In many parts of the world, life in the oceans is dying out. The term ‘dead zones’ is used to describe seas that are devoid of marine life. And these zones are growing in size and number.
It’s not just the decline in fish and other marine species that’s worrying environmentalists and many others; it’s a growth in rubbish. Part of this is caused by natural disasters, such as the 2011 Tsunami in Japan that washed huge amounts of debris into the Pacific Ocean. But much of it is caused by rubbish carried down rivers and into the seas, or rubbish jettisoned from ships. The problem is particularly acute in areas of the oceans where currents circulate the rubbish into huge rubbish dumps. There are two such areas either side of Hawaii in the Pacific. Both are vast.
The first article below tells the tale of Newcastle (Australia) yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen. He completed the 2013 Melbourne to Osaka double handed yacht race earlier this year as skipper of his yacht Funnelweb and then went on to bring the yacht home to Australia via America and race the famous Trans-Pac Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii along the way.
Exactly 10 years before, when [he] had sailed exactly the same course from Melbourne to Osaka, all he’d had to do to catch a fish from the ocean between Brisbane and Japan was throw out a baited line.
“There was not one of the 28 days on that portion of the trip when we didn’t catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat with some rice,” Macfadyen recalled. But this time, on that whole long leg of sea journey, the total catch was two. No fish. No birds. Hardly a sign of life at all.
After reaching Osaka in Japan, they sailed on to San Francisco via Hawaii.
“After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,” Macfadyen said. “We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. It was pretty sickening.”
“I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.”
In place of the missing life was garbage in astounding volumes.
As economists, you should readily understand that here we have a case of over-exploited common resources – a Tragedy of the Commons of epic proportions. One ship’s rubbish may make a tiny difference, but when the cost of dumping is near zero and when the oceans are not policed, what is rational for a single ship becomes a disaster when repeated tens of thousands of times by other ships
Again, overfishing is the result of seemingly rational behaviour by crews of individual fishing boats. But as Economics (8th edition) points out on pages 328–30:
Common resources are not owned but are available free of charge to anyone. Examples include the air we breathe and the oceans for fishing. Like public goods, they are non-excludable. For example, fishing boats can take as many fish as they are able from the open seas. There is no ‘owner’ of the fish to stop them. As long as there are plentiful stocks of fish, there is no problem.
But as more people fish the seas, so fish stocks are likely to run down. This is where common resources differ from public goods. There is rivalry. One person’s use of a common resource diminishes the amount available for others. This result is an overuse of common resources. This is why fish stocks in many parts of the world are severely depleted, why virgin forests are disappearing (cut down for timber or firewood), why many roads are so congested and why the atmosphere is becoming so polluted (being used as a common ‘dump’ for emissions). In each case, a resource that is freely available is overused. This has become known as the tragedy of the commons.
… When I use a common resource, I am reducing the amount available for others. I am imposing a cost on other people: an external cost. If I am motivated purely by self-interest, I will not take these external costs into account.
Try doing some research to find out just what has been happening to the state of the oceans in recent years.
The ocean is broken Newcastle Herald (Australia), Greg Ray (18/10/13)
Our Planet Is Exploding With Ocean Dead Zones Business Insider, Dina Spector (26/6/13)
Health of oceans ‘declining fast’ BBC News, Roger Harrabin (3/10/13)
Chaos in the Oceans Huffington Post, Evaggelos Vallianatos (14/10/13)
Ocean Health Suffers from Overfishing, Index Finds Live Science, TechMedia, Douglas Main (16/10/13)
Dead zone (ecology) Wikipedia
Common Fisheries Policy Wikipedia
Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy Fisheries DG, European Commission
Ocean Health Index OHI
- How does a common resource differ from a public good?
- What is the equilibrium use of a common resource? Demonstrate this with a diagram.
- What is the socially efficient use of a common resource such as a fishing ground?
- In what ways have modern ‘industrial’ methods of fishing compounded the problem of the overuse of fishing grounds?
- What criteria, other than social efficiency, could be used to determine the optimal use of a common resource?
- Explain how the Common Fisheries Policy of the EU works. Are there any lessons that can be learned by other groups of countries from the experience of the CFP?
- Are there any ‘good news’ stories about the state of any of the oceans? If so, to what extent are they the result of deliberate human action?
- To what extent is the Internet a common resource?
It’s a relatively common dish to see on a menu at a restaurant: mackerel. This particular fish has been promoted as a healthy and sustainable dish, but now its sustainability is coming into question and the Marine Conservation Society has taken it off its ‘fish to eat’ list. My brother Hugh is a marine biologist and often comments on which fish we should be avoiding due to sustainability issues (especially given how much I like fish!) So, how is this an economics issue?
There a couple of key things to pick out here. Firstly, with the conservationists’ warning of this issue of unsustainability, they have been asking consumers to reduce the amount of mackerel they buy. This will naturally have an impact on fisherman. If consumers do listen to the conservationists and hence reduce their demand for mackerel, we could see a fall in the price of this fish and a reduction in the fishermen’s turnover. It could be that we see a switch in consumption to other more sustainable fish, especially if we see some form of intervention.
Another area concerning economics is the idea of over-fishing. For years, there have been disputes over who has the rights to these fish stocks. In the past, the Faroe Isles and Iceland have increased their quotas significantly, as mackerel appear to have migrated to their shores, contributing to this question of sustainability. Iceland and the Faroe Isles have ‘unilaterally agreed their quotas … as they are not governed by the common fisheries policy’.
The question is: when fisherman catch one additional mackerel, what are they considering? Do they think about the private benefit to them (or their company) or do they consider the external cost imposed on others? Whenever one fish is taken from the sea, there is one less fish available for other fishermen.
This leads to over-consumption of fish and contributes towards the well-documented depletion of fish stocks and ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, if account is not taken of the external cost imposed on other fishermen.
The total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended and previously agreed upon by all participating countries. Negotiations to introduce new catch allowances have so far failed to reach agreement.
There are hopes that an international policy on quotas can be agreed to ensure mackerel levels return to or remain at a sustainable level. However, at present no progress has been made. Until some form of an agreement is reached, fishermen around Iceland and the Faroe Isles will continue to battle against the conservationists. The following articles consider this fishy topic.
Mackerel taken off conservationists’ ‘fish-to-eat’ list The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (22/1/13)
Warning over mackerel stocks Scottish Herald (22/1/13)
Fishing quota talks begin amid ongoing disputes and finger-pointing The Scotsman, Fran Urquhart (14/1/13)
Mackerel no longer an ethical choice because of over-fishing The Telegraph, Louise Gray (22/1/13)
Ths fishy tale of macro-mismanagement The Guardian, Annalisa Barbieri (22/1/13)
You can still eat mackerel – just make sure it’s British The Telegraph, Louise Gray (22/1/13)
Dispute means mackerel is no longer fish of the day BBC News, Matt McGrath (22/1/13)
Mackerel struck off sustainable fish list Associated Press (22/1/13)
- Why are quotas set by the EU for fishing? Who do they apply to?
- Why is there an externality from fishing?
- What is the Tragedy of the Commons? Using a diagram with average and marginal revenue product and average and marginal cost illustrate the market equilibrium and the social optimum. Why are they different?
- Following on from question 3, what does this suggest about the role of governments?
- If the conservationists’ request regarding buying less mackerel is successful, what impact might this have on fishermen and fisheries?
- If consumers do switch to buying other fish, what would happen to the equilibrium in the mackerel market and in the market for other fish? Think about this question in terms of general equilibrium analysis.
$8 billion – this is the likely cost of the BP oil leak, which spilled 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Whilst the oil leak has been stopped for some time, there were ongoing concerns that the leak would re-appear due to the underwater pressure. The cost of stopping the leak has been substantial, but BP will face further costs, as the company begins to pay out compensation.
$20 billion is the compensation that residents of the Gulf of Mexico will receive. Further to this, BP has said that it will invest more money in promoting the tourism industry there, which has suffered from the oil spill. However, what about the fishing industry? Although compensation will be paid for the losses incurred, will this continue in the long term? The oil may cause a loss in productivity in certain populations of sea-life. How will this impact us? If certain fish became scarcer, then their price will rise accordingly, whether you purchase the fish at a shop or have it as a meal in a restaurant. To make matters worse, the hurricane season has arrived in the affected areas, which will make the clean-up effort even harder.
As BP’s share price has fallen, individuals have suffered from lower dividends. Jupiter Income Trust had almost 10% of their portfolio invested in BP, which largely explains the 9 per cent drop in their payout.
BP oil well ‘poses no further risk’, says Allen BBC News (5/9/10)
BP oil spill fallout hits Jupiter dividend Mail Online, Richard Dyson (4/9/10)
Gulf Oil leak: biggest ever, but how bad? BBC News, Richard Black (3/8/10)
BP oil spill didn’t hit tourism too hard Jabber Lounge, Gloria Rand (5/9/10)
BP oil victims face strings on $20 billion oil fund Telegraph, Rowena Mason (20/8/10)
BP share price data
BP historical share prices Yahoo Finance
BP share price chart Interactive Investor
- Which industries have been affected by the oil leak? Don’t think too close to home – look at the wider picture.
- Is the oil spill an example of a negative externality? Can it be illustrated on a diagram and, if so, how?
- What has happened to BP’s share price since the beginning of the oil spill? Put this on to a graph to trace the trend. Try to explain the changes in the share price using a demand and supply diagram.
- How would BP have calculated the compensation to be paid to residents of the Gulf of Mexico? Would cost–benefit analysis have been involved?