The government has finally reached an agreement with Japan on fishing rights. Taiwanese fishing boats can now operate in the waters around the Japanese-administered Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan — south of the 27th parallel north and in a zone outside 12 nautical miles (22km) and within 24 nautical miles of the island chain without fear of interference by the Japanese coast guard.
However, it is more important for the government to look into the overfishing of Taiwan’s fishing stocks: The more Taiwanese fishermen work, the poorer they become, creating a vicious cycle that will ultimately result in the complete exhaustion of the fishing stocks around Taiwan.
The main problem is that the fish stocks around the coast are steadily being depleted, so fishermen are returning to shore with ever-smaller catches, consisting of ever-smaller fish, yielding ever-smaller profits. Fishermen are constantly refitting their boats so that they can catch more fish. This not only increases their costs, it further depletes fish stocks, in a vicious circle.
Every year, the government allocates funds for procuring old fishing boats — in 2011, it bought seven trawlers and 90 smaller fishing vessels, for a total outlay of almost NT$75 million (US$2.52 million) — but this is a terribly ponderous process, offering little to improve the industry or prevent it from deteriorating into a race to the bottom that benefits no one.
Fishing stocks are not inexhaustible, they are a common-pool resource that individual fishermen seek to exploit for their own interests to the long-term detriment of the group, a situation known as the “tragedy of the commons.” This, along with the serious pollution along the nation’s coastal areas, means the waters surrounding our island are fast becoming a dead zone. It is no wonder that Chi Mei Optoelectronics Corp founder Hsu Wen-long (許文龍) plans to set up an association devoted to protecting and monitoring the waters surrounding Taiwan.
US political scientist Elinor Ostrom, awarded the Nobel prize in economics for her work on the tragedy of the commons, believed that common-pool resources did not necessarily have to be privatized or nationalized for them to be managed efficiently. Ostrom believed it is possible for common resources to be managed by groups of individuals with a personal stake in that resource, and there is no reason that this cannot be applied to the management and operation of common fishery resources.
For an example of how this would work, one need look no further than the management of fixed-net salmon fishing in Hokkaido, Japan. To prevent falling prices of salmon due to overfishing, local fishermen established a self-regulatory cooperative that limited the size of salmon catches, increased the efficiency of capital and labor, distributed profits calculated on the value of individual operations and introduced an adjustment system. To prevent excessive competition emerging between fisheries, the cooperative also introduced a mutually agreed fishing vessel limit and fair catch allocation system, thereby stabilizing the local fixed-net salmon fishing industry. The success of this venture shows that the self-governance model is the best way forward.
The Japanese government has made it clear, through legislation, that operators themselves are responsible for the protection and management of fishery resources, as they are responsible for maintaining the stocks at the same time as they exploit them. However, the way fishery resources are protected and managed in Taiwan relies heavily on governmental oversight. Due to the nature of the resource, and the shortcomings of, and loopholes in, the relevant legislation, illegal overfishing continues.