Maine’s Wild Brook Trout Face the Tragedy of the Commons, continued

The potential decline of Maine’s native brook trout fisheries due to the illegal introduction of competing game fish – a story I highlighted yesterday –is a classic Commons problem. Here we have a common resource (brook trout) held in trust by the state (Maine) as a public good (for the people) that is at risk of degradation. How did we arrive at this point?

Garrett Hardin, whose work “Tragedy of the Commons” we have previously explored, would tell us that this outcome was inevitable: degradation and over-exploitation of Common resources is inevitable because individuals, acting in their own self-interest, will ultimately make the decision that their short-term gain outweighs the long-term interests of others.  

The tragedy undergoing Maine’s brook trout waters is interesting because the state regulates the fisheries (I assume here) to be sustainable, for the long-term benefit of the public. It’s not as if this were a free-for-all. And as stated in yesterday’s post, those who are risking the Common resources by introducing non-native fish are doing so illegally. The problem remains however that the state regulations intended to protect the fishery still leaves in place the incentive to exploit the  resource – in this case by introducing a harmful non-native fish – simply because it is in the individual’s interest to do so. Enforcement of regulations in such cases, it should go without saying, is incredibly difficult, because agents of the state can’t be everywhere at once.

So we see clearly that, in an instance such as the one highlighted here, even strict government management of Common resources is not a perfect curative for averting the Tragedy of the Commons. What Hardin and many others would recommend at this point is implementation or recognition of private property rights to the fishery. The private property argument has the merit that it resolves the self-serving interest of the individual seeking to introduce the non-native fish: what motivation would one have to introduce the fish if one could not fish in the private waters anyway. We assume in this line of reasoning that the private property is more closely regulated (watched over), and the regulation more strictly enforced, than occurs on public waterways.

But privatization also has a downside. Privatizing the Commons is a legitimate and valid response to the Tragedy of the Commons, but only if one believes the benefit of long-term preservation of the resource outweighs the costs to society from the loss of Common ownership of the resource, along with all that the loss entails. (And even here I maintain my thesis that private property has not shown itself to be a better system for maintaining resources intact over the long term compared to government control).

So what is the solution? We seem to be stuck in this either/or paradigm of government management vs. privatization. I realize there is some work out there by Elinor Ostrom and others that identifies a third way. One of my desires with our exploration of the Commons and public policy is to develop a framework in which the two outcomes – long-term maintenance of the resource and long-term open access – persist. The question remains though what to do about Maine’s brook trout in the meantime?


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