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Quota systems and resource management: Icelandic fishing
by Gísli Pálsson and Agnar Helgason
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  In the modern world, quota systems of the kind discussed in this article, and similar market approaches are increasingly adopted in response to environmental problems. This applies, for instance, to wildlife in the Arctic, including the Northwest Territories of Canada and to fishing in Iceland and several other northern contexts. The arguments for such systems are seductive and powerful in the modern world and there is no need to reproduce them here. In several fisheries in different parts of the world, fishing stocks are being turned into private property. First, the resource is appropriated by regional or national authorities and later on the total allowable catch for a season (TAC) is divided among producers, often the owners of boats. At a still later stage, such temporary privileges are turned into a marketable commodity. Many scholars, however, have raised serious doubts and criticisms with respect to the theory of privatization and the tragedy of the commons as it raises central questions of ethics, politics, and social theory (1,2,3,4). Market approaches to resource management are often assumed to be incompatible with egalitarian sensibilities and communitarian notions of stewardship and responsibility. Social scientists -- including anthropologists and economists -- should attempt to examine what the rather loose reference to the 'market' entails (5,6,7). Studies of ITQ systems in fisheries and their effects are still in their infancy (8,9,10). Changes in the actual distribution of ITQs as well as the direct and indirect responses to such changes represent an important field of research.
  This article focuses on the Icelandic experience of quota systems and its implications. During the so-called 'cod wars' with Britain and West Germany in the 1970s, Iceland claimed national ownership of the fishing stocks in coastal waters, a highly valuable resource. The domestic fleet, however, continued to grow and catches, relative to effort, continued to decline. By 1982 politicians and interest groups were increasingly of the opinion that radical measures would be needed to prevent the 'collapse' of the cod stock and make fishing more economical. An individual transferable quota (ITQ) system was introduced in 1984 to deal with the problem. This system divided access to the resource among those who happened to be boat owners when the system was introduced, largely on the basis of their fishing record during the three years preceding the system. While originally the system was presented as a short-term 'experiment', with the fisheries laws passed by the Icelandic Parliament in 1990 it was reinforced and extended into the distant future.
  We have constructed a database (the 'Quotabase') with detailed information on all vessels that have been allotted ITQs from the onset of the system. These data provide an invaluable opportunity to examine changes in the distribution of ITQs among boat owners, thereby shedding light on some of the social repercussions of resource management under the ITQ system. Our statistical findings show that fishing rights have been increasingly concentrated in the hands of the biggest companies. Moreover, following the expanded commoditization of fishing rights in 1990, the concentration of ITQs has escalated. Meanwhile, public discontent with the concentration of ITQs and the ensuing social repercussions of this process is increasingly articulated in terms of feudal metaphors, including those of 'tenancy' and the 'lords of the sea'.
  With ITQ systems, fishing is subjected to stringent regulations and 'scientific' control. Generally, both marine scientists and economists have presented the coastal ecosystem as a predictable, domesticated domain. Other voices, however, are also heard at times. Knowledge of the ecosystem, it is argued, especially by fishermen, is too imperfect for making reliable forecasts. Since many marine ecosystems are chaotic and fluctuating regimes, those who are directly involved in resource use on a daily basis are likely to have the most reliable information as to what goes on in the system at any particular point in time. There may be good grounds for exploring more closely how fishermen's knowledge differs from the textual knowledge of professional biologists and to what extent the former could be brought more systematically into the process of resource management (11,12,13).
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Quota systems and resource management: Icelandic fishing,
by Gísli Pálsson and Agnar Helgason .
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