The Tragedy of the Commons: Why We All Need to Band Together

The Tragedy of the Commons: Why We All Need to Band Together
By Garrett Cameron Delgado


The theory of the Tragedy of the Commons originated in the cattle grazing pastures of England and Ireland in the 1830’s when William Lloyd observed that cattle populations on communal grazing lands exceeded what the pastures could sustainably support.  Growing herds damaged pastures by consuming grasslands faster than their ability to grow back.  The farmers who shared a pasture were not individually incentivized to limit the size of their herd.  The result was the depletion of grazeable land and hungry cows. All farmers lost due to the communal pursuit for more.  And as it comes to fishing, what was once thought to be an industry of infinite resources, the communal pursuit for more has manifested itself in overfishing which is now responsible for the destruction and damage of many fisheries and fish species around our globe.  For every field, every crop, every sea, every species of fish, there is a scientifically calculated quota that can be reaped, and any additional amount removed will result in lower harvests in the future (by definition being unsustainable). It's not news to anyone that humans are depleting many of our public/natural resources. What you might not know is that for 200 years we have known why it happens and how to stop it.

Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. Therein is the tragedy.
-Garrett Hardin

Through observing the more general use of public goods (resources that belong to all people or a group of people), Hardin articulates that - when unregulated - goods may become overused and abused.  The adoption of regulations becomes necessary to ensure the longevity and stability of these resources. As it relates to achieving seafood sustainability, the threat with the greatest impact is overfishing (including environmentally destructive fishing practices like drag-netting).  When unregulated, many fishers around our globe pursue the largest catches to generate the greatest profits.  They may aim to reap the greatest profits without consideration for future catches, thinking, “I am only one of many fishers in these vast waters—what impact can one fisher really have?”  Catching more fish than what can be ecologically replenished results in dwindling stocks, ecosystem imbalances, and eventually fishery collapses. Moreover, every species along the food chain needs to stand in equilibrium, as a depletion of low trophic level species (species low on the food chain) will have negative upstream effects on the health and survival of mid-level and high trophic level species, and vice versa.  As it is important for each individual fisher to be mindful of not contributing to overfishing, several bad actors can erase the efforts of many ethical fishers. Sustainability cannot be accomplished alone, so we must all band together and ‘cast our vote’ to save our seas by always making responsible purchasing decisions.

In banding together, making the right choice does not have to be difficult, tedious, or expensive. The toolbox exists and there are proven methods that are effective and necessary to achieving seafood sustainability.  To reach these aims the fishing industry must abide by the following rational:

  1. Calculation of sustainable harvest limits
  2. Adoption of catch regulations based on the evidence 
    1. Managed by third parties without a vested financial interest in any specific fisher
  3. Effective enforcement to uphold regulations
    1. Including third party: on-boat fishery observers and traceability enforcement

As a consumer, you only need to ensure that the seafood you consume is sourced from fishers who follow these practices.  Fortunately, we do not all need to be experts as to whether the fish on our menus or supermarkets are sustainably sourced as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program helps us stay informed with their easy to use Seafood Recommendation Guide.  A quick Guide reference of the fish on your menu places it in one of the following categories: “Best Choice”, “Good Alternative”, or “Avoid”. If you stick to “Best Choice” whenever possible and steer clear of “Avoid” you are off to a great start in improving our ocean ecosystems.

The US Groundfish Collapse and Rebuild: A Cinderella Story

In the late 1990s, after half a century of poor management, increased demand for groundfish, improved fish processing, and an abundance of foreign fishers in US Waters* the West Coast groundfish fishery was nearing collapse.  In 2000, the fishery was declared a “disaster”, large areas were closed to commercial fishing, and the fishery was restructured to establish evidence-based quotas, effective methods of enforcement, and safeguards to prevent future overfishing.  After just five years of allowing the fish stocks to rebound, healthy ecosystems were regenerating. Thanks to these conservation efforts, the recovery has been incredibly successful, with nearly all of the ten species classified as overfished are now recovered (Yellowtail rockfish, Chilipepper rockfish, Arrowtooth flounder, Dover sole...). The two remaining overfished groundfish stocks in the region are well on track to being rebuilt in coming years.  Instead of maintaining the status-quo by overfishing these species to commercial extinction, the effective means of sustainable management we preach has revitalized the West Coast groundfish fishery. These measures have saved these ecologically valuable species, secured the success of the fishing industry for generations to come (as we continue to maintain sustainable practices), and continued to serve as a prime example to all of the fisheries who are nearing collapse.

While there are many other incredibly important areas of fisheries sustainability (eliminating bycatch, ethical catch methods, eliminating waste...), addressing overfishing is a vital, foundational step that fishers and consumers can both support without conflict, because in the long run all good actors benefit from well managed resources.  Well managed fish stocks will maintain the highest ecological value while yielding the largest catches year over year, generating the most profits for fishers in the long run, creating the lowest prices for consumers, and sustaining our world’s most valuable resource, the ocean. The only losers are the bad actors who are restricted from reaping more this cycle at the expense of future fishing seasons.

Where OFN Comes In
You, your friends, and all of us can support the health of future fisheries by consuming fish sourced from well-managed stocks, and using convenient tools like MSC Certification and the Seafood Recommendation Guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program when we make a purchasing decision. At Neptune Snacks, we promote the consumption of sustainable fish stocks that are guaranteed as sustainable and far from nearing their catch limit.  On every packet we inform you of the exact species of fish we source, from which fishery it was caught, the sustainability rating of your fish, and the name of the fisher who caught it. It is important to inform consumers that the fish they consume are sustainable and why eating sustainably is critical to avoiding the tragedy of the commons in our oceans. That is why we carefully chose to start with the Pacific rockfish. Once overfished, now plentiful in our seas, the Pacific rockfish is one of the best ecological rebound success stories.  As we so often say at Neptune Snacks, “All hail the mighty Rockfish!”

Garrett holds a degree in Economics from Stanford University and is one of the Founders of Neptune Snacks

* In 1976 the Magnuson-Stevens Act set a 200 mile zone giving each nation exclusive fishing rights in their territory’s waters