Big or small fish(ing boats)?

Recent reports in the newspapers say that the owners of the Supertrawler ‘Able Tasman’ are seriously considering mounting a court case against the Australian Commonwealth Government, demanding compensation for being unlawfully stripped away the legal right (quota) to fish in Australian waters. For those who are not familiar with the case, this truly gigantic trawler had perfectly legal quotas for finishing, but was stood down by the Federal Environment minister on the grounds that it is simply, too big!
This decision was taken under enormous pressure mounted by environmental activists and campaigners. Their argument was that this ship is so big, that it effectively cleans up the ocean of all things living, and leaves an underwater desert behind it. Marine scientists were pointing out that this is not the case. In fact, it seems that the environmental and ecosystem effects – such as bycatch and discard – associated with catching the quantity of fish specified under the quota by Able Tasman are likely to be smaller than if the same quantity of fish was caught by many smaller vessels.
Fishery economists were pointing to the elementary findings that fewer boats catching a given quantity of fish is less costly to society, and therefore more efficient than catching the same quantity with many smaller boats. It is also a well known result from fishery economics that a fleet of numerous, small and inefficient boats is far more dangerous for fish populations in the long run, as the owners of these small operations will have a tendency to drive the fish stocks down in a quest for their own economic survival. All these arguments to no avail.
The minister buckled under pressure and took the extremely short term, populist route. The damages from this are going to be multiple. The quota held by Able Tasman is likely to be sold to two, three or several smaller operators. The fish are still going to be taken from the sea, but this time there will be more discard and bycatch. The costs of catching the fish are going to be greater. On top of all that, the taxpayer is going to pay compensation to Able Tasman! What a sweet deal we are having. Thanks Minister!

Author: Tiho Ancev

Tiho Ancev is a Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the School of Economics, University of Sydney. His main research areas are agricultural, environmental, natural resource and energy economics. Tiho’s main contributions have been in water economics and policy, economics of energy, economics of air pollution and climate change policies, and economics of precision agriculture and agricultural input use. He has published widely on these topics in top international peer reviewed journals. Tiho has led and contributed to national and international research projects in these research areas. He is currently the Managing Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics.