Far from the high seas, a storm of controversy is raging over a tool that some say is the solution to a chaotic, ecologically damaging system of fisheries management — but that others say could send small-boat owners under.

 

Currently, fishermen buy a yearly permit from a federal or state agency or regional commission — depending on which species they fish — that entitles them to a poundage that scientists conclude won’t hurt the fishery. But every year, the poundage number changes, and there’s no certainty that a permit will be available every year.

 

"Fishermen are acting without security. They can’t think long-term," says Gilbert Sylvia, a marine resource economist at Oregon State University. "How do you plan a business if you don’t know what you’re working with?"

 

Enter individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, which give individual fishermen a slice of the total allowable catch in a specific area over a specific amount of time, anywhere from several years to much longer. Individual fishing quotas give fishermen assurance that they will have access to the fishery for more than one year. Therefore, says Sylvia, they are less likely to take as much as they can during any given year.

 

In New Zealand, British Columbia and Alaska, IFQs have been used for almost two decades. Sylvia says that in these places, the quota system allows failing fishermen to sell their shares and get out of the business far more efficiently than a government buyout system, saving the public millions of dollars.

 

Now, two of eight Fishery Management Councils in the U.S. are considering whether to implement IFQs in their jurisdictions. The Pacific Fishery Management Council has created a committee to design an IFQ for the West Coast groundfish fleet that could be in action as early as 2007.

 

But IFQs have their critics. Under the system proposed by the Pacific Council, anyone — for example, a bank — could own a share, and critics worry that rich corporations or banks could buy up existing shares and cut small fishers and new players out of the process. The Marine Fish Conservation Network, a coalition of 160 environmental, commercial and recreational fishing groups and scientists, warns that IFQs could turn the public waters into private property.

 

"The share is almost a property right," says Peter Huhtala, co-chair of the national Network, based in Astoria, Ore. Because the share could be bought or sold without federal oversight, share holders with more money could more easily buy out smaller fishermen, ultimately leading to a few individuals or corporations in control of the resource. "It becomes extremely valuable," Huhtala says, "and encourages further consolidation and a further windfall to the heavy-hitters in the industry."

 

"Without strict guidelines, IFQs are a disaster," says Evelyn Pinkerton, a resource anthropologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, and community-based management expert.

 

Individual fishing quotas in the Lower 48 aren’t official yet, but proposed federal legislation introduced by Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, would place safeguards on the quota system if it is adopted. Allen’s bill, endorsed by the Marine Fish Conservation Network, would limit the duration of quota shares to seven years, prevent any one person from holding an excessive share of the fishery, and require that a quota system meet conservation requirements outlined in current fisheries law.