Sunday, August 21, 2005

Laws that Kill

The Endangered Species Act and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species have made it illegal to own or sell any endangered species. In these provisions, the laws have destroyed any market for the rare species, and have destroyed any incentive for humans to protect them out of choice. Instead, regulations have substituted for market incentives to own and protect one's property to making these species public goods by law. The tragedy of the commons should tell us that any measure to outlaw private ownership and make goods completely public will inevitably lead to a shortage. Those who push for more environmental regulations eliminating the "taking," i.e. ownership, of wildlife are later faced with greater shortages of their beloved endangered species. What occurs next? More laws that outlaw any harvesting of the endangered species, disturbing natural habitats, or any activities disrupting their feeding or breeding habits. These laws are ineffective and impose a cost much higher than is necessary to protect the endangered species. People who might normally be inclined to allow bald eagles, sea turtles, endangered snails, and other animals to reside on their property recognize that a high cost will be imposed on them for doing so (see Regulatory Takings for examples). Although people might want to protect those animals, it is not worth the cost to them. Wildlife does not have to be a public good. Private ownership is the most reliable and most efficient way to protect endangered species. We never worry about running out of cows, chickens or sheep, yet millions of them are killed each day. Why do we know that more will exist tomorrow? Because people own them, people depend on their existence for their living and are willing to care for them and replenish their populations. Can the same be said for any species on the endangered list?

Once abundant in the Cayman Islands, green sea turtles and other marine turtles used to be of high economic value in the islands. The green sea turtle was the major export of the Cayman Islands, providing sustenance, material from the shell of the turtle, and high grade oil obtained from the fat for use in cosmetics and for other purposes, locally and around the world. In the 1970s, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species[1] made it illegal to sell any sea turtle products because the wild sea turtle population was low due to predators, overfishing, and natural reasons. However, this also eliminated the market for the sea turtles that had been raised and protected in the Cayman Turtle Farm, an organization which bred and sold turtle products and released their captive bred turtle hatchlings into the wild. Prior to 1979 when the U.S. stopped all sea turtle imports, the Cayman Turtle Farm was the main exporter and employer on Grand Cayman.[2] It was precisely those who owned the turtles that also protected them and maintained their population. Throughout other areas of the world, the sea turtles were endangered, but they were abundant in the Cayman Islands. However, as soon as the international market for sea turtle products was eliminated, the population of sea turtles declined in the Cayman Islands and worldwide due to lack of resources and decreased profitability of increasing the sea turtle population. The very laws that were supposed to protect the sea turtles only endangered them further. If we want to truly help endangered species, we must allow a market for them to exist. The way to eliminate the tragedy of the commons is to make the commons private. Shifting the status of wildlife from purely public goods to private ownership is the best and only way to ensure their future existence.

[1] Cayman Islands Hatches Scheme to Export Endangered Sea Turtle Products
[2] Cayman Turtle Farm - Scientific Papers - Sea Turtles of the Cayman Islands

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