Catch-share programs like the one for Bering Sea crab are becoming increasingly common amid growing concern over the general state of the world's fisheries. In 2006, a research team led by Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, found that about 27 percent of the world's fisheries have collapsed. More ominously, the team's paper, which was published in Science, suggested that every fishery in the world might collapse by 2048.

Then, last year, Costello, the scientist, and several of his colleagues published an analysis of catch shares that received wide attention. They found that, of 121 fisheries managed using IFQs -- which are also referred to as Individual Transferable Quotas, or ITQs -- "the fraction of ITQ-managed fisheries that were collapsed was about half that of non-ITQ fisheries." The paper suggested that implementing a catch-share program can stop and actually reverse the decline of fish populations.

Some observers contend that, in fact, the bulk of the conservation benefit may actually come from having a good, scientifically determined TAC, rather than the catch shares themselves. "A lot of people are asking that now," says Costello. "I don't know of anybody who's done a careful job teasing out what benefit you get from just having a TAC." 

Still, he says, the kinds of individual quotas that come with a catch-share program help conservation: "When you implement an ITQ, there is better adherence to the TAC. If you're responsible for every fish you catch, then people don't bust through the TAC as often." And, he adds, "When you have an ITQ, you fish more slowly. It's not like the (old) three-day season, where you're out dragging every inch of habitat because you have to catch as much as you can, as quickly as you can."

Several environmental groups have taken up Costello's study as evidence of the need to use catch-share programs more widely. Other fishery-management regimes have tended to trigger a "never-ending cat-and-mouse game," says David Festa, the vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund's West Coast operations. Limiting the length of the season, for instance, only spurred boat owners to turn their vessels into even better fish-catching machines.

"The key," he says, "is moving to a system where you give the fishermen direct accountability for the fish they catch." And, Festa adds, once fishermen are given a share in the resource -- and therefore have a stake in it -- they will fish in ways that allow fish populations to increase. "The incentive is to make sure you're growing the overall health of the stock, to increase your slice of the pie," he says.

Other environmental groups are more critical. Phil Kline is the ocean campaigns manager for Greenpeace, which has joined with several other groups to form the Marine Fish Conservation Network. Kline says that it's important that catch-share programs be structured to prevent individual quota owners from amassing too large a percentage of the total available shares; have tough conservation requirements; be granted as a revocable privilege rather than an absolute right to catch fish; and provide new fishermen the opportunity to cast their hand in the fishery.

Nonetheless, Kline says, the Network has given qualified support to the catch-share concept -- a position that stands in marked contrast to an earlier stance of outright opposition. "This is a position that Greenpeace, as well as the broader environmental community, has evolved to over the past 15 years," Kline says. "It was not realistic to maintain a position of just no nothing on any of this."

There now seems, in fact, to be a certain inevitability to the rising tide of catch shares. Last fall, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees fisheries regulations for Washington, Oregon and California, approved an IFQ program for the trawl fleet there. And this June, the New England Fishery Management Council approved a catch-share program for the New England groundfish fleet. The same month, Lubchenco, the new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, created an agency task force to implement catch shares as broadly as possible.