The Recovery in U.S. Fisheries

Katrina M. Wyman, NYU School of Law


Fisheries are often considered a paradigmatic example of the tragedy of the commons, and many fisheries around the world are indeed overfished. However, this article emphasizes that the biological health of many U.S. fisheries under federal management has improved over roughly the past decade. As a result, it is no longer accurate to think of many U.S. fisheries as tragic or tending toward tragedy.

The bulk of the article is concerned with outlining three possible explanations for the impressive improvement in U.S. fisheries. The first is a legal hypothesis, which attributes the improvement to changes in the main federal statute governing the management of these fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (the Magnuson-Stevens Act or MSA). The second is an economic hypothesis. It ascribes the improvement to the spread of property rights in fisheries called catch shares, a policy change that economists have been advocating for decades. The third is the community hypothesis. It credits the improvement to fishing communities becoming engaged in more sustainable management of fisheries.

The article calls for empirical testing of these three and other hypotheses for the improvement in U.S. fisheries. It concludes by emphasizing that the legal, economic and community hypotheses all raise an underlying question that itself is worthy of further inquiry: what was the political confluence of interests that facilitated the changes in fisheries management that appear to have benefited fish stocks?