Friday, February 29, 2008

The News on ITQs

It's not quite new news (more than a month old now), but the UN Human Rights Committee has essentially ruled against the concept of allocating fishing rights to certain private individuals while excluding others - i.e. quotas. The ruling was made in the case of two Icelandic fishermen who were not allocated any quota under Iceland's ITQ system and when they found that they could not afford to purchase the quota needed to fish, decided to go ahead and fish anyway without the quota. They brought their case - essentially a challenge to the entire framework of Iceland's ITQ system - all the way to Iceland's supreme court, and when they lost then decided to take it to the United Nations. I haven't been able to find a copy of the ruling itself to be able to guess whether the UN's objections to Iceland's quota allocations would also apply to other quota systems throughout the world, but from the reporting in Iceland Review it seems that it could apply to the quota-based systems that are becoming more and more common worldwide.

For me, these are the most telling pieces of the article:

The committee believes that Icelandic authorities violated the 26th article of the UN treaty in this case, which states that discrimination of all kind is prohibited similarly to the 65th article of the Icelandic constitution.

The committee stated that protecting fish species with a quota system is a lawful goal but the Icelandic quota system also favors those who were allocated permanent quota originally and is not based on justice.

I have no way of telling based on this how seriously the UN looked at the setup of the Icelandic quota system or what specifically about it they consider not to be discriminatory or "based on justice," but if they see allocating quota to certain individuals as inherently unjust, then it has essentially ruled against not just the Icelandic system but also every fisheries management system that requires individuals to own or rent quota in order to fish - this includes every country I have been to so far this year (less straightforward than in Iceland, but the essential reality is that to fish in Denmark, Norway or Britain you need to own or rent quota), and many others including New Zealand (often held up as one of the best-managed fisheries in the world, though I know relatively little about it) and parts of the United States.

I have certainly seen for myself that allocating quota rights to private individuals - in most cases based on and individual's fishing records during a fixed reference period - has hurt small communities and small-scale fishermen who cannot afford the costs of bringing more quota into their community or even at times of holding onto the quota they have. In many places, once quota is sold away to a larger company or town, there is little else to do (particularly in remote islands in northern Norway or isolated towns on the Icelandic coastline) and people have no choice but to leave their homes in order to find work. High prices of quota also essentially bar entry into fishing for young people whose families do not already own a quota share, since the price of purchasing a quota (which the previous generation was provided for free) is a prohibitive start-up cost, whereas before quotas were in place it was feasible to earn enough crewing someone else's boat to eventually be able to build your own boat and fish for yourself.

Today I went into a primary school in northeast Scotland, near Peterhead, to see a former fisherman talk with the students about how the fishing works and give them some first-hand experience - putting on oilskins, seeing how to splice ropes and mend nets, watching actual footage of fishing in the North Sea. As part of the activity, each kids got a fishing "job" as a trainee deckhand, engineer, or cook, and they seemed to have a pretty good time with it...but as kids who live inland, none coming directly from fishing families, they would have a hard time working their way past crew positions if they decided to make their living from fishing.

All that said, though, I'm not sure how I feel about the UN ruling against the concept of a quota-based system. On the one hand, I agree that it is unfair to allocate quotas in a way that essentially gives away private rights to a public resource. (Sure, in Iceland they make a point of saying that the fish still belong to the people and that the quotas could be taken back by the government, and nobody technically "owns" their quota share with the same permanency as regular property rights, quotas are traded and rented for hard money just like any other property.) To me, the issue is not so much that the distribution is inequitable but that the distribution itself has denied public access to natural resources. In Norway, I talked with a lawyer who wanted to challenge the Norwegian management system based on a document from the 1100s where local fishing access was given as a gift to the people of northern Norway by the king, a gift to the entire public that this lawyer says has been illegally taken away by allowing some citizens the right to fish (and particularly allowing them to then trade this right to people not from the area) while denying access to others.

But it is a dangerous line of reasoning to say that it is unjust to limit the public's access to natural resources - without some kind of limitation, there is no way to prevent individuals from taking more than their share. And particularly in a case like fisheries, nobody could make a living from fishing without being able to accumulate more fish than the average citizen. Certainly there are ways to distribute limited access to fish other than allocating permanent quotas that might well be more fair in the long-run, but undermining the current quota systems by trying to find a new way to allocate fishing rights risks not only significant economic harm (particularly in a fisheries-dependent economy like Iceland's) since many individuals, companies, and even banks "own" quota and depend on it as a reliable asset, but also environmental harm by destabilizing management systems that have begun to make progress in maintaining sustainable fish stocks.

For better or for worse, UN rulings have little actual effect on national policies (as the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries made sure to point out, it is "not binding"). But perhaps this will help push world opinion towards considering not just how to conserve fish stocks while maximizing the economic value of the "sustainable yield" but also how to make fisheries policies that are fair to those within the fishing industry and take into account the interests of fishing families and communities both of today and of the future.

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