A direct way to reduce the catch of wild fish

post by Ren Springlea · 2022-06-21T10:09:33.276Z · EA · GW · 6 comments


  The idea
  Is this idea possible?
  Some back-of-the-envelope calculations
  Things we need to understand first
  Other considerations
  Where to from here?

Author: Ren Springlea (they/them)


Here, I present an idea for a way to directly reduce the catch of wild fish. This idea involves purchasing and withholding tradeable catch shares, and it is functionally similar to paying the commercial fishing industry to fish less. The cost-effectiveness has the potential to be large. However, there are some risks that should be understood before this idea is implemented. To help understand those risks, there are some concrete, tractable research projects that can basically be done now:

If anybody is interested in working on these questions, I'd be happy to help oversee or collaborate on the research.

The idea

Functionally, this idea is a way to pay for the commercial fishing industry to fish less.

Around the world, many commercial fisheries are governed by catch shares. Catch shares are basically property rights held by commercial fishers that enable the holder to do a particular amount of fishing in a particular fishery[1]. Some catch shares are tradable. This means that these catch shares can be bought, sold, and leased on a market. Tradeable catch shares are sometimes called individual transferable quota (ITQs), and I use the terms interchangeably here. If you'd like more information on this concept, there's a good overview on Wikipedia.

My idea is for an EA organisation to purchase some tradeable catch shares and hold them unused. This would essentially remove some amount of fishing rights from the market, reducing the overall amount of fishing that happens. Thus, fewer fish would be killed in fisheries (but see the risks below).

This idea has happened in other contexts. Tradeable property rights are also used to govern pollution. People and organisations, such as environmental charities, have historically purchased permits and removed them from circulation [1,2]. This is sometimes called voluntary cancellation or permit retirement, destruction, or withdrawal. This has happened for carbon emissions (two organisations called Climakind and Sandbag, whose websites seem to have been taken down); sulphur emissions [1,3]; nitrogen emissions [3]; grazing by farm animals [4,5]; water use [6]; and land purchases [7]. A somewhat analogous example from the EA context is the proposal to buy coal mines [EA · GW].

Is this idea possible?

One question is whether it's possible for a non-fishing organisation to purchase catch shares. In short, it's probably possible, although whether it is wise is currently unclear.

Some fisheries that are governed by tradeable catch shares already have investors, who purchase and hold quota without necessarily fishing themselves [8,9]. Some investors originate as fishers who simply lease out their entire quota, and some investors exist because there's no restriction requiring quota-holders to be an active fisher, or even living in the state [10]. I'm told that investors are basically ubiquitous in any high-value fishery governed by tradeable catch shares. I know that some catch shares are traded using online platforms (e.g. this is true for New Zealand and probably some other countries too).

These investors are not popular among fishing communities or fisheries managers. Investors have been criticised for not adding value to the fishery, increasing the indebtedness of the fleet, distributing benefits inequitably, reducing job security of fishers, and marginalising and disempowering fishers [11,12]. So while investment seems to be practical and possible, there are many negative perceptions of investors. Investment by EAs may hold significant risk to public perception of the EA and animal advocacy movements, and damaging the public perception of these movements may have large long-term costs. On the other hand, the negative perception may be more to do with the power relations than the quota limitation. I've been told that investment, at least in high-value fisheries, is basically done by a few very rich people who run an investment 'empire'.

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations

Here are some naive, back-of-the-envelope calculations of how cost-effective this idea might be. I know that this type of calculation suffers from problems, and I only intend for these calculations to be an initial, five-minute look at the potential cost-effectiveness. Please point out if I've made mistakes in these calculations. Although I've put these calculations through peer review, the numbers seem absurdly high to me, so I wouldn't be surprised to learn I've made some mistake. Also note that these aren't intended as recommendations for which fisheries would be well-suited to this idea, as there are factors other than raw cost-effectiveness that would need to be considered (e.g. whether the fishery allows external investors, the response of the fishery to a reduction in catch, whether the fishery is well-studied and well-modelled, and so on).

Consider the fishery for Peruvian anchoveta. The right to catch a ton of anchoveta is typically valued at US$33 [13]. One anchoveta conservatively weighs about 27 grams [14]. Thus, one ton would contain around 37,000 individual fish. This means that an organisation could spend around US$33 and avert the death of 37,000 individual fish. This translates to US$1 buying the lives of over 1,100 fish.

Or consider the fishery for Atlantic menhaden. The right to catch a ton of menhaden is typically valued at US$27 [13]. One menhaden conservatively weighs about 200 grams [15]. Thus, one ton would contain around 5,000 individual fish. This translates to US$1 buying the lives of around 190 fish.

The results of these two calculations vary by an order of magnitude. Also, even 190 fish per dollar might be less impactful than it would seem, since the duration of suffering or lifespan lost when a fish is caught might be relatively small. That said, these naive calculations do show that the cost-effectiveness has the potential to be big.

Now, this idea suffers from some risks that might mean the true, counterfactual cost-effectiveness is lower than what my calculations suggest.

Things we need to understand first

I've identified seven key risks to this idea, and it would be smart to better understand these risks before we go ahead with this intervention. These risks might make the idea less cost-effective, so we need to do further research to figure out exactly how big these risks are.

  1. If fewer fish are caught, the fish population may increase. In some fish populations, a larger population might mean that more fish die young due to density-dependent effects.
  2. If fewer fish are caught, the fish population may develop a different age-structure. For example, there might be more younger, low-weight fish (but the specific outcome would be context-dependent. This might mean that a given weight of catch results in more individual fish being caught.
  3. If a commercial fisher sells their tradeable catch share, they might continue to fish but simply in a different fishery.
  4. If fewer fish are caught, the fishery manager might set a higher total allowable catch (TAC). This could enable more fish to be caught.
  5. If fewer fish are caught, this might reduce supply of the species and thus increase the prices of that species. This might shift demand to other fish species.
  6. If EAs invest in catch shares to reduce fishing effort, the government may become aware of this and change the law to forbid this type of investment. This might make this idea totally impossible for a given fishery.
  7. If EAs invest in catch shares to reduce fishing effort, this may make the public dislike the EA community or the animal advocacy community. This might cause long-term harm to long-term trajectory of the EA and animal advocacy movements.

Given all of these risks (particularly the first five), the true, counterfactual cost-effectiveness of this idea might be lower than the back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest. So, if we want to understand what the true cost-effectiveness of this idea is, it would be important to understand these risks.

I've summarised these risks in the table below. I've also given some initial thought to the research methods that could help us better understand these risks.

 How this risk worksResearch method for better understanding this riskHow this risk could be measured
1Larger fish population means more spawned fishes will die due to density-dependent effectsFishery modellingIn a fishery model, measure the number of fish that the model predicts to be born but killed before recruiting to the population.
2Larger fish population may have a different age-structure, such as more younger, low-weight fishes, meaning a given catch may result in more fishes being caughtFishery modellingIn a fishery model, impose an exogenous  decrease to catch, then measure the number of additional fish that are harvested, compared to if that shock had not occurred.
3If a commercial fisher sells their tradeable catch share, they might continue to fish but simply in a different fishery.Survey of fishers or fishery managersIt seems trivial to conduct a survey to ask what commercial fishers would do, or have done, if they are required by some external event to fish less in a particular fishery
4Larger fish population may result in the policymaker setting a higher total allowable catch (TAC), enabling more fishes to be harvestedFishery modelling with a harvest strategy evaluation (HSE)In a fishery model that uses a harvest strategy, measure the number of fish harvested after an increase to TAC, compared to if that increase had not occurred.
5A lower catch may result in a higher price for that species, shifting the demand to different speciesEconometric analysis of market dataFind a fishery market that experienced an exogenous decrease to catch (e.g. a fishery closure due to COVID-19). Estimate the number of fish from other species that were purchased, compared to if that closure had not occurred.
6If EAs invest in catch shares to reduce fishing effort, the government may become aware of this and change the law to forbid this type of investmentI don't know 
7If EAs invest in catch shares to reduce fishing effort, this may make the public dislike the EA community or the animal advocacy communityI don't know 


Other considerations

Here are some other thoughts that might be relevant to this idea, in no particular order:

Where to from here?

To understand the true cost-effectiveness of this idea, it is essential to understand the seven risks I've identified (and possibly others that I haven't thought of). Many of these risks can be better understood by fisheries modelling, which is a set of techniques for simulation fisheries using computer software. This is an area where I have some expertise and work experience. I think somebody who understands fisheries modelling or population modelling[2] could generate some results in weeks or months. A further two of the risks can also be easily studied using a survey or econometric analysis of market data.

It would also be a good idea to search for fisheries that do actually let external investors purchase catch shares. There are several academic review papers that would be a good starting point.

If you're interested in pursuing any of these questions, please feel free to reach out. I was offered a grant to do this research, but I turned it down to accept my current job. Although I don't have the time to work on this project full-time, I'd be happy to help oversee or collaborate on a project.


Note: This article reflects my views and my experiences outside of work. This article does not reflect the views of my employer (Animal Ask). I've written and spoken about this idea elsewhere, but under my old name.


1 Israel, D. (2007) Environmental participation in the U.S. sulfur allowance auctions. Environ. Resour. Econ. 38, 373–390, http://isu.indstate.edu/disrael/so2_ere_fig.pdf

2 Rousse, O. (2008) Environmental and economic benefits resulting from citizens’ participation in CO2 emissions trading: An efficient alternative solution to the voluntary compensation of CO2 emissions. Energy Policy 36, 388–397, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0301421507004223

3 Schwarze, R. and Zapfel, P. (2000) Sulfur Allowance Trading and the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market: A Comparative Design Analysis of two Major Cap-and-Trade Permit Programs? Environ. Resour. Econ. 17, 279–298, https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/52751/1/MPRA_paper_52709.pdf

4 Malueg, D.A. and Yates, A.J. (2006) Citizen participation in pollution permit markets. J. Environ. Econ. Manage. 51, 205–217, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

5 Salvo, M. et al. (2001) Permits for cash: A fair and equitable resolution to the public land range war. Rangelands 23, https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/rangelands/article/viewFile/11497/10770

6 Carr, B. et al. (2016) The Murray-Darling Basin Balanced Water Fund and the Environmental Water Trust – using markets and. 8th Australian Stream Management Conference at <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305754313_The_Murray-Darling_Basin_Balanced_Water_Fund_and_the_Environmental_Water_Trust_-_using_markets_and_innovative_financing_to_restore_wetlands_and_floodplains_in_the_Murray-Darling_Basin_for_financial_so>

7 Kareiva, P. et al. (2014) REVIEW: The evolving linkage between conservation science and practice at The Nature Conservancy. J. Appl. Ecol. 51, 1137–1147, https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/1365-2664.12259

8 van Putten, I. and Gardner, C. (2010) Lease quota fishing in a changing rock lobster industry. Mar. Policy 34, 859–867, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0308597X10000096

9 Innes, J. et al. (2014) Does size matter? An assessment of quota market evolution and performance in the Great Barrier Reef fin-fish fishery. Ecol. Soc. 19, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/26269600.pdf

10 van Putten, I. et al. (2011) Network analysis of a rock lobster quota lease market. Fish. Res. 107, 122–130, https://www.academia.edu/download/41789202/Network_analysis_of_a_rock_lobster_quota20160130-11868-1nvfxjp.pdf

11 Edwards, D.N. and Pinkerton, E. (2019) Rise of the investor class in the British Columbia Pacific halibut fishery. Mar. Policy 109, 103676, https://fisheries.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2019/05/Working-Paper2019-01-HalibutInvestorClass1.pdf

12 Pascoe et al. (2019) Retrospective assessment of ITQs to inform research needs and to improve their future design and performance. FRDC, Canberra at <https://www.frdc.com.au/sites/default/files/products/2017-159-DLD.pdf>

13 Cashion, T. et al. (2018) Establishing company level fishing revenue and profit losses from fisheries: A bottom-up approach. PLoS One 13, e0207768, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0207768

14 Claramunt, G. et al. (2007) Is the spawning frequency dependent on female size? Empirical evidence in Sardinops sagax and Engraulis ringens off northern Chile. Fish. Res. 85, 248–257, https://www.academia.edu/download/56399149/FISH2298.pdf

15 Turner, R.E. (2017) Smaller size-at-age menhaden with coastal warming and fishing intensity. Geo 4, e00044, https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdfdirect/10.1002/geo2.44

16 Asproudis, E. and Gil-Moltó, M.J. (2014) Pollution and Environmentalists’ Participation in Emissions Trading Systems. Strategic Behavior and the Environment 4, 59–87, https://www.nowpublishers.com/article/Details/SBE-0044

17 Abbott, J. et al. (2009) Designing ITQ programs for commercial recreational fishing. Mar. Policy 33, 766–774, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X0900027X

  1. ^

    Some catch shares entitle the holder to catch a particular volume of fish. From memory, I believe there are also fisheries where the catch shares entitle the holder to fish for some particular amount of effort (e.g. to set a number of lobster pots).

  2. ^

    The level of understanding that I think is necessary is being able to read a paper describing a fishery model and then, given the equations described and the data used by the authors, write and run the model in a computer program. This would take, at least, knowing most of the content in Malcolm Haddon's excellent textbook and experience writing and running fisheries models in R, AD Model Builder, and/or Stock Synthesis. It took me about three months to reach this level of understanding, although I did begin with experience in R and a background in ecological theory.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vgvt · 2022-06-21T20:49:55.564Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

-Though it doesn’t apply to the species highlighted , or the other small shoaling species that would probably be most productive, There are some species where we wouldn’t have to just worry about people eating a different species of fish, but also potentially farmed individuals of the same species.

  • I was generally agreeing until you compared it to hunting, which showed the major flaw, It’s inaccurate to model fisheries or regulated game populations like normal “wild-animals” It makes more sense to think of them as state owned livestock that the government makes a pretty penny selling,

to illustrate my point here, https://www.pgc.pa.gov/Wildlife/WildlifeSpecies/Ring-NeckedPheasant/Documents/PA_Pheasant_Mgmt_Plan__Final.pdf ,

is my states management plan ( 2008-2017)for ring-neck-pheasants, a non native species from east Asia that is known to lower populations of native American wildlife like bobwhite quail and prairie-chickens through competition, nest-parasitism, disease and direct conflict. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_pheasant

-The plan calls for releasing hundreds of thousands of individuals annually, -modifying habitat to encourage pheasant populations -advising landowners on how to encourage pheasant populations -financially support farmers for providing ideal pheasant habitat -establish a hunting license for pheasants ( has been done)

  • support pheasant hunting

I chose this species because being nonnative and harming native wildlife like bobwhite, makes it more self evident this isn’t mere “conservation” , state governments make money selling hunting licenses , and so grow populations of “game”, by making habitats they use, suppressing predators, making fertility control illegal, and/or releasing captive bred individuals , and this is at the cost of native wildlife and ecosystems. Buying a hunting license is like buying a cow at a livestock auction, even if you save her, it supports all the wrong things and gives money to the wrong people.

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/4FSANaX3GvKHnTgbw/35-150-billion-fish-are-raised-in-captivity-to-be-released [EA · GW]

And similar situations go on in terms of aquatic-life, with , economically important species being bred in large numbers to release for fishermen to catch,

Maybe I’ve misunderstood but If tradeable catch shares do function like hunting liscences (as a product the government is selling to the consumer) , It seems straightforwardly bad, because raising fish on farms and releasing them seems really bad.

comment by Charles He · 2022-06-21T14:23:39.347Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The killing of wild fish through suffocation and crushing might be agonizing and terrible.

The actual living conditions of fish in farming seems like a larger concern (I wouldn’t be shocked if it was 100x larger).

For example salmon unable to satisfy intense need to spawn or migrate, or fish living in squalid, oxygen deprived pools who are not adapted to this environment naturally.

This might be a great intervention but this seems like an important consideration.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2022-06-21T16:35:21.818Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Two other potential risks:

  1. Their lives could be bad overall, or a procreation asymmetry is true, and so increasing their populations could be bad.

  2. Non-target species in the same fisheries may be harmed. If I recall correctly, anchovies eat small arthropods, including zooplancton, so reducing anchovy catch may decrease their populations, and you might think that's bad, because you think these arthropods have good lives and it's better for more of them to exist. See



On the other hand, you might think the effects on these small arthropods are good, or it's good to replace these arthropods with more anchovies, because the additional anchovies have better lives in total than the lost arthropods.

Replies from: MichaelStJules, Guy Raveh
comment by MichaelStJules · 2022-06-21T18:09:30.808Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Another potential risk is that groups will take this kind of intervention on and use it on overfishing/overfished fisheries, increasing the populations so much that more fish will be caught by humans in the long run.

comment by Guy Raveh · 2022-06-21T17:05:49.409Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, this will be a bit of a disorganised ramble

I think this type of reasoning is where utilitarian ethics stop making sense.

It seems reasonable to me to assume wild animals generally "want to live", based on their instinctive responses to stimuli, including both the fish and whomever they eat. Perhaps in some circumstances they don't - e.g. when starved because of overpopulation.

These effects - fish eating more zooplancton, or either fish or zooplancton having worse lives as a result of some chain of effects from deciding wether or not to kill them, are so far out of our control, especially when discussing marginal changes. On the other hand, the direct violence of killing them* is.

I find it hard to consistently defend deontological theories, but the conclusions of utilitarianism seem to me even worse here - e.g. should humans identify, for all species, whether they enjoy life or not, and drive all those who don't extinct? If we believe they all enjoy life, should we kill all predators? There are so many ways such conclusions can be wrong, morally or even in terms of logic** or science.

*For farmed fish, it can similarly be argued that we cause them lives full of suffering by overpopulating or by mistreatment. Though killing wild fish is bad, this does not imply that bringing farmed fish into life is good. Still, I don't even buy into the inverted idea that bringing wild fish into existence is good.

**What I mean in wrong logic here is not that the conclusion doesn't follow from the assumptions, but rather that the logical framing or solution ideas are wrong - for example treating the species as one unit instead of each fish individually, thus potentially killing lots of happy fish in order to euthanise others who are suffering. I think most agree this would be wrong.

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2022-06-21T18:06:28.425Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think animals are often motivated by pain, fear and frustration to avoid things that would kill them in the short term, so it's hard to take their responses and the appearance of wanting to live as evidence that their lives are worth starting or continuing.

I think the issues here are plausibly complex and subtle on deontological views. The harm anchovies cause to arthropods is also direct violence, just not by what we would normally consider to be moral agents. We aren't deciding for this intervention whether or not we will personally kill anchovies or arthropods; we're influencing others to do so more or less, and some of those others are humans who wouldn't be sensitive to the harms to nonhuman animals either way, and some are anchovies. The anchovies harming arthropods isn't much further out of our control, just one or two steps further along the causal chain, which is already at least a few steps long.

Maybe one way to reconcile your intuitions here with consequentialism would be through "person-affecting" views.