Escaping the Tragedy of the Commons

The plight of the bluefin tuna (and our online attention)

Pacific Bluefin Tuna, orma.com

The average mature Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) measures 1.5m in length and weighs over 60kg (130 pounds) but specimens twice as long and 7 times as heavy have been seen. The Pacific bluefin lives for up to 26 years, and can move through the water at up to 30 miles per hour (the larger Atlantic bluefin can hit 43 miles per hour). Just last month, the Pew Charitable Trusts said the pacific bluefin tuna population was at risk of collapse if “the management of the critically endangered resource was allowed to continue unchecked”.

According to a May 2016 article in The Guardian, “Pacific bluefin tuna has seen stocks depleted to less than 3% of its historic levels”.

Source: The Guardian (May 2016)

The Tragedy of the Commons

The term, often used to describe how overfishing occurs, originates from an 1833 essay by the Victorian economist William Forster Lloyd, whose hypothetical example explained the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (colloquially called “the commons”) but was popularized in an article written by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. From the article on Wikipedia (bolding is mine):

“The metaphor illustrates the argument that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. This occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of the resource to the point in which they become reliant on it, while the costs of the exploitation are borne by all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than those who are exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball until the resource collapses (even if it retains a capacity to recover).”

Many Diverse Actors = Very Difficult to Solve

At the Bluefin Futures Symposium held in January 2016 in Monterey, California, researchers like Stanford Biology Professor Barbara Block reported that because bluefins’ migration paths put them in various countries with unclear or conflicting policies and approaches, there is little consensus on how to set fishing quotas to stabilize their numbers.

The short-term needs of those who make their living from the seas almost always outweigh longer-term concerns, even when we realize it is necessary: “People are interested in supporting their families and communities for the longer term. By far the best way to do that is often to reduce the quota, make the fish sustainable,” — Brian Jeffries of Australia’s Tuna Association.

Cheating Speeds Collapse

With a limited but free commodity within comparatively easy reach, the temptation to cheat and avoid self-regulatory and statutory guidelines can be irresistible, in this case especially for fishing groups who are worse off than richer countries. According to the Geopolitical Monitor, illegal, underreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for 10–30 percent of the world’s fish catch, but as much as 50 percent off the coast of Africa. The problem manifests not just as entirely unregulated fishing by unlicensed fishermen, but also in problems among those who are licensed (who bear compliance costs that put them at a disadvantage, and thus have incentive to bend the rules to keep up) and their countries — for example, Senegal’s $320 million loss from IUU fishing in 2015 is approximately 2% of its GDP.

“… eating a tuna caught by an artisanal fisherman in a Mediterranean almadraba isn’t any more defensible than eating one caught by a massive Japanese trawler: “The argument that there’s a way to catch them that makes it sustainable is kind of a red herring.”

Why Some Chefs Just Can’t Quit Serving Bluefin Tuna (NPR)

Standards Drift Ever Lower

“We’ve shown bluefin tuna were here for a long time in high numbers. High fishing pressure preceded the species’ virtual disappearance from the area and apparently played a key role but other factors under study might have compounded the fishery’s demise — the catch of juvenile tuna in subsequent years, for example.

Collapse Of Bluefin Tuna Population Off Northern Europe Described (ScienceDaily)

According to Pew, “98 per cent of the fish were still caught before they had the chance to reproduce”. Without coordination, human beings almost always kill the goose laying the golden egg. If we don’t cheat, we’ll try to lower the standards or avoid the rules, in order to get an edge over our rivals and extract more resources, and pass them off as the same thing. By commodifying them — treating significantly and importantly different things as the same — (in this case, juvenile tuna vs. already-reproducing tuna) we worsen an already dangerous situation.

Consumers and Buyers Get Involved to Protect Resources

There have been various campaigns seeking to draw attention to the problem, and exert pressure on restaurants to limit these fish getting on the menu (with mixed success, in 2009 even involving celebrities like Charlize Theron threatening to boycott Nobu). Like so many environmental or other boycotts, however, the news cycle quickly cycles to other things.

The Simple Solution

“All you have to do is not catch too many — it’s that simple,” [Pew’s Global Tuna Conservation program director Amanda Nickson] said.


Our attention is limited. On the open web, there is no coordination function amongst the different websites/companies competing for it, who push more and more commercial messages through their sites at the consumer. Ad tech tries to commodify and treat ‘impressions’ as mostly of the same value, whereas your time and attention might be far more limited and valuable than mine.

As a result, we are finding and enforcing our own limitation function → in the form of a very “dumb” filter called ad or tracking blocking, that treats all websites the same, regardless of whether or not these specific sites may or may not have “overfished” our attention. If we could agree on a set of rules or a system for limiting the competing demands on our attention, or could let different websites share in the revenues from a more limited, far more expensive set of ads shown to us (e.g. one ad for every 3 sites we visit), we could improve the situation for everyone.

Today’s best (perhaps only?) example of a massive-scale consumer entity that is able to measure, understand and more optimally control the mix of commercial messaging vs. the photos of friends and family, and other content we actually care about, is Facebook and their walled garden of media and consumer data. And they seem to be winning when compared to the open web.

Don’t catch too many. It’s that simple.

Or really, let’s start talking to one another about what it means to not catch too many.


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