Let's float the fishing issue: There is a simple solution to tuna wars and fish stock depletion: privatise the high seas, says Nicholas Roe

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NOW THAT we have all had the weekend in which to brood about the rights and wrongs of the Bay of Biscay tuna wars, maybe it is time to admit something to ourselves: fish disputes have gone off. They are stale. Old. Whiffy.

Each individual battle has its moments, of course. Piracy and mystery at sea always make good reading, and the idea of Spanish and English fishermen wrangling over who has got the biggest net is worth a smile, just as the threat of poverty underlying the whole dispute merits genuine concern.

Yet beneath the gloss of individual circumstance lies one single, wearying truth that cannot be ignored. In one form or another, we have heard all this before. Tuna, cod, haddock, herring, mesh size, quotas, boxes, boat size, days in port, days at sea . . . The words are like milestones in a journey that never ends, and still the wrangles keep coming, confusing us with points of law or geography while leaving the fundamental question apparently unanswered: when the fighting stops, will there be any fish left in the sea?

All right, forget the mind- numbing details flooding in from the Bay. Now is the time to ask whether a system that encourages so many tedious disputes is the right way to run an ocean at all. This is the real point raised by the tuna wars. Not: who has broken the rules? But: shouldn't we re- write the whole book?

At this point, you may feel that you are entering the dreary territory of blueprints for ocean-management and the Law of the Sea. The fact is, however, that one suggestion now gaining currency among marine experts is beautifully simple. Just this. We could privatise the sea. Put more formally, in the words of Dr James Muir, assistant director of the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling, who takes a keen observer's interest in the way we produce our fish, 'The long- term picture which I think will gradually emerge is going to be that of ownership of the stocks.'

That means nothing less than renting out slabs of water to the highest bidder and letting market forces rule the waves, just as they do - with safeguards - on land. And though this may sound like an ideological bandage slapped on to a wound of more complex needs, it is nothing of the kind.

Here is how it would work. In fact, here is how it does work in New Zealand, where licensing arrangements for coastal waters have successfully been in force for some years. You take a stretch of sea, say five miles by five, and as a government, or governmental club, you say to the market: 'Here is an area noted for this kind of fish in this kind of seasonal regularity. What am I bid?' Fishermen promptly go into a huddle and, either as co- operative groups or companies, they start making offers.

The bids would automatically balance all the complex factors which act on seafood markets: demand, competition, future stocks, and the extraordinary technological sophistication of modern fishing methods and their ability to suck up sea life almost at whim. Winners would emerge and licences would be granted for, say, five to ten years at a stretch.

It would then be up to individual licence holders to manage stocks as they see fit. They want to over-fish? Let them. Next year, or the year after, or the year after that they will discover the error of their ways because income would dip. At the first sign of mismanagement there would be an investor on site pulling up nets and sending boats back to port. They want to use tiny mesh size? The same rule would apply. If you own the sea - or, at least, its stocks - you would look after it because it is in your direct financial interest to do so. Even if you plan to stop fishing next year you might want to sell your holding, as shop-keepers do with leases: a ruined business has no value.

Opening up the seas to individual ownership would bring the fierce light of personal interest glaring on to the surface of the water. If you want a parallel, it is the abolition of the commons in rural England. The benefits would not only be sharper management but a more focused system of protest whenever the seas are abused. How do you think a licence holder would react if a ship dumped waste on privately owned cod stocks? Or if there were regular oil spills? Or if, say, port waste facilities were so bad or expensive that boats kept their junk for disposal in the open sea (which, as it happens, they often do)? It is easy to say how fishermen would react. With a writ.

Yes, you might say, it is fine to talk of managed waters, but who is to know what happens out there in the vast blue sea? Well, just for once, technology - which has done so much harm to fish stocks in recent years - could work for the ocean's well-being. As Dr Muir points out, this is the age of satellites. Bleeps or bar codes could link a licence holder to a specific area, and pirates be identified because they emit the wrong signal. Who polices the waves? Locally, Europe. Or if that is too grim a prospect for sceptics, take the private answer just as they do on land. Perhaps we could stick Securicor in a boat and punt its officers out to sea.

There would be ethical problems to overcome, of course. And you would have to know exactly what you were selling when offering a licence: specifically fish rather than leisure space or oil or gas or sunken treasure. But think how many eyes would fix upon mineral prospectors when they turned seaward in this new watery futureworld. The last great wilderness would be crammed with witnesses ready to howl if the slightest thing went wrong: not on a theoretical basis, but for here, now and this bit of sea.

You would have to curb market forces in order to look after small, vulnerable fishing communities that do not have even the power of co-ops to protect them. You would also need to guard against the perils of mass ownership - bass barons, that sort of thing. All sorts of troubles might bubble to the surface if one person owned the sea. Water lords would have to be controlled just as they are - or ought to be - in other areas.

Drinking water is already in private ownership, and anyway the simplicity of licensed oceans makes the idea highly attractive. In a sense, it is injecting the sobering value of property into an activity that has been too free, too long. We are just too good at hunting, too bad at managing hunters. Fish farmers have tended to show the way. Any problems in that industry are dealt with by those whose pockets are most affected when things go wrong: the owners themselves. Admittedly a few wildcats indulge in 'slash and burn' style aquaculture - farming until conditions become intolerable and then moving on - but by and large the industry has a grip of its own destiny.

Fishermen should do the same and can, with licences. Far from losing sight of the sea's long-term value, those whose job it is to plunder this natural resource could take a detailed, small-scale view of their own backyard if it was theirs to look after. And this, of course, is the point at which the whole debate began. Tuna wars start when men in boats a long way from view try to observe, or bend, rules made by well-meaning politicians and scientists back on land. It doesn't work. Controlled self-interest does. Open up the seas. Give the fish a chance.

(Photographs omitted)

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