It sounds like madness: Fleets of trawlers dragging huge nets across the seafloor are driving deep-sea fish to extinction. But from a purely economic point of view, it makes perfect sense, said Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue, Washington. “It’s not that people are stupid; they’re smart.” But while individual economic decisions make sense, another talk showed how government policies can distort the fisheries markets at the expense of these vulnerable species...
At a session today, “The World’s Last Wildlife Hunt: Deep-Sea Fisheries,” Norse made an analogy: A population of fish is like a bank account, and its productivity is like the interest it earns. In shallow waters, fish reproduce quickly, and populations would tend to expand 10% annually if not checked by mortality, so they can be profitably harvested year after year. It’s like spending the interest from your savings account without ever touching the principle.
The deep ocean is another matter. Fish such as orange roughy or Chilean sea bass grow slowly and are not nearly as fecund as shallow-water species. As a a result, their populations grow only about 0.025% a year. From a fisher’s perspective, Norse said, that low “interest rate” means “it’s economically rational to liquidate your capital—deep sea fish—and invest in something else.”
Because other boats are trying to do the same thing, it makes sense to fish as fast as you can. “It’s a free for all out there; it’s the wild west, and the fish are the buffalo.” To preserve species in an unproductive fishery, Norse says, the best policy is no fishing at all.
That’s the opposite of what many governments around the world are encouraging. Later in the session, Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, reported results from an analysis of subsidies to fishing fleets. Looking at the 12 countries that pay the most subsidies, he calculated that they hand out $154 million a year in tax breaks, fuel subsidies, and other benefits for boats trawling for the kind of slow-growing deep fish that Norse is worried about.
Sumaila’s analysis suggests that these payments are making the trawling artificially profitable. According to data from Iceland, deep sea trawlers earn about 3.5% profit on their revenues—and 10% is likely to be the most profitable these efforts could be, he said. The subsidy data suggests that high seas trawlers get on average a 15% subsidy. “It’s not good economics,” Sumaila said. At least, not for taxpayers or deep-sea fish.