Quota Management System for fisheries criticized

A couple of days ago I was writing about Individual Transferable Quotas. I mentioned how New Zealand came to have them, what they do and why they are useful. I thought I was finished until I saw an article by a fisherman complaining about the state of New Zealand fisheries. And when I read it, his grumbling covered much of what I have been studying on my Polytechnic course at the moment.

The concept on the surface seems fine: Individual Transferable Quota’s that assure certainty about the management of what was becoming an unsustainable and uncertain resource, through their key characteristics of permanence, exclusivity, security and transferability:

  • Permanence: Instead of dying at the end of ownership, quotas are able to be transferred to other holders
  • Exclusivity: to qualify for holding a quota, the applicant needs to have taken and held a certain amount of stock, suggesting it will be used
  • Transferability: in the event of a major accident, ill health or other circumstances rendering a quota holder unable to use it, the quota can be transferred to another holder
  • Security: how good is the title of your property or resource? The less secure the resource, the worse the security of your title

But not everyone believes that the Quota Management System is perfect. Tony Craig is a recreational fisherman and partner at Terra Moana sustainability consultants. In an article he complains about an “ever diminishing pie”.

It is possible that the Minister of the day has chosen to reconfigure towards moneyed up commercial interests who are not necessarily deserving of additional quota. In this case it would suggest interference in the property rights model of fisheries managed by quotas. If Mr Craig is to be believed, the Minister of Primary Industries, Nathan Guy is reducing the permanence of quotas by reducing their scope, thereby making it harder for those without significant monetary interests to stay in the game.

Aside from threatening to upend the Q.M.S. system of quotas that has been operating with notable success in New Zealand since 1986, it raises other questions as well. One of those questions concerns a loss of trust that arises from the wilful destabilization of a system whose parameters were understood and respected. This could be damaging if allowed to continue because it assists the potential return of a race to the bottom, a race to take as much as one can before their competitors.

The Tragedy of the Commons in other words.

Now, there is nothing saying that the Q.M.S. system of quotas that was introduced in 1986 is perfect – it is only as good as the data sets for individual species, and can be subject to fluctuations if unforeseen inputs such as economic downturn, an ecological disaster in a key habitat occurs. But no one is suggesting – other than Mr Craig – that the system is in dire need of an overhaul.

But it might be in need of a few more checks and balances to stop what on the surface looks like political interference.

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