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.
There is also a serious problem with unwanted, less-profitable fish — the bycatch — getting caught in the nets along with the intended catch, and thrown back into the ocean. The vast majority of this discarded catch do not survive the process, and this is a terrible waste.
The competent authorities should be more pro-active in pushing for the introduction of some form of resource management within the industry, allowing fishermen to organize themselves into self-governing bodies and devise their own measures with which they can manage the fishery stocks and introduce an element of stability into the industry. Only then will they avoid the kind of destructive competition that is going on at the moment, and make the fish stocks, and their own livelihood, more sustainable.
We are already at the point where the degree of depletion of Taiwan’s near-shore fishery stocks demands that immediate action be taken. Self-regulation within the fishery industry works: There are success stories overseas to prove it, and the government should take note of this. Things need to change in the way we approach the issue as a nation, in the way fishermen operate, in what resources are made available and in the laws currently in place, in light of what is being achieved in other countries. These need to take into account Ostrom’s theory of collective self-governance’s focus on the importance of local self-determination. If we want to preserve the image of the idyllic life of the fisherman, we really need to look after the oceans better than we are at present.
Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Paul Cooper