ and Its Discontents

Ecological

One of the key justifications for the implementation of ITQs is that by assigning property rights to fishers in the form of transferable quotas, the “race to fish” is eliminated and fishers are thereby provided with an incentive not to overfish (Arnason, 1990). The main discontent with ITQs in this respect is that they do not create full property rights in a fishery (Bromley, 2009; Copes, 1986), since a full property right should provide its holders with: (a) complete security, (b) full exclusivity, (c) permanence, and (d) unrestrained transferability—these are not all conferred to ITQ owners (Copes, 1986; Sumaila, 2012). In practice many ITQ management systems are not permanent as they have sunset clauses embedded in them; examples of such ITQs can be found in the United States and Namibia. The inability to assign full property rights to marine fish resources is due to their inherent common property and ecosystem nature. As a result, short-term benefits—from actions such as high grading; discarding; quota busting and misreporting; illegal fishing; and the use of fishing vessels, for example, bottom trawlers, that are harmful ecologically (via bycatch and scraping the ocean bottom) but less costly to fish with, will accrue to the individual fisher, while long-term costs will be spread over all participants (Copes, 1986).

This tendency is particularly evident via the phenomenon of high grading and discarding, where less valuable species of fish caught are thrown back into the sea, dead or alive. The goal of the ITQ owners in engaging in high grading is to make sure that their quotas are filled with the most valuable fish available. High grading is detrimental to conservation (Alverson, Freeberg, Murawski, & Pope, 1994, Pauly et al., 2002). The incentives to discard or high-grade fish are reported to be high under ITQ schemes (Vestergaard, 1996). Thus, the extra cost of monitoring and enforcement that may be needed to curb this tendency may undermine the efficiency benefits that ITQs are supposed to create. With regard to managing species-rich and data-poor artisanal fisheries, which are typical of, but not exclusive to, tropical waters, there are doubts about the usefulness of ITQ schemes (Pauly, 1996). This is partly because such fisheries are highly multispecies, resulting in the catch of non-targeted species in the form of bycatch (Baulch & Pascoe, 1992).

ITQs are based on catch quotas, which in turn rely on top quality estimates of the abundance of fish stocks. These estimates are subject to uncertainty and often times suffer politically motivated interference, which, if not properly addressed, can lead to stock collapse irrespective of the quality of the ITQ scheme in place (Walters & Pearse, 1996). The reliability of stock abundance data in ITQ schemes decreases as ITQs encourage quota busting, that is, where quota holders catch more than their allocation (Squires et al., 1998). Also, with significant illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing worldwide, the possibility of errors in stock assessment is magnified (High Seas Task Force, 2006; Sumaila, Alder, & Keith, 2006).

Economic

An ITQ is primarily an instrument for promoting economic efficiency, rather than conservation or equity (Hannesson, 1996). Many studies of ITQ systems in operation around the world show that economic efficiency does indeed improve with the implementation of ITQ schemes (Arnason, 1997; Costello et al., 2008; Dewees, 1998; Grafton, 1996; Grafton et al., 2006; Munro, Turris, Clark, Sumaila, & Bailey, 2009). Hence, if economic efficiency were the only concern of fisheries management, then ITQs are a great tool for achieving objectives. However, from policy statements by governments around the world, and the ongoing debate in the literature, it is clear that for fishers, fisheries managers, the public, and fisheries scientists, such as biologists and anthropologists, fisheries management is not only about economic efficiency. It is also about the conservation and sustainable use of the resources and the ecosystems that support them over time, and ensuring equity and social justice in the use of these resources.

Uncertainty (e.g., stock assessment information) may prevent ITQs from solving the efficiency problem (e.g., Asche, Salvanes, & Steen, 1997; Walters & Pearse, 1996). It is worth noting that some of the efficiency gains from the implementation of ITQs derive from fishing-season elongation. But, it is often forgotten that this gain can be at the expense of the processing sector of the fishery chain (Bromley, 2009; Matulich, Mettelhammer, & Reberte, 1996). To determine the real economic efficiency gains from ITQs, it is important to avoid double counting and include all the costs and benefits throughout the fish chain. One positive effect of ITQs with respect to stock assessment is that they encourage better monitoring and enforcement and more precise total allowable catch (TAC) setting (Munro et al., 2009).

ITQs and Discounting

The source of discontent here is the human tendency to want to discount future benefits more heavily than current benefits. The question then is: Does an ITQ system in and of itself stem this tendency to front-load benefits while back-loading costs? There is literature that shows that even if we assume that ITQs provide full property rights, if the objective of ITQ owners is solely to maximize the discounted economic rent from the fishery, it is possible under certain conditions to “empty” the ocean of a given fish species and use the proceeds to invest in other sectors of the economy depending on the discount rate and the intrinsic growth rate of the fish (Ainsworth & Sumaila, 2005; Clark, 1973; Sumaila, 2004; Sumaila & Bawumia, 2000; Sumaila & Walters, 2005). Clark, Munro, and Sumaila (2010, p. 216) concluded that “There is a nontrivial number of resources that cannot be safely entrusted to complete private control and management.” Therefore, it appears that the answer to the question posed here is no. Figure 1 illustrates how discounting may have contributed to the crash of cod stocks off Newfoundland in the early 1990s.

How to Make Individual Transferable Quotas Work Economically, Socially, and EnvironmentallyClick to view larger

Figure 1. Cod biomass profiles.

Source: Ainsworth and Sumaila (2005).

Note. Profiles from virtual population analysis (VPA) time series (solid line), intergenerational optimum (open circles) Sumaila and Walters (2005), and conventional optimum (closed circles). Difference between end biomasses: (A) represents depletion that may be blamed on the application of conventional discounting, (B) represents depletion that may be blamed on environment factors or ineffective management. Error bars show one standard deviation around the mean from a Monte Carlo procedure varying basic Ecopath parameters (biomass, production, and consumption) for all species group).

ITQs and Fisheries Subsidies and Taxes

A prudent use of taxes and subsidies could support the efficient and sustainable use of fishery resources (Clack et al., 2007). Unfortunately, however, governments are currently using this important economic instrument in ways that negatively impact the ecology and economics of fisheries (e.g. Sumaila, Lam, Le Manach, Swartz, & Pauly, 2016; see Figure 2). To drive this point home, it is worth noting that of the estimated $35 billion of fisheries subsidies provided by governments around the world, $20 billion are classified as boosters of overcapacity and overfishing (Sumaila, 2010, 2016). This means that at least 20% of the gross revenues of global fisheries are overfishing subsidies, serving as a significant pressure on even ITQ management fisheries to cut corners (e.g., by engaging in quota busting).

How to Make Individual Transferable Quotas Work Economically, Socially, and EnvironmentallyClick to view larger

Figure 2. Global fisheries subsidy estimates by categories.

Source: Sumaila et al. (2016).

Note. This shows that capacity-enhancing subsidies are far greater than ambiguous and beneficial subsidies, in both developing and developed countries.

Social and Equity

Social scientists other than economists argue that whatever the potential economic benefits of ITQs, they act contrary to principles of equity and social justice in fishing communities wherever they have been tried and therefore are not appropriate for managing certain fisheries (Davis, 1996; McCay, Apostle, & Creed, 1998). An important issue in this connection relates to the initial allocation of ITQs to fishers (Bromley, 2009; Macinko & Bromley, 2002; Matulich & Sever, 1999). Concentration of fishing power has been noticed in many fisheries in which ITQ schemes have been introduced (Eythorsson, 1996; Grafton, 1996; Haas, Edwards, & Sumaila, 2016). In economic terms, this is not considered a problem because proponents of ITQs expect concentration to take place. In fact, this is one of the channels through which economic efficiency is to be achieved (Hannesson, 1996). More efficient fishers buy out their less efficient counterparts and, in so doing, increase the returns to the fishery, it is argued. This phenomenon can be beneficial in that the job structure might change from fewer part-time jobs to more full-time jobs even though the total number of full-time equivalent jobs may decrease.

Nevertheless, concentration of ITQs in the hands of a few large fishing companies has attracted a lot of debate, even among economists. Some of the main concerns include: (a) fear of monopoly power developing in a fishery, (b) increased social inequity, and (c) big players becoming big mainly because they have more effective lobbying machinery, not because they are more economically efficient than small-scale operators (Sumaila & Watson, 2002). Pinkerton and Edwards (2009), in analyzing the B.C. halibut ITQ fishery, came to the conclusion that issues of concentration are very important and cannot be ignored. Compounding the issues of concentration and social inequity are public policies such as the provision of subsidies, the bulk of which go to large-scale industrial fisheries to the disadvantage of their small-scale counterparts (Schuhbauer, Chuenpagdee, Cheung, Greer, & Sumaila, 2017). This contributes to making small-scale fishers less economically viable (Schuhbauer & Sumaila, 2016), turning them into easy prey for large-scale fishers using ITQ systems. The consequence of all of this is to increase conflicts between small- and large-scale industrial fisheries in the context of ITQs.

A Proposal: An Integrated Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management That Includes ITQs

Given these discontents, the relevant question here is to what extent the privatization of fishery resources, via the implementation of ITQs, is socially desirable. Some argue that ITQs are the answer while others maintain they are not. Here, we provide a proposal building on Sumaila (2012) that essentially suggests the answer is mostly somewhere between these two positions. Thus, the big question at this point is how can ITQs be used within a comprehensive, ecosystem-based management system to tackle these challenges.

It is clear to many in this field that to help overcome the “open access” problem in fisheries, there is a need for the introduction of more effective ownership structures at different levels, from the local to the national, and beyond, in the case of shared, straddling stocks and high sea fisheries (Bailey, Sumaila, & Lindroos, 2010; Munro, 1979; Sumaila, 1997, 2013; Sumaila et al., 2015; White & Costello, 2014). The Law of the Sea turned what used to be global commons into the property of coastal nations. But clearly, the law does not solve the problem of domestic “open access” or of “open access” in most of the high seas (Norse et al., 2012), or the problem that comes about due to the transboundary (Munro, 1979) or shared, that is, common property nature of fishery resources (Sumaila, 1997). Hence, in many cases fisheries are still effectively “open access.” Game theory studies have shown that shared fish stocks need to be managed cooperatively to avoid both biological and economic waste in a fishery (Munro, 1979), because it is cooperative management of shared stocks that actually removes the incentive to race for the fish, thus avoiding the economically rational tendency to overexploit fish stocks by each fishing entity (Sumaila, 2013).

The evidence points strongly toward the importance of taking an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management so that negative effects such as those described in this article can be taken into account when setting catch limits (Pikitch et al., 2004; Sumaila, 2005). The impact of fishing on the ocean’s ecosystems is not fully known, and the effects for which we have evidence may only reflect a small proportion of the real impacts of fishing. This underlines the importance of respecting the precautionary approach when assessing the impact of human activities on the natural environment.

It is clear from the literature that ITQs have their merits but also their problems (Clark et al., 2010; Essington, 2010; Gibbs, 2009; Pinkerton & Edwards, 2009; Townsend, McColl, & Young, 2006). In addition to the fact that they do not confer to ITQ owners’ full property rights, we have seen that even if they were to provide such rights, there are still conservation and social concerns to worry about. Hence, ITQ management, where implemented, needs to be part of a broad management system that will ensure that ITQ shortcomings are mitigated. Measures are needed to ensure that ITQs work to improve economic efficiency, while ensuring the sustainable and equitable use of fishery resources and the ecosystems that support them.

A list of strategies that need to be part of a fisheries management system which incorporates the merits of ITQ without imposing its problems on the ability to achieve economically, ecologically, and socially desirable outcomes (Sumaila, 2012) follows:

  1. 1. ITQs must be supported by an arm’s-length stock assessment unit and backed with strong arm’s-length monitoring, control, and surveillance (MCS) to deal with the effect of ITQs not bestowing full property rights and the potential of “emptying” the ocean of fish under certain conditions. This point is crucial because it has been argued that well-functioning ITQ schemes encourage fishers to collect and disseminate relevant biological and catch quota data. While such moves by fishers are laudable, it is important for sustainability that independent stock assessment (validated with local ecological knowledge) and MCS are maintained.

  2. 2. Some restrictions on the ownership of ITQs to people who actually fish the stocks may be needed to mitigate against diluting ITQ performance when quota owners differ from those who fish.

  3. 3. Measures to ensure resource sustainability by taking an ecosystem-based management approach, including paying special attention to the management of essential habitat, use of safe minimum biomass levels, application of input controls, elimination of destructive fishing gear (e.g., bottom trawlers) and fishing methods (e.g., dynamite fishing), need to be put in place. Networks of reasonably large marine protected areas (MPAs) need to accompany the implementation of ITQs to deal broadly with the ecosystem effects of overfishing, to allow for recovery, and to recognize the effects of uncertainty on the performance of ITQs. In implementing this network, it would be useful to ensure that MPAs are designed to make them compatible with conservation and ITQ goals and objectives.

  4. 4. The concept and use of ecological and/or environmental quota needs to be in place to ensure ITQ schemes are capable of functioning properly in the context of the ecosystem-based management of fisheries. That is, quotas need to be allocated to the “ecosystem” first before catch quotas are set. It is another way of expressing the safe minimum biomass level idea, or mandating an ecosystem management goal whereby policy stipulates the level of biomass of each species it wants to maintain in the ecosystem to enable it to continue to function and evolve. All other allocations of biomass (as catch) to the various sectors of a fishery will be made only after the mandated ecosystem goal has been attained.

  5. 5. Limits to quota that can be held by each quota owner to mitigate the social problem of concentration of fishing power should be imposed. It is worth noting that this is already a feature of many existing ITQ systems. In some fisheries, equity concerns may be alleviated by allocating ITQs to “communities” or to residents of a territorial area in the form of community transferable quotas (CTQs) and territorial user rights in fisheries (TURFS), respectively (Christy, 1982; Wingard, 2000). With such schemes in place, the economic efficiency benefits of ITQs may be captured while minimizing their negative social impacts.

  6. 6. Auctioning of quotas could be used in some fisheries (Bromley, 2009; Macinko & Bromley, 2002) to deal with the problem of initial allocation of quota and its equity implications. In the Falkland Islands, for example, most fish resources are auctioned on an annual basis (Barton, 2002). Similarly, the rights to fish the Washington State geoducks from specified “tracts” are sold at annual auctions (Orensanz et al., 2005). It is important to note that auctions will not work everywhere because of equity and social concerns, as fishers need significant equity to buy into the fishery in an auction. Ways to mitigate this concern could be through the allocation of community quotas, establishment of license banks, and other community fishing association funding mechanisms.

  7. 7. It is important not to implement economic policies that intensify negative externalities which lead to overcapacity and overfishing, such as the provision of harmful subsidies, while at the same time disadvantaging small-scale fishers. Rather, public funds should be used to support fishing communities in ways that ensures a sustainable use of fish stock and enhances communities’ quality of life.

  8. 8. Economic incentive schemes that make illegal fishing unprofitable should be designed.

Conclusion

Individual transferable quotas (ITQs) are clearly no panacea for ensuring the sustainable management of ecosystems and fish stocks. In fact, it appears that there is no silver bullet in fisheries management, and the struggle to govern the commons continues unabated (Dietz, Ostrom, & Stern, 2003). ITQs can only be expected to be part of the toolkits available to fisheries managers. With regard to managing fisheries, ITQs need to be designed carefully as part of a broad ecosystem-based fisheries management scheme so that they meet the three generally accepted pillars of modern fisheries management objectives, that is, ecological, economic, and social sustainability.

Further Reading

Arnason, R. (1990). Minimum information management in fisheries. Canadian Journal of Economics, 23, 630–653.Find this resource:

    Bromley, D. (2009). Abdicating responsibility: The deceits of fisheries policy. Fisheries, 34(6), 280–302.Find this resource:

      Clark, C. W., Munro, G. R., & Sumaila, U. R. (2010). Limits to the privatization of fishery resources. Land Economics, 86(2), 209–218.Find this resource:

        Copes, P. (1986). A critical review of the individual quota as a device in fisheries management. Land Economics, 62, 278–291.Find this resource:

          Costello, C., Gaines, S., & Lynham, J. (2008). Can catch shares prevent fisheries collapse? Science, 321, 1678–1681.Find this resource:

            Grafton, R. Q., Arnason, R., Bjørndal, T., Campbell, D., Campbell, H. F., Clark, C. W., . . . Kirkley, J. E. (2006). Incentive-based approaches to sustainable fisheries. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 63(3), 699–710.Find this resource:

              Pikitch, E., Santora, C., Babcock, E. A., Bakun, A., Bonfil, R., Conover, D. O., . . . Houde, E. D. (2004). Ecosystem-based fishery management. Science, 305(5682), 346–347.Find this resource:

                Sumaila, U. R. (2010). A cautionary note on individual transferable quotas. Ecology and Society, 15(3), 36.Find this resource:

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