Mankind’s endless plunder of the sea is on the brink of causing one of the greatest and most overlooked ecological disasters in history. Make no mistake, we have a crisis on our hands: 80% of the world’s fisheries are already fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or in a state of collapse. This is no ordinary tragedy- it is a tragedy of the commons.
The privatization of international waters places control of specific regions of the ocean and their resources in the hands of corporations as opposed to the international community of states. A precedent already exists in the system of ‘Territorial Use Rights for Fishing’ programs, or TURFs, in which organized groups of fishermen give certain fishers the exclusive right to fish. in a specified area. This has been employed in countries such as Papua New Guinea and Samoa.
In the status quo, a collective-action problem cripples attempts at proper regulation of overfishing, attempted in certain regions such as a 2012 effort by the European Union with little impact on the problem. Political parties in democratic countries have little incentive to look out for long-term issues beyond the next few elections, and no countries have reason to remain party to international treaties and agreements when their own industry is hurt as a result: the prominent and vocal fishing lobby made the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy a crucial issue before and after the Brexit referendum.
Private actors not only want to guarantee short-term returns, but also have a structural motivation to ensure that the value of their property does not deteriorate in the long-term. When a single corporation owns and has authority over a large swathe of ocean, they are able to accrue significant long-term gains when they actually conserve its resources. The lack of a single owner results in a prisoner’s dilemma in which competing fishers race to extract as much as possible.
Furthermore, different companies operating in a region often have divergent interests: it is unclear why fishing corporations would care about the impact their behavior has on the $5-6 billion of tourism to the Great Barrier Reef when their own behavior is largely responsible for that decline. Similarly, underwater oil drilling has adverse impacts on fish reproduction. A sole owner is forced to balance these various interests in order to achieve maximum long-term utility.
3.2 billion people rely on fish for almost 20% of their animal protein intake. The rate at which we are draining the ocean of its animals may lead to a complete extinction of saltwater fish by 2048. Ocean privatization is desperately needed in a world where governments have proven inadequate at conservation. Greed has caused the problem- it may be the solution.