Quotas and taxation
Quotas are instruments used by governments to limit the amount of fish gathered from the oceans. Each year, the European Union (EU) sets a value for Total Allowable Catch (TAC), for each species deemed to be under threat from overfishing. Each country then receives a percentage of the TAC, representative of their historic needs of certain fish species. Under the Common Fisheries Policy set by the EU, member states abide by these quotas and if found to be overfishing, fines or even legal action can be brought to bear. TAC’s are set based on scientific evidence of the health of fish populations.
Governments sometimes impart taxes on certain consumables they deem to be in comparatively short supply, or at risk of overexploitation and by doing this, they aim to deter an unsustainable state of affairs. Fish are one such consumable often overexploited and because of this, taxation on this resource has existed in many forms. Different taxes considered include, fuel tax on fishing vessels, taxes on declared fish landings and taxes on certain fishing methods such as the beam trawl, which is a conical net on a beam that is dragged along the sea floor, or dredgers. The taxes can be increased to help alleviate the effects of “the tragedy of the commons”, whereby people will deplete a resource independently, even though it is not in the collective interest to do so and also “the prisoner’s dilemma”, whereby each person wants what is best for the collective, but is unaware of the exploits of others that could affect the result.
Employing quotas enables governments to know how much fish is being landed. However, enforcing these quotas effectively is the issue facing the fishing industry and the ideology of sustainable fishing. This is partly because fishermen may catch a lot more fish than their quota allows, but because control at sea is limited, the excess fish are only discovered when the boats reach shore and land their catch. The excess fish or ‘bycatch’ as its known, is thrown away. These fish are needlessly caught and die as a result of insufficient data on the actual catch. The excess fish cannot contribute to population growth in the wild and fishing is therefore less likely to become sustainable. In addition, quotas must be constantly adjusted to make sure populations are not being overfished and this requires vast amounts of data. Already there is insufficient research carried out on suitable quotas, because each population of fish is unique and each species has their own biology and breeding rates. There are also problems with Third Country Agreements. While each country in the EU has their own fishing boundaries with set catch limits, others can pay to fish in these areas and this sometimes leads to overfishing.
Getting tax levels right has been a problem for governments the world over. It would be very difficult to set individual taxes for each fisherman, so the government places a tax determined by the number of fish caught, with higher hauls meaning higher taxes. The problem is, fishermen simply declare fewer fish than they catch and thus taxes are not a strong enough incentive to keep fishing sustainable. Additionally, the money the fishermen pay on higher fuel taxes is a driver for them to catch more during each trip. These tax rates may cause smaller vessels to become less efficient because they cannot physically catch larger hauls, but need to gather more fish to offset the proportionally higher fuel costs.
The importance of quotas and taxation and why we should care
Quotas are easy for the government to allocate but difficult to maintain. If fishermen do not abide by quotas, sustainability cannot easily be achieved and they will suffer from the “tragedy of the commons” effect, with populations being depleted too fast to recover. For consumers, this would mean higher fish prices, representing the rarity of the fish left. Scientists would need to gather more data to try and make the remaining stocks sustainable. This demand for data would make EU policy and governmental regulations difficult to implement and whether changes in policy would match the speed of stock depletion, is hard to tell.
Taxes on fishing indirectly affect the market price of fish and so are important economically, as they steer consumers towards other options if prices become too high. Supply and demand works both ways because high demand leads to high supply and increased prices, but if these prices become too high because supply falters (fishing stocks become unsustainable), new products may be sort after and a new demand is created. The market generally finds a way of balancing itself out, but at the cost of fish populations that are usually consumed before fishermen can search for new stocks.
The solution: what we can do
From a consumer’s perspective, it is in their interest to be able to purchase a wide range of fish. Currently in the UK a significant proportion of fish bought consists of just 3 species: cod, tuna and salmon. So if demand changed to sustainably caught fish of various species; pressure would be relieved on these 3 species, which are usually caught unsustainably. Consumer demand is a crucial factor; fishermen only try to catch what the market requires and if this requirement included a greater variety of fish and therefore each to a smaller degree (by each of the consumers making a small change to their lifestyle), then the health of the oceans would improve dramatically. Additionally, if higher taxes on actual catches were implemented and the actual amount of fish caught was more stringently monitored, it would be less attractive to catch a larger haul. Smaller catches would mean rises in fish prices and therefore a fall in demand, resulting in reduced pressure on fishermen and thus more healthy fish stocks. If fuel taxes were carefully measured, they could be set at a level low enough so that fishermen could afford to go further afield to find more healthy populations, but not low enough so as to make it easy for them to overexploit smaller populations.
The situations and circumstances experienced by individual fishing vessels usually differ, so perhaps rules and regulations would be easier to implement than varying taxes. A set of such rules may include: no–go areas, by–catch limits, and restrictions on the gear and nets that vessels can carry. These do not require much more monitoring than taxes and quota enforcement. Fishermen know firsthand which areas source healthy populations, and their knowledge combined with data collected by scientists should provide the basis for rules to be introduced. The issue may be that fishermen need to be governmentally subsidised to allow for changes in management and less productive fishing, but the oceans would become far healthier because of it. There will always be a demand for fish, but a greater demand now exists for fish that are sustainably caught and only through combined effort from the major parties involved, can this demand be met.