The Tragedy Of The Commons


In 1492 Columbus discovered islands far to the west, and soon French and British explorers began searching for a northwest route to the Spice Islands. Although such explorers as John Cabot and Jacques Cartier failed to find the Northwest Passage, they did find cod, lots of cod, and vast stretches of shoreline on which to dry it. They also found something else: Basque fishermen.

When Carrier first visited the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, in 1534, and claimed the land for France, he noted the presence in his new “discovery” of more than a thousand Basque fishing boats, all happily catching cod.

From Newfoundland to Massachusetts there is a series of banks, exactly the shallow water that cod prefer. The warm water of the Gulf Stream flows up from the south, while the Labrador current flows down from the Arctic. Meeting over the banks, the two currents roil the waters as they mix, stirring up huge amounts of nutrients. The result of this chance congruence of geographic factors is, to put it mildly, cod heaven.

With the Basque secret revealed, there resulted a cod rush—to use the phrase of Mark Kurlansky in his highly entertaining Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (Walker, 1997). By the mid-sixteenth century 60 percent of the fish being consumed in Europe was cod, most of it caught off North America. One of those who participated in this cod rush, although he would have much preferred to find gold, was Capt. John Smith. Immortal for his part in founding Virginia, in 1614 Smith explored a part of the North American coastline to which he gave the name New England. Disappointed in his search for gold, he set his men to fishing for cod while he went exploring in the ship’s pinnace, mapping the coastline from Maine to the cape that was already named for the fish.

Smith’s map and description of New England—and his profits from cod fishing—encouraged the Pilgrims to seek a charter from the Crown to settle there. Indeed, it was the cod that saved the first European New Englanders. In 1640, only eleven years after Massachusetts Bay Company had been founded by the Puritans, it exported three hundred thousand cod to Europe. Cod was soon also being traded to the West Indies, in exchange for salt, sugar, and molasses. In addition, plowing in the cod waste greatly increased the agricultural productivity of the stony New England soil.

The cod proved the basis of a New England prosperity so considerable that Adam Smith singled it out for praise in his Wealth of Nations . To this day, a wooden sculpture of a cod adorns the walls of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston to remind the legislators of the source of their state’s greatness.

The great cod rush differed from the more familiar gold and oil rushes in that cod is a renewable resource. Like a well-managed trust fund, the North American fishing banks should have paid out dividends in the form of cod forever. For several hundred years they did exactly that. As late as 1885 the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture was of the opinion that “unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile.”

But one century was all it took for a tragedy of the commons to unfold in this entirely unmanaged trust fund. The major fishing nations, each trying to get its share, exploited newly available technology—especially high-powered engine-driven ships, dragnets, and onboard freezing—that simply caught cod faster than even this prolific species could reproduce.

In hopes of finally exerting some control, the United States and Canada extended their jurisdictions out two hundred miles. Then, in 1992, Canada, trying to give the cod a chance to reproduce unmolested for a period and thus save a priceless asset, banned ground fishing (fishing for bottom-feeder fish, principally cod) in most of its Atlantic waters.

It is too soon to know if this will work. But it is not too soon to know that the old system of common ownership does not.