The most severe impact of tsunami in India has been on families dependent on fishing. The massive relief and rehabilitation efforts meet the immediate needs of the affected people. They do not address the basic problem of the fishing industry—overfishing. Unless we resolve this basic problem, a sustainable solution for the livelihood of fisher families would not be feasible.

Overfishing occurs because the fish or fish habitat (water) is a public resource. Anyone can use it—free access—but none has any incentive to maintain fish populations. When a fisherman catches a small fish, he does not throw it back into water for it to grow, because if he does, there is no guarantee that the next person who catches it will throw it back too. He therefore keeps the small fish; so does everyone else. And fish populations decline. We have to change this behaviour to protect the fish and the people dependent on fishing.

The common approach to address this problem of overfishing has been to limit the fishing season (sometimes to only 4 months a year), require large net size so that small fish can escape, allow only small boats or vessels with small motors in the water, ban trawlers or ‘commercial fishing.’ This maze of regulations is quite difficult to enforce along a coastline of several thousand kilometres. The result has been more corruption and harassment without any significant impact on fish depletion.

A relatively new approach is to let fishing communities manage fish populations and grant them fishing rights that are properly defined and legally enforceable. Each family is given a legal quota that permits the family to catch exactly that much fish from the area. The quota is generally referred to as Individual Tradable Quota (ITQ). The ITQ system has been implemented in Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Finland, and parts of Italy, Spain, UK and USA. It has been overwhelmingly successful in each case.

We should take this opportunity to solve the livelihood problem of fisherfolks on a sustainable basis through ITQ. More on ITQ here and here.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.

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Parth Shah

Parth J Shah is founder president of Centre for Civil Society, a think tank that promotes choice and accountability across public and private sectors. He is co-founder and Director of Indian School of Public Policy. Parth’s research and advocacy work focuses on the themes of economic freedom, choice and competition in education, property rights approach to the environment and new public governance. He recently edited Liberalism in India.