BOX 2.1 Fish as Common-Pool Resources

Fish populations are often thought of as common-pool resources (V. Ostrom and E. Ostrom, 1977). Common-pool resources have two major characteristics:

  1. It is difficult and costly to exclude potential users of the resource because of the resource's physical characteristics. For example, it may be difficult to identify and monitor boundaries for some resources, such as migratory fish, that range far from land, and such resources may cross multiple jurisdictions. Laws and customs protecting public or communal rights can also make exclusion difficult.
  2. The resource is finite, and extraction by one user diminishes the amount available to other potential users. This is known as subtractability or rivalry in consumption (Plott and Meyer, 1975; V. Ostrom and E. Ostrom, 1977). Fish are owned by individuals for their own benefit only when captured. Once captured, they are not available for others to capture and use, or to contribute to growth and perpetuation of the stock.

These characteristics create numerous challenging problems when the supply of a resource is limited in relation to its demand. When exclusion and subtractability are costly, many individuals can access and use a common-pool resource.

The following sections discuss how the public trust doctrine applies to fisheries, how other common-pool resources are managed, and similarities and differences in the management of different resources.

The Public Trust Doctrine and Fisheries

All fisheries management in the United States takes place within the context of a cultural and legal framework that strongly influences what is and can be done and also how various management measures are implemented. The public trust doctrine is a significant component of this framework. It is a common law doctrine (i.e., judicially developed, rather than statutory) that reflects popular and general political and cultural concepts, in particular the idea that the resources of the seas within U.S. jurisdiction belong to the public and that the government holds them in trust for the public.

Applicability of the public trust doctrine to U.S. fisheries has several ramifications for this study. First, in light of the essential inalienability of public trust resources, it reinforces concerns about the “giveaway" of public resources to private interests. Second, it confers on government a continuing duty of supervision and a responsibility to choose courses of action least destructive to trust

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