I’m not sure what the marine equivalent of a bandwagon is (a love boat?), but there’s one headed our way. I’m talking about the movement called “individual fishing quotas,” as described in a recent Los Angeles Times article. The original theory is straight out of the free market school of economics: Give people the ownership of something, and they’ll be good stewards. As I’ve written before, this isn’t necessarily so.

Indeed, as the article points out, such programs can’t work unless there are restrictions on overall catches. And they also can’t work unless there are mechanisms — including coverage by scientific observers — to limit, reduce, and discard other species by catch. And don’t neglect dealing with fishing gear impacts on bottom habitat.

Starting to sound familiar? Those are some key elements of a well managed fishery. As a result, many argue that the benefits credited to individual quota fisheries are really simply because the fisheries are well managed.

That said, it’s a reasonable idea to allocate individual fishermen their share of the overall catch and hold them accountable for it. Indeed, if they were called “individual accountability programs,” or “individual performance programs,” there might not be much debate.

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There’s also no question that aligning economic self-interest with regulatory responsibility is a good deal where you can do it. Balancing rights with obligations is critical. But there are right ways and wrong ways to design these programs. Some of them are heavy on rights and short on obligations. Getting the science right and ensuring that fishermen are obliged to follow it is critical.

The good news: We seem to be moving away from the free market purist version of individual quotas toward a recognition of the proper role of regulation in these systems. If so, maybe one of these days we’ll be happy to hear the band arrive.

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