Author: Ren Springlea (they/them)
Here, I present an idea for a way to directly reduce the catch of wild fish. This idea involves purchasing and withholding tradeable catch shares, and it is functionally similar to paying the commercial fishing industry to fish less. The cost-effectiveness has the potential to be large. However, there are some risks that should be understood before this idea is implemented. To help understand those risks, there are some concrete, tractable research projects that can basically be done now:
- Reviewing fisheries to figure out which fisheries allow external investors to purchase catch shares, and trying to purchase some
- Fisheries modelling/simulation using computer software to see whether decreasing the amount of fishing can backfire in any way
- Economic study to measure how a decrease in supply of one fish species increases the consumption of other fish species
- A survey of commercial fishers asking what they would do with their time if they are required to fish less
If anybody is interested in working on these questions, I'd be happy to help oversee or collaborate on the research.
Functionally, this idea is a way to pay for the commercial fishing industry to fish less.
Around the world, many commercial fisheries are governed by catch shares. Catch shares are basically property rights held by commercial fishers that enable the holder to do a particular amount of fishing in a particular fishery. Some catch shares are tradable. This means that these catch shares can be bought, sold, and leased on a market. Tradeable catch shares are sometimes called individual transferable quota (ITQs), and I use the terms interchangeably here. If you'd like more information on this concept, there's a good overview on Wikipedia.
My idea is for an EA organisation to purchase some tradeable catch shares and hold them unused. This would essentially remove some amount of fishing rights from the market, reducing the overall amount of fishing that happens. Thus, fewer fish would be killed in fisheries (but see the risks below).
This idea has happened in other contexts. Tradeable property rights are also used to govern pollution. People and organisations, such as environmental charities, have historically purchased permits and removed them from circulation [1,2]. This is sometimes called voluntary cancellation or permit retirement, destruction, or withdrawal. This has happened for carbon emissions (two organisations called Climakind and Sandbag, whose websites seem to have been taken down); sulphur emissions [1,3]; nitrogen emissions ; grazing by farm animals [4,5]; water use ; and land purchases . A somewhat analogous example from the EA context is the proposal to buy coal mines.
Is this idea possible?
One question is whether it's possible for a non-fishing organisation to purchase catch shares. In short, it's probably possible, although whether it is wise is currently unclear.
Some fisheries that are governed by tradeable catch shares already have investors, who purchase and hold quota without necessarily fishing themselves [8,9]. Some investors originate as fishers who simply lease out their entire quota, and some investors exist because there's no restriction requiring quota-holders to be an active fisher, or even living in the state . I'm told that investors are basically ubiquitous in any high-value fishery governed by tradeable catch shares. I know that some catch shares are traded using online platforms (e.g. this is true for New Zealand and probably some other countries too).
These investors are not popular among fishing communities or fisheries managers. Investors have been criticised for not adding value to the fishery, increasing the indebtedness of the fleet, distributing benefits inequitably, reducing job security of fishers, and marginalising and disempowering fishers [11,12]. So while investment seems to be practical and possible, there are many negative perceptions of investors. Investment by EAs may hold significant risk to public perception of the EA and animal advocacy movements, and damaging the public perception of these movements may have large long-term costs. On the other hand, the negative perception may be more to do with the power relations than the quota limitation. I've been told that investment, at least in high-value fisheries, is basically done by a few very rich people who run an investment 'empire'.
Some back-of-the-envelope calculations
Here are some naive, back-of-the-envelope calculations of how cost-effective this idea might be. I know that this type of calculation suffers from problems, and I only intend for these calculations to be an initial, five-minute look at the potential cost-effectiveness. Please point out if I've made mistakes in these calculations. Although I've put these calculations through peer review, the numbers seem absurdly high to me, so I wouldn't be surprised to learn I've made some mistake. Also note that these aren't intended as recommendations for which fisheries would be well-suited to this idea, as there are factors other than raw cost-effectiveness that would need to be considered (e.g. whether the fishery allows external investors, the response of the fishery to a reduction in catch, whether the fishery is well-studied and well-modelled, and so on).
Consider the fishery for Peruvian anchoveta. The right to catch a ton of anchoveta is typically valued at US$33 . One anchoveta conservatively weighs about 27 grams . Thus, one ton would contain around 37,000 individual fish. This means that an organisation could spend around US$33 and avert the death of 37,000 individual fish. This translates to US$1 buying the lives of over 1,100 fish.
Or consider the fishery for Atlantic menhaden. The right to catch a ton of menhaden is typically valued at US$27 . One menhaden conservatively weighs about 200 grams . Thus, one ton would contain around 5,000 individual fish. This translates to US$1 buying the lives of around 190 fish.
The results of these two calculations vary by an order of magnitude. Also, even 190 fish per dollar might be less impactful than it would seem, since the duration of suffering or lifespan lost when a fish is caught might be relatively small. That said, these naive calculations do show that the cost-effectiveness has the potential to be big.
Now, this idea suffers from some risks that might mean the true, counterfactual cost-effectiveness is lower than what my calculations suggest.
Things we need to understand first
I've identified seven key risks to this idea, and it would be smart to better understand these risks before we go ahead with this intervention. These risks might make the idea less cost-effective, so we need to do further research to figure out exactly how big these risks are.
- If fewer fish are caught, the fish population may increase. In some fish populations, a larger population might mean that more fish die young due to density-dependent effects.
- If fewer fish are caught, the fish population may develop a different age-structure. For example, there might be more younger, low-weight fish (but the specific outcome would be context-dependent. This might mean that a given weight of catch results in more individual fish being caught.
- If a commercial fisher sells their tradeable catch share, they might continue to fish but simply in a different fishery.
- If fewer fish are caught, the fishery manager might set a higher total allowable catch (TAC). This could enable more fish to be caught.
- If fewer fish are caught, this might reduce supply of the species and thus increase the prices of that species. This might shift demand to other fish species.
- If EAs invest in catch shares to reduce fishing effort, the government may become aware of this and change the law to forbid this type of investment. This might make this idea totally impossible for a given fishery.
- If EAs invest in catch shares to reduce fishing effort, this may make the public dislike the EA community or the animal advocacy community. This might cause long-term harm to long-term trajectory of the EA and animal advocacy movements.
Given all of these risks (particularly the first five), the true, counterfactual cost-effectiveness of this idea might be lower than the back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest. So, if we want to understand what the true cost-effectiveness of this idea is, it would be important to understand these risks.
I've summarised these risks in the table below. I've also given some initial thought to the research methods that could help us better understand these risks.
|How this risk works||Research method for better understanding this risk||How this risk could be measured|
|1||Larger fish population means more spawned fishes will die due to density-dependent effects||Fishery modelling||In a fishery model, measure the number of fish that the model predicts to be born but killed before recruiting to the population.|
|2||Larger fish population may have a different age-structure, such as more younger, low-weight fishes, meaning a given catch may result in more fishes being caught||Fishery modelling||In a fishery model, impose an exogenous decrease to catch, then measure the number of additional fish that are harvested, compared to if that shock had not occurred.|
|3||If a commercial fisher sells their tradeable catch share, they might continue to fish but simply in a different fishery.||Survey of fishers or fishery managers||It seems trivial to conduct a survey to ask what commercial fishers would do, or have done, if they are required by some external event to fish less in a particular fishery|
|4||Larger fish population may result in the policymaker setting a higher total allowable catch (TAC), enabling more fishes to be harvested||Fishery modelling with a harvest strategy evaluation (HSE)||In a fishery model that uses a harvest strategy, measure the number of fish harvested after an increase to TAC, compared to if that increase had not occurred.|
|5||A lower catch may result in a higher price for that species, shifting the demand to different species||Econometric analysis of market data||Find a fishery market that experienced an exogenous decrease to catch (e.g. a fishery closure due to COVID-19). Estimate the number of fish from other species that were purchased, compared to if that closure had not occurred.|
|6||If EAs invest in catch shares to reduce fishing effort, the government may become aware of this and change the law to forbid this type of investment||I don't know|
|7||If EAs invest in catch shares to reduce fishing effort, this may make the public dislike the EA community or the animal advocacy community||I don't know|
Here are some other thoughts that might be relevant to this idea, in no particular order:
- This idea is very transactional. The EA movement gives $X to save Y fish lives, but there are no long-term benefits. This contrasts to interventions that transform policy or public opinion over time. I have a preference for these latter, transformational asks. However, there are already numerous organisations working on transforming policy and public opinion on behalf of fish. It's possible that a transactional intervention, where you can spend $X and verifiably save Y fish lives, is currently missing from the fish advocacy movement. This could also act as a benchmark against which to compare other interventions in animal advocacy
- Tradeable catch shares are also used in some 'fisheries' for species other than finfish. For example, some fisheries for shrimp are governed by tradeable catch shares.
- For catch shares to actually work in a particular fishery, it must be the case that the catch is actually limited by the total allowable catch (TAC). There are fisheries where this is not the case - this sometimes happens where there is a TAC, but the total amount of fishing falls short of hitting this limit. So, fisheries selected for this idea should be chosen very carefully and with a detailed understanding of the context.
- If this idea is implemented and successfully reduces the amount of fishing, it might also reduce discard (where aquatic animals are caught and killed but not used for consumption) and highgrading (where a commercial fisher catches and kills more fish than they are allowed to land, keeps the fish of the highest quality, and discards lower-quality fish at sea). This could increase the cost-effectiveness.
- In the economic literature, one paper found that purchasing and withholding pollution permits can rebound in another way. In short, it's possible that purchasing and withholding pollution permits can cause firms to invest less in technology that can abate pollution . I haven't thought about this in detail, but it's possible that this risk could also apply to this idea.
- It may be possible to extend this idea to recreational hunting, as there are parallels between catch shares in fisheries and recreational hunting tags .
Where to from here?
To understand the true cost-effectiveness of this idea, it is essential to understand the seven risks I've identified (and possibly others that I haven't thought of). Many of these risks can be better understood by fisheries modelling, which is a set of techniques for simulation fisheries using computer software. This is an area where I have some expertise and work experience. I think somebody who understands fisheries modelling or population modelling could generate some results in weeks or months. A further two of the risks can also be easily studied using a survey or econometric analysis of market data.
It would also be a good idea to search for fisheries that do actually let external investors purchase catch shares. There are several academic review papers that would be a good starting point.
If you're interested in pursuing any of these questions, please feel free to reach out. I was offered a grant to do this research, but I turned it down to accept my current job. Although I don't have the time to work on this project full-time, I'd be happy to help oversee or collaborate on a project.
Note: This article reflects my views and my experiences outside of work. This article does not reflect the views of my employer (Animal Ask). I've written and spoken about this idea elsewhere, but under my old name.
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Some catch shares entitle the holder to catch a particular volume of fish. From memory, I believe there are also fisheries where the catch shares entitle the holder to fish for some particular amount of effort (e.g. to set a number of lobster pots).
The level of understanding that I think is necessary is being able to read a paper describing a fishery model and then, given the equations described and the data used by the authors, write and run the model in a computer program. This would take, at least, knowing most of the content in Malcolm Haddon's excellent textbook and experience writing and running fisheries models in R, AD Model Builder, and/or Stock Synthesis. It took me about three months to reach this level of understanding, although I did begin with experience in R and a background in ecological theory.