Tragedy of the Commons
In economic terms, a fishery is treated as a common good. A common good is both non-excludable and rivalrous, which means that not only one cannot prevent others from having access to the good, but a consumer's consumption of a unit of the good prevents other consumers from consuming it. Most tangible goods, including fisheries, qualify as rivalrous. The issue with common goods is best illustrated with what has been dubbed as the Tragedy of the Commons. Using the hypothetical example of a parcel of land used for grazing, Garrett Hardin showed that if all individuals independently act on their own self-interest, the land would be overgrazed. The individual is incentivized to use the resource until depletion, which hurts the whole group [or society] and its long-term interests in the end, hence why it's called the Tragedy of the Commons. The non-excludability of a rivalrous good is what causes the good to be depleted as such. If anything is the tragedy here, it is that we treat fisheries as a common good.
Theory of Property Rights and Fisheries
The current fishery management system, which has been entrusted to the government in a command-and-control fashion to ensure resource sustainability, does not incentivize conservation, but rather incentivizes depletion with total disregard for the longevity of fisheries (Also, subsidizing the fishing industry exacerbates the issue). The government putting entry limitations in place, per-trip catch limitations, or shortening the fishing season has done nothing to stop depletion. Property rights can stop the hemorrhaging by turning the common good into a private good, which would entail making the good excludable. Limiting the access would help restore fisheries. It's about stewardship and providing individuals with the incentive to maintain both the quantity and quality of fish.
Putting the Rights-Based System in Practice
In practice, catch shares are a very promising solution (Costello et al., 2012; Grimm et al,. 2012; Deacon, 2009; Costello et al., 2008; Kerr et al., 2002), particularly because they have been proven to lower collapse rates, which improve resource sustainability. The Food and Agricultural Organization is on board with the idea, as is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the latter of which believes that the catch-shares system removes "race for fish," increases profits, reduces by-catch, and improves safety. In spite of its successes, catch shares make up only 2 percent of world fisheries (probably due to much resistance of those who kvetch about "their right to fish").
Although a rights-based management system has its benefits, it is not a catch-all policy and has its limits. There are concerns that although it creates better resource sustainability, it does not necessarily improve ecological conditions (see Branch, 2008). There is also the issue of government involvement. Much like private-public partnerships for national parks, it is difficult to get around the government playing a role. Not only is there a political feasibility issue, but issues of maritime law and national security play roles in the regulation of coastlines. By utilizing the individual transferable quotas (ITQs), which is the most popular form of catch shares, there is an additional cost to entry in the occupation, as well as the potential corruption that would ensue during the allocation process. With rules such as limits on these permits, there is also an issue that the privileges are not secure, transferable, or secure enough, which would defeat the purpose of having [de jure] rights in the first place. Although I have general skepticism about government management, catch shares are overall a preferable policy alternative to the current management systems that do not implement any sense of property rights.
In summation, what we have to realize is that catch shares are an allocation tool that succeeds when implemented properly. Catch shares coupled with catch limits would go a long way in making catch shares successful. By aligning desired ecological outcome with economic incentives, we can replenish our fisheries so that future generations can enjoy the value that fisheries provide.