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Property rights in fisheries has many characteristics
Property rights in fisheries has many characteristics

What are property rights in fisheries?

All fisheries, traditional or modern, operate under some form of use right materialized in the right of access to fishery resources in a particular area under certain conditions. The "right" may be general (as the right to harvest high seas resources imbedded in the 1982 UNCLOS) or very specific (as the right to harvest a certain amount of fish of a particular species in a particular area in a given period of time). They may have an historical foundation (historical rights) or a more formal one (such as the sovereign rights of coastal States on EEZ resources). They may be area-based (e.g. territorial use rights) or resource-based.

The right to harvest a certain amount of fish of a particular species, in a designated area, in a given period of time, is usually called a "property right" and is implemented only in EEZs. Depending on the countries, those holding the fishing right may be allowed or not to transfer their right by sale to someone else. Transferability tends to be considered as a necessary condition as it is this participation as an "owner" in the fishery, and the future benefits that improved management can bring, that creates the incentive for better management. This in turn has generated the interest of managers in this approach as a better form of fisheries management.

Characteristics of property rights in fisheries management

Property rights in fisheries should be considered to be a new form of property and as such can be considered as consisting of a 'bundle of characteristics'. These, depending on the fishery, may vary in their strength, but each characteristic usually exists to at least some degree. They have the following characteristics:

  • Durability - the time, period or duration of the right that is held, e.g. it might be an annual licence or one held, in the limit, in perpetuity unless transferred in some manner.
  • Exclusivity - the degree to which the resource that is the specified by the right is shared with other participants who are not bound by the same rules of ownership - e.g. recreational fishers or those with traditional rights of exploitation of stocks taken by commercial fisheries operating under a different rights-based regime.
  • Security of title - that is, its strength as a constitutional or legislated right; a civil agreement; or simply common accepted practice. Fisheries rights may, e.g. be securitized; claimed in a divorce disagreement or attached in some other manner.
  • Transferability - of the right, either in part, i.e. is it divisible so that part of the right can be sold, or in whole. Degrees of transferability exist as there may be constraints as to whom the fishing rights may be transferred.
  • Property in fisheries - that has strong rights implies that they are durable, i.e. have long tenure; provide exclusivity of use, cannot be arbitrarily removed or diluted; and that there are rights of transfer.

Implications for fisheries management

The most noted form of property rights in fisheries is that of individual transferable quotas (ITQs). ITQ management systems are seldom adopted in a pure form. Choices are needed to tailor the systems to fit the conditions of the resources and the socio-economic and political nature of the fishery. Generally, the strongest property rights are those with the fewest constraints on the operation of markets; in this way they can maximize the long-term economic productivity of the fishery. A system with constrained access rights supplemented with regulations to achieve particular social or demographic objectives (e.g. in favour of disadvantaged or vulnerable groups) will operate with less economic efficiency. Fisheries with unfettered transferability maximize the benefits of ITQs, though controls or limitations are often placed on quota markets to limit concentration of quota ownership, to restrict foreign ownership or to place geographical limits on trade of the rights.

An important consideration is the definition of the ITQ itself and the species to be included in the property rights system. A second consideration is the definition of the criteria for the initial allocation of the quota. The sharing formula for species traditionally exploited is usually based on historical performance within fleets. For developing fisheries on under-exploited species, other criteria such as investment in the industry, or vessel characteristics, need to be defined. The third consideration is the allocation process, which must be transparent, and all industry participants in the fishery must be treated equally and justly.

Transferability, or leasing of quota to others, is considered an important part of an ITQ system. Therefore, the restrictions on transferability should be minimal. Also, some degree of under- and over-runs of fisher's quota holdings should be allowed.

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