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Exploiting the Resource and the Tragedy of the Commons

We all exploit public resources - we take and use water from aquifers or surface water, we use public resources like the previously mentioned water; we breathe - and pollute - our atmosphere; we rely upon the metals and fossil fuels extracted from our public lands; we eat beef and sheep grown on our public lands or at least those that pollute our public waters and our atmosphere; and of course, being on this page, we fish our public waters. We all exploit natural resources to some extent. The debate is always over how much exploitation we are willing to allow of ourselves and others. This is the basis for the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts; how we allow federal lands to be grazed, cut for timber, drilled for oil and natural gas, and used by ecotourist companies and guides; and,of course, our fish and game laws.

Hermosa Creek, Colorado
US Forest Service land is home to a stream managed for Colorado River Cutthroat Trout - and it also is home to Purgatory Ski Resort.

What exactly do we mean by exploitation? Well, it is a bit like pornography, we know it when we see it and each person's version is a bit different. Who is exploiting the resource depends a bit upon who is doing the judging. Exploitation, like pornography, is a continuum - from nearly PG to hard core; from zero negative impacts to trashing a resource to the point it is unusable for others, maybe for decades. Some are taking a few photos and leaving only footprints behind and others are extracting billions of dollars in publicly owned resources and leaving a mess behind - a mess that typically becomes society's problem. A classic example I wrote about in a post about human dimensions of wildlife and fisheries are conflicts among trail users. Each group has a different impact on the others. Hikers and snowshoers have less impact on others and the resource than do ATV riders.

Lick Run, West Virginia
Don't adjust your monitor - this is "yellow boy", a mixture of acid water, iron, aluminum, and other toxic metals that give Lick Run it's color. Groundwater coming from adandoned mines pollute thousands of miles of stream in the US.

Society looks at exploitation through a lens that shifts through time. We once allowed market hunters to shoot waterfowl with punt guns and use live decoys. Today waterfowlers are much more regulated as we saw what those tactics did to waterfowl populations. Now waterfowl hunters can only use non-toxic shot and cannot have more than three shells in their guns. Some of the first laws in the United States were those around the harvest of fishes as colonists were witnessing the effects of overharvest on the more accessible fishing grounds. Technology has always increased our abilities to catch fish - and to overharvest fishes. The Clean Water and Clean Air Acts came about because we polluted our environment to the point that it was untenable - I mean, rivers were starting on fire. And it was not just the Cuyohoga River in The Mistake by the Lake (Cleveland). And the 1969 Cuyohoga River fire was not the river's first nor was it the river's worst fire. Our history is one of exploitation and often times over-exploitation. We were experiencing a tragedy of the commons - communal resources were being overexploited and over--polluted.

The Tragedy of the Commons

In 1968 Garret Hardin wrote his influential and quite controversial essay, The Tragedy of the Commons. As you should always do, read the paper for yourself and make your own conclusions but I will give a bit of a summary of the paper based on my reading of it nearly 30 years ago in graduate school and re-readings of it now and in more recent years. And read the Wikipedia page on The Tragedy of the Commons for a more full discussion of the topic than I plan to provide.

Hardin's idea was hardly new. In fact, it borrows fairly heavily - as he says - from an early 19th century William Forster Lloyd lecture / pamphlet that warned of the over exploitation of the commons. The commons were a communal grazing range in which each farmer grazed their livestock. In essence, it is to each individual's advantage to put as many livestock in the commons as they could because they receive all the benefits of their grazing but the costs of their decisions are shared by all the others' grazing animals in the commons. Benefits go to the individual, costs are "externalized", they are shared by all. This is tragedy of the commons.

Hardin goes on to write about how there is a tragedy of freedom in a commons. If each individual does only what is in their own best interest, we all suffer a tragedy. Pollution and overuse of the commons can be overcome by regulating temperance. At least this is largely the path we have taken though the path has been rather rocky. Some voices are louder than others - which typically means that they have more money. It can all get very political from here and I do not plan to go there but different people have different perspectives on how to best regulate the commons and the role of government in that regulation.

He also makes the point, as noted in the quote above that there is no technological solution - a point that certainly can be debated. To take climate change as an example, no technological solutions would be to say that sequestration and other carbon capture technology are not going to dig us out of the problem. Of course one may argue that is part of the (potential) solution, along with other technologies - alternative energy, nuclear power, improved smokestack scrubbing - that reduce carbon outputs which are the real issue.

Applying the Tragedy to Fishing

There are nearly countless applications of the tragedy to fly fishing. Our streams are more crowded than they were pre-pandemic. We complain about it here in Wisconsin but our issues pale in comparison to what many Western states have experienced in recent years or many Eastern states have experienced for decades. Climate change has warmed our streams but it has also increased precipitation and baseflow to Driftless streams. Consequently, our streams have experienced more frequent and larger floods. I have witnessed a decline in our hatches - and I am not sure what has caused it - but organic pollution, neonicotinoids, and other pollutants are the likely culprits. Driftless streams generally have an abundance of trout, a nice problem to have, to be sure. However we may well be overharvesting the larger trout. Even panfish are being overharvested and in need of better, stricter management.

Old trout regulations sign
Trout regulations have changed over time - this regulation is still in place on a few streams where the goal is to increase harvest on sub-12 inch trout, allowing more large trout to survive. Of course, the effectiveness of the regulation is depending upon anglers actually keeping fish less than 12 inches.

I don't want to get too deep into the weeds here but our solution to the tragedy has largely been through regulations by government agencies. This solution is nothing new and really one of the few options available.

Preventing the Tragedy of the Fishing Commons

Of course the best way to avoid a tragedy of the commons is to avoid it in the first place but that is seemingly hardly possible because of the nature of resources and their exploitation. There are so many examples of where we are not putting the genie back in the bottle. CAFOs exist and there is not and will not be the political or social will for them not to exist. Mining will continue because we want things - cars, phones, buildings, etc. Stopping climate change and preventing a ton of future issues seems like an impossibility. And we are all part of the problem. Exploitation happens because we want a comfortable life and we want things - our cell phones, clothes, cars, fly tying materials, etc. - all require resources to produce. We create the tragedy.

Wisconsin trout regulations map
Wisconsin trout stream regulations map - the stoplight regulations offer a variety of experiences.

Recreational fisheries are maybe a little easier to wrap our minds around how we prevent exploitation from becoming problematic. First and foremost, fisheries have been regulated through regulations on anglers. Regulations mostly moderate harvest through bag limits and open seasons. In some places, regulations go further by restricting access (i.e. daytime only fishing, lottery-based access) or angling methods (i.e. no wading, no live bait, fly fishing only) to provide a particular experience for the users and to reduce harvest. On the Brule River, inflatable boats are not allowed and on the Wolf River, rafting companies have boats on the water after the morning fishing typically slows down and before the evening hatches get going. The first is a regulation, the second, to my knowledge, is a voluntary solution. And while the voluntary solution sounds great, it just takes one person to change the whole thing. That is the nature of the tragedy of the commons - selfishness can ruin things for everyone.

Private lands eased for public access signs
Easements are a special case of public resources - private lands that the state (or other entity) purchased access rights from a landowner.

This is where we all come into the equation. Non-selfishness and respect towards others using a public resource will help everyone have a favorable experience. We call this etiquette and it not as common as it ought to be. There are a ton of etiquette resources out there (see here, and here, and here...) so no need to tread that ground here. It is basically an application of The Golden Rule, which if more people kept in mind, there would be many fewer conflicts and tragedies. But to put a finer point on it, easements can and have gone way due to the poor behavior of a few. Myself and others have had bad angling experiences due to the selfishness of others. Selfish actions of a few (or sometimes many) reduce the experience for everyone.


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Geoff Roznak
Geoff Roznak
Apr 25, 2022

Thanks Jason. Well written and objectively presented...and you stick to the issues without wandering off on tangents.


David Stakston
David Stakston
Apr 25, 2022

Why not write an article on how much of the food chain for big trout has ended up on the Endangered and Threatened list in the Northern States in the United States? I'm curious what the various DNRs are doing to restore the endangered and threatened species the big trout are missing in their food chain. Example: restoring native fish, crayfish, frogs, salamanders, water shrews, voles, etc.


David Stakston
David Stakston
Apr 25, 2022

Regulations are only good to protect over harvesting a particular fish species. The size a fish grows to depends mainly on that particular species food chain in their environment in all four seasons not on regulations.

Jason G. Freund
Jason G. Freund
Apr 26, 2022
Replying to

Not true - there are a wealth of studies showing effects of regulations well beyond limiting over-harvesting. Tons of information is in the literature about how regulations have changed size structure of a population. It doesn't always work - but neither does preventing against over-harvest...

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