The right to fish could be considered one of the most basic human rights. It is probably a notion that goes back to when we first began fishing, and certainly as a more formal concept when Hugo Grotius published Mare Liberum (The Free Sea), in 1609. However, shared resource systems can lead to what is known as the Tragedy of the Commons. First coined in an essay by British economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833, it refers to the failure of a system where all individuals have equal and open access to a resource. With 90% of global seafood stocks at maximum exploitation or on the verge of collapse, the over-fishing of fish stocks are perhaps the most commonly used example to explain Lloyd’s concept.
In an attempt to avert such tragedies, governments look to regulation, privatisation, and the move toward internalising externalities (e.g. user or polluter pay). In the fisheries sector, governments have stuck mostly to regulation in their attempts to better manage fisheries, and this is mainly achieved by managing inputs (e.g. number of boat licences, permits, seasonal closures) to ensure sustainable output. However regulation without monitoring, compliance, surveillance (MCS), and/or convictions of offenders could be considered meaningless.
Privatisation as a tool to avert fisheries collapse through Rights Based Fisheries Management (RBFM) is becoming a more popular and, arguably, a much more effective way to manage fisheries. As an example, Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQ) allocates a portion of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) to an individual fisher who effectively owns this share of the fish stock. If a fish stock increases, governments can increase TACs and fishers can then catch more fish, thus incentivising all fishers to fish at levels where fish stocks increase or are maintained at a biomass where they can fish at what is known as Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) . In the case of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) a fisher can also sell or lease his or her quota, thus the value of their “stock” increases with increasing fish stock.
The challenge for developing nations who wish to transition to IFQ/ITQ management is that quotas are allocated to individual fishers based on their catch history — something most developing nations lack. Indeed the UN’s FAO claims that less than 40% of nations have adequate data sets on what their fishers are catching. This is the critical Catch per Unit Effort (CPUE) data fisheries scientists need to assess fish stock size, and to set the TACs. So why do governments have so little data on what is being caught? Assuming resource is not an issue as it only requires a paper and pencil to record catch, what are, and what could be, the barriers to getting this data?
Trust or disincentives may be the issue. Fisherman may not trust governments, or NGOs, with their data, or they may be disincentivized by giving this data to governments. After all, if the CPUE data is showing a decline in the numbers of fish, governments will face pressure to administer input controls (i.e. closures, reduce permits or licences etc.). I say face pressure as these are difficult political decisions because less fishing can mean less income, less jobs etc. Alternatively, if the numbers of fish are increasing or are stable, governments could remove input controls. However, if input controls are not there in the first place, they cannot help fishers catch more fish. Another reason fishers may not want to report their catch is that most I have met would not want to pay tax and/or actively avoid it — especially if they aren’t paying tax now as is the case with most small scale fishers in developing nations.
Fishers, though, may be comfortable having private companies hold their data if they have a commercial interest and/or an agreement to protect it — especially if that agreement includes the rights to extract data and discover, generate and share value amongst the data producers. Despite this they may still need a more immediate benefit to hand over data.
Fishcoin is an initiative that is looking to use tokens as an incentive for entering or capturing of data and storing it on blockchains — such as CPUE data for Catch Documentation and Traceability (CDT) purposes. As open source code, application developers could plug Fishcoin into their applications and use it as a mechanism for downstream actors to reward the fishers, processors, sensor owners etc. as well as the application developers themselves.
Along with the concerns of fishers about the use of this data (or abuse of the data from their perspective (e.g. input controls or tax), there are also the concerns of governments around general data protection and data sovereignty. However, if this critical CPUE data from fishers were collected, anonymised, aggregated and communicated to government, fisheries scientists, over time, could assess the stock size and set TACs. Ultimately the CPUE data could be disaggregated in order to determine the catch history of the individual fishers in order to allocate them use rights or quota allocations and transition to RBFM.
With ownership of the stocks of fish it has been shown that fishers are incentivised away from just exploitation toward conservation and thus not only protect but grow the population of fish they own, increasing their catch in the long term, their profitability, and the overall resilience of their communities.
For a review of the terms used in this post in relation to fisheries management, please see the FAO publication entitled A Fishery Manager’s Guidebook — Management Measures and Their Application.