Sushi and the End of the Southern Bluefish Tuna

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Originally posted on December 11, 2009.


In our chapter, Public Goods and the Tragedy of the Commons, we discussed  the 75% decline in the catch of southern bluefish tuna, which is highly prized as sushi.  60 Minutes has a great episode on this issue which covers the fascinating Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, the Mediterranean fishermen who are losing their livelihood as fish stocks decline, the industrialization of fishing (including tuna ranches!) and finally the decline of the tuna stock.


The whole video is fascinating but if you want to shorten it I suggest covering the first 4 minutes on the Tsukiji fish market then jumping to around the 8 minute mark when the purse seiners are discussed.

An interesting puzzle is that tuna is relatively inexpensive.  Ask students whether this can be reconciled with an impending collapse of the tuna stock.  After all, isn’t a low price a sign of plentiful supply?  The answer points directly to the tragedy of the commons – the low price is possible because the purse seiners are scooping up enormous quantities of tuna which pushes today’s price down but too few fish are left to breed so future stocks are imperiled.  An entrepreneur who owned the stock of tuna–like Frank Purdue owns his chickens–would not do this but tuna are not owned until they are caught.  In other words, the current tuna boom is like “eating the capital stock,” you get a big party today but a tragedy tomorrow.


FYI, the tragedy of the commons is driving many other fish stocks into collapse.

About the Author
Alex Tabarrok is Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and director of research for The Independent Institute. Tabarrok is co-author with Tyler Cowen of the popular economics blog, Marginal Revolution. His recent research looks at bounty hunters, judicial incentives and elections, crime control, patent reform, methods to increase the supply of human organs for transplant, and the regulation of pharmaceuticals. He is the editor of the books, Entrepreneurial Economics: Bright Ideas from the Dismal Science; The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society; and Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and The Control of Crime. His papers have appeared in the Journal of Law and Economics, Public Choice, Economic Inquiry, Journal of Health Economics, Journal of Theoretical Politics, The American Law and Economics Review, Kyklos and many other journals. His popular articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other magazines and newspapers.