Earlier this month, Whole Foods announced that they’ll no longer be selling seafood considered to be unsustainable.
Commercial fishing is an incredibly competitive business, which means that near-constant improvements in efficiency are required in order to stay profitable. That basically means catching more fish, more quickly, which is a practice that can’t be sustained over the long term.
The idea behind Whole Foods’ new policy – one that is not too dissimilar from policies at Target and Wal-Mart - is to discourage fishing in places where certain species have seen their population levels decimated by unrestrained fishing activity. Basically, seafood bought by Whole Foods has to be certified “sustainable.” If it’s not, it doesn’t get bought.
(The problem, of course, is that the certification system itself has to be well-designed in order for this to have any effect. There are valid questions about whether that’s the case now, but those are questions for another post.)
Overfishing is a natural and entirely predictable consequence of leaving a public resource like fisheries unregulated. Even though it should be obvious that catching all the fish (or even most of the fish) in a particular fishery means there won’t ever be any more fish to catch, there’s really no inherent incentive for any one fisherman to leave fish there for tomorrow, because that fisherman has no guarantee that he’ll catch that or any other fish in the future. Better to get it now and let the other guys worry about conserving (this is known as the tragedy of the commons).
New England fisheries and fishermen seem to be taking the hardest hit, which is also nothing new.
Overfishing, especially of groundfish species like Atlantic cod, haddock, and yellowtail, has been a problem there since at least the late 1970s. In the early 1990s, the federal government tried to address the issue by amending the fishery regulations that applied there, mostly by limiting the number of days each boat could spend at sea each year, suspending the issuance of new fishing licenses, mandating certain gear changes, and other changes that individually seemed pretty small, but added up to something that looked like it could actually affect catch sizes.
Back then, I was in the Coast Guard, stationed in New Bedford, Massachusetts. One of my shipmates had actually worked fishing boats in New England before enlisting, and whenever we talked about what was going on in the industry at the time, he would bemoan the meddlesome federal government’s boneheaded actions that would inevitably take this treasured way of life and consign it to history. I told him that’s exactly what would happen without the regulations, because the fishermen had already proven themselves incapable of regulating themselves – otherwise, the fisheries wouldn’t be in such danger. I thought it was obvious that fishermen had to either effectively regulate themselves or accept government intervention in order to preserve the resource, the industry, and the way of life they valued so highly. If my arguments ever registered with him, he never showed it.
Perhaps predictably, most New England fishermen saw things the way my friend did. They lashed out at the proposed regulations, claiming they’d drive the entire industry out of business. That didn’t happen: groundfish stocks eventually began to show some signs recovery, and from some preliminary research I did on the subject several years ago, it doesn’t even look like the fishing-based economies of the region took much of a hit overall from those regulations.
But it’s funny how some things just do not change. Fast-forward to today, and some of the reactions from fishermen look eerily similar to the things they said 20 years ago:
“We’ve been murdered,” said Russell Sherman, who sold his entire catch to Whole Foods for the last six years and is seeking new buyers. “It’s not fair at all.”
Except that it is, actually, completely fair. This is the very definition of a market-based solution. If Whole Foods thinks their customers want to shop at a store that sells only sustainable seafood, then they have every right to find suppliers who will sell them what they want. If Whole Foods is wrong, and most people actually don’t care whether the seafood they buy is sustainable or not, then Mr. Sherman and his compatriots are free to find and supply that market.
That’s not to say that I’m unsympathetic to Mr. Sherman and all the other fishermen whose livelihoods have been shaken here. The market can be cruel. Nobody likes to be slapped by the Invisible Hand. Market-based solutions always sound more appealing when we think that we will be the ones who come out ahead, and not the ones who feel the squeeze of market efficiency.
The problem is that I suspect the market-based solution preferred by most fishermen would be to just let them fish, let them feed their families the way their fathers and grandfathers did, and let the chips fall where they may. But we know exactly where that will end up – with a dead industry, dead fisheries, and thousands of unemployed fishermen.
Fishermen can either accept these controls from the outside – whether they come from government or the marketplace – or they can go extinct, right after the fish they catch do the same. It’s not their fault they’ve destroyed the resource they’ve been given, though. It’s human nature.